Dykes Through Time

Posted on February 7, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

In stark contrast to Roman archaeology and despite their magnitude, linear earthworks have been marginalised in investigations of the Early Middle Ages (c. AD 400–1100). For example, among the 52 chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Hamerow, Hinton and Crawford (eds), OUP, 2011), Offa’s Dyke is mentioned only twice, Wat’s Dyke once, while other significant linear earthworks such as East Wansdyke receive no mention. Not only have early Medieval settlement, burial and material culture studies side-lined linear earthworks in recent decades, dykes are even peripheral among most recent investigations of early Medieval territorial organisation, warfare and landscape. With only a few notable exceptions, this constitutes a collective ‘forgetting’ of early historic linear earthworks as foci for archaeological and interdisciplinary early Medieval research. This situation is paradoxical given the long-term ambitions to conserve and manage linear earthworks and the heritage success which constitutes the incorporation of one into a high-profile National Trail since the 1970s: the Offa’s Dyke Path. This is also an eerie academic silence given the recent high-profile political debates on migrations, ethnicity, frontiers and nationhood (from Devolution to Indyref and Brexit) into which early Medieval dykes have been repeatedly mobilised. This session aims to foster new approaches and investigations of early Medieval linear earthworks, theorising their significance in the past and the present. The focus in particular is upon the temporalities and materialities of early Medieval linear earthworks as monuments operating to perform a series of complex space-time landscape dynamics. Incorporating new perspectives on historical, archaeological, literary and place-name evidence, the session invites contributions to address one or more of the following themes relating to linear earthworks as boundaries, components of frontier zones, and elements of broader political and cultural geographies in the Early Middle Ages:

• dating dykes;

• theorising beyond defence and display;

• reinterpreting construction and materiality;

• rethinking landscape contexts and dynamics;

• evaluating life-histories from Prehistory to the present;

• critiquing heritage conservation, management and interpretation;

• uses and abuses in contemporary culture and politics.

Organiser: Howard Williams


Bringing the Dykes into the 21st Century: How did we get here?


This paper explores how the dykes were first brought together as a coherent group of monuments between the 1920s and the 1950s and how they fitted neatly into the prevailing ideas about environment and society. Many of the interpretations of how dykes worked in the landscape either consciously or unconsciously reflected the turmoil of the period. By the 1960s and 1970s, after a huge upheaval in our understanding of society and environment, the dykes did not fit so neatly into the new picture of post-Roman Britain. The relative neglect of the dykes in the second half of the 20th century has left the dykes stranded out on a conceptual limb. Modern writings about the dykes sometimes seem strangely old fashioned as they follow models first set in the 1950s. If the dykes are to be brought into the 21st century then then the old interpretations need to be rigorously questioned and even basic ideas such as the extent of particular dykes need to be looked at again in the light of new evidence.

Mark Bell

The Early Iron Age Origins of the Cambridgeshire Dykes


Despite a long history of excavation and academic research no clear date (beyond ‘post-Roman’) has been produced for the construction of the monumental phases of the four Cambridgeshire ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Dykes. However, recent work along the westernmost of these, the Bran Ditch, has dated the initial phase of construction to the Early Iron Age. Three parallel ditches, on the same alignment as the Bran Ditch, were dated to the Early Iron Age through ceramics, radiocarbon and stratigraphic/spatial relationships. Two triple-ditched alignments are already known further west, one already dated to the Middle Iron Age. These early alignments may have functioned as both territorial boundaries, crossing the Icknield/Ashwell belt, and as routeways at the edges of these territories – both long-distance and between upland and lowland pasture. Two new triple-ditch alignments have been recorded in the gaps between the monumental ‘Saxon’ Dykes, further tying them in to the Iron Age boundaries to the west.

Richard Mortimer (Oxford Archaeology)

Llywarch Hen’s Dyke and the Royal Estate at Llangors: Defining space and power in Early Medieval Wales


Claud Lyuarch hen (Llywarch Hen’s dyke) is named in the boundary clause of an early Medieval charter contained in the twelfth century Book of Llandaff. The charter grants an estate at Llan-gors (Brycheiniog), and purports to have been made a King Awst and his sons in the early- to mid-eighth century. The place-name is a clear reference to the Llywarch Hen of Welsh poetic tradition, and a case has been made for the poems having been written at Llan-gors sometime between the eighth and tenth century (Sims-Williams 1993). The dyke can be identified on the ground as a penclawdd (head-dyke); a land boundary that separated lowland infield from the unenclosed upland pastures. Thus, whilst the dyke was a prominent feature in the landscape it is unlikely to have served as a defensive earthwork. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Llywarch Hen’s dyke was more than just a convenient feature with which to define an estate. Rather, the earthwork and the oral traditions associated with it performed a didactic role that reinforced knowledge of the physical extent of the estate and of the status and power of those who held it.

Andrew Seaman (Canterbury Christ Church University)

Dykes as Ideological Markers: Embankment and state formation in the salt marshes of Flanders


The first embankments in coastal Flanders were initiated by the early Counts of Flanders (family of the dynasty of Wessex). They made the choice to embank the salt marshes, which not only marked a new perception of and strategy towards the environment, but also the emergence of impressive comital estates. These dykes where so much more than defensive functional elements against the tides, they also acted as social and political markers, through which the counts’ administration interacted with other social groups in coastal Flanders (the so called Maritimi Flandrenses). They embodied new power, and new ways of life, and were as such important symbols of early state formation by the powerful dynasty of the Counts of Flanders.

Dries Tys (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Understanding Peripheries: Power, performance and place in the west of Mercia


As the twenty-first century plays out our need to understand borders and contested spaces continues to increase. What part can archaeology play in enhancing our understanding of these environments? How, during their apogee, do Mercian attempts to manage their western borders mirror and inform our responses to contemporary contested spaces? What of the British responses to these acts of hegemony? How do populations find a way to function in and around borders? Theoretical and methodological developments over the last three decades have revolutionised the conceptual frameworks to which archaeological researchers have access. As the fields of both landscape and border studies continue to embrace analyses with a temporal element into their mainstream archaeologists have an opportunity to draw on and contribute to wider academic debates on contested spaces. Typified by increased scholarly interest in questions relating to space and place and supported by new data sets and increasingly powerful computational toolkits, these advances promise new and fruitful avenues of enquiry. This project combines research strands born out of the interdisciplinary Spatial Turn paradigm shift, psychology, landscape and border studies to undertake an archaeological study of the long-standing contested environment of the Anglo-Welsh border in the early Medieval period.

Melanie Leggatt (University of Birmingham)

Offa’s Dyke and the Cheshire Cat Syndrome: Interrogating dykes and routeways


Linear earthworks are about nothing if not movement through landscape; from a landscape archaeologist’s viewpoint, long earthworks and long-distance routeways have certain similarities, not least in terms of scale and ‘behaviour’. Especially where neighbouring polities were relatively large and ethnically different, ‘frontier works’ must have been related to, and complemented by, an effective system of routeways/roads and surveillance points. These issues are discussed in relation to a well-known conundrum: how do we interpret the behaviour of Offa’s Dyke in Herefordshire, where it apparently becomes ‘hyphenated’ and then disappears altogether? In this area, the Dyke’s elusive character may help us to develop insights into the nature of the early Medieval ‘frontier zone’.

Andrew Fleming

Offa’s Dyke and the Creation of the Welsh March


Most research on Offa’s Dyke has focussed on the political, social and landscape contexts of the time in which it is presumed to have been built, namely the late-eighth century. However, work on Offa’s Dyke – and indeed other Medieval linear earthworks – has entirely ignored the increasingly well-developed theoretical perspectives in the field of contemporary border studies. Here it has been argued that borders and border monuments should be viewed less as markers of division and more as mechanisms of connectivity and encounter; borders are liminal spaces, providing means of passage and facilitating the creation of cross-border networks. Borders – whether real or imagined – create a ‘borderland’: an area which is administratively and politically connected to one polity, but which comes under strong economic, cultural and demographic influences from another. This paper looks afresh at Offa’s Dyke from these theoretical perspectives and argues that the construction of the Dyke was part of a deliberate programme to create such a ‘borderland’ landscape. In the event this did not benefit the kingdom of Mercia, but it did generate a distinctive cultural and physical landscape which influenced political and social change for the next thousand years.

Paul Belford (Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Turst)

The Vallum Antonini, Grymisdyke, and the Antonine Wall


The Antonine Wall is the remains of imperial Rome’s north-west frontier in central Scotland and part of the multi-national Frontiers of the Roman Empire UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the Wall has a lower popular profile than its counterparts in England and Germany, it has nevertheless been the object of significant study, with a research tradition that has resulted in a number of syntheses. These focus on its initial period of construction, functional operation, and abandonment, as well as the unique characteristics that make it ‘the most complex and highly developed of all frontiers constructed by the Roman army.’ This paper looks beyond the period and themes that have characterised the Wall’s research tradition, and situates it within recent discourse on the afterlife of frontiers: an agenda that has been particularly pursued for Hadrian’s Wall. It is argued that traditional research artificially elides time between the present of modern investigation and the past of the Roman period, leaving the intervening post-Roman centuries comparatively unexplored and absent from academic discourse and public presentations of contemporary significance. A new diachronic framework is proposed that accommodates both traditional Roman frontier concerns and emergent themes from new investigation of the Wall’s wider biography.

Darrell J. Rohl (Canterbury Christ Church University)

Posted in: Videos