Offa’s Dyke at Trefonen – Explore the Early Medieval Monument

Last weekend, I took a welcome opportunity to visit the denuded stretches of Offa’s Dyke to the north of the Shropshire village of Trefonen, at the invitation of the Trefonen Rural Protection Group.

This section of Offa’s Dyke seems to have rarely featured prominently in discussions of the monument. The topography isn’t striking, but it is complex, and I wonder if this has hindered a reading of the monument’s landscape context. Furthermore, this area has been heavily affected by industrial activity – potteries and collieries – as well as the 20th/21st-century expansion of the village itself, hence it is both unsurprising that the Dyke survives in all manner of different preservational forms from ‘lost’ to the ditch and bank fully intact and has received limited detailed discussion. Therefore, it would be easy to right off the Dyke in this area in telling us much that cannot be discerned better elsewhere in longer, better preserved stretches that sweep across landscapes unhindered by modern development.

After my visit, I tend to disagree. My preliminary impressions suggest that at Trefonen, and perhaps also in other areas like it, we right off the Dyke at our peril. Not only can we confirm the presence at Trefonen of features and behaviours for the Dyke discerned elsewhere, we can propose new insights into the monument from Trefonen where it navigates a surveillance ‘weak spot’, looking uphill with limited viewshed between the watersheds of the Morda and Trefonen’s stream.

There are not only lessons about the monument’s design, placement and location from north of Trefonen, there are also conservation lessons too. The variegated survival of the Dyke here makes the Trefonen section a valuable case study to illustrate wider trends in the life-history of the Dyke, particularly the impact of industrial and modern activity on the character of its survival.

Further lessons derive from Trefonen about scheduling, planning and the considerable local enthusiasm for community stewardship and engagement with the Dyke, notably through TRPG and potentially via the new initiative: CoSMM.

So, in this post, I present some preliminary observations about the Dyke north of the village as it runs west of Chapel Lane and subsequently through the fields to the north of Chapel Lane towards the valley of the Morda Brook.

To help the reader navigate, I’m walking from S to N, and here is an annotated OS map section showing the key points mentioned in the photographs.

Trefonen map

The Dyke’s Form

Having been lost in the village but for a small stretch surviving in a front garden of a property by the intersection of Chapel Lane with the main road, the scale and form varies considerably in a discernible section parallel to Chapel Lane. It is near invisible and covered by a series of houses at the start of Chapel Lane, but then appears intermittently in the field, becoming increasingly monumental, if broken, to the N.

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Looking SE over Offa’s Dyke from the Offa’s Dyke Path. The dyke runs at the base of the slope parallel to Chapel Lane – between points 1 (right) and 2 (left) on the map.
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Looking SE along Offa’s Dyke as it runs parallel to Chapel Lane, with the village of Trefonen in the background from just west of point 2.

What is striking along this stretch is that, while largely filled in, the line of the former monumental ditch of Offa’s Dyke is still discernible in front of the denuded bank, especially towards the S end of this section.

 

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Looking SSE along the line of Offa’s Dyke from point 2, showing the line of the ditch visible in the topography west (right) of the denuded bank.
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Looking SSE along the line of the Dyke from near point 2 towards point 1, with the intermittent bank here c. 3-4m high and the wide depression of the line of the ditch discernible, if broken by a later relict field boundary, to the W (right) of the view.

Chapel Lane winds west and crosses the line of the Dyke. Subsequently, as the Dyke rises up the slope to the north of Chapel Lane, it has a continuous and well preserved but hidden rampart obscured within the hedge-line.

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Looking NE over the line of Offa’s Dyke between points 2 (right) and 3 (middle) and 4 (top of the hill on the left)
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Looking E across Offa’s Dyke at point 3 on the map.
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View NNW from point 2 across Chapel Lane and showing the bend in alignment of the Dyke as it ascends the hill.

The Offa’s Dyke Path joins the Dyke at point 3 and runs up the rest of the hill where it lies under the hedgeline all the way and difficult to fully appreciate, but 2-3m high.

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View SSE from point 3 towards Trefonen village of the back-side of the Dyke concealed in the hedge-line

Towards the top of the hill, the bank seems larger still, at least 3m, and remains continuous and substantial, but the ditch is near-absent.

 

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Looking SSE down the western face of Offa’s Dyke from point 4. Is there a subtle hint of the former ditch-line present in the lie of the land?

North of the E-W lane and towards point 5, the monument has nearly completely gone, swallowed up by post-medieval agriculture. The stark re-emegence of the bank shows just how dramatically its fate is guided by the individual management of specific fields. In this location, the Dyke enjoys prominent views E towards the Wrekin, but restricted views uphill towards the W

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Looking NNW along the linear of Offa’s Dyke, where it has eroded away
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Looking SSW along the line of Offa’s Dyke, but the bank and ditch are both completely gone at point 5
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Offa’s Dyke re-appears at point 6 from nothingness to a bank around 4m high.
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The Wrekin beneath cloud, looking ESE from Offa’s Dyke

The most astounding and well-preserved short section of Offa’s Dyke presents itself NNW of point 6, as the dyke starts to descend towards the Morda Brook still 1km away. First north of point 6 there is just the bank, but soon the ditch also reappears, cutting a stark V-shaped profile in a comparable fashion and scale to the surviving monumental part of Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth.

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Looking NNW along the line of Offa’s Dyke, the bank must be over 4m high at this point

Just to emphasis the scale of the Dyke at this point, here are some shots on the SSE walk back, with the bank on the left from the line of the ditch.

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Looking SSE along the ditch N of point 6
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Looking SSE along the ditch
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Looking SSE from the ditch
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Looking NNW from the top of the bank

Adjusted Segmented Design

Walking along this section, something else is apparent: the Dyke is arranged around at least 7 straight lengths aligned at subtly different alignments and for different lengths. This mirrors a pattern identified elsewhere by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty, and I’ve discussed before in regards to Hawthorn Hill south of Knighton.

This is actually very clear on the OS maps of the line.

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The northern section beyond Chapel Lane. There’s clearly changes of alignment close to the line of the lane where the Dyke reaches the top of the hill. There is then one long straight (ish) alignment along the hilltop, and then 3 further shorter segments as the Dyke begins its descent towards the Morda
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In the village, one can conjecture 1-2 straight segments, and 3 further ones are demonstrable as the  Dyke is followed and crossed by Chapel Lane

Summary

What we have surviving north of Trefonen is a stark set of contrasts in the survival of the ditch and the bank. North of point 6, a short section rivals any others known surviving elsewhere along the line of Offa’s Dyke in terms of both the breadth and height of the bank and the V-shaped depth of the ditch. Elsewhere, the ditch can be discerned where it has been suggested to be long lost. In other places, the bank survives continuously, in further locations it is intermittent.

So this 0.75km stretch of Offa’s Dyke reveals much about its original form and placement, as well as its variegated afterlife.

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Keith Ray awarded title of Honorary Professor

Hereford-based archaeologist and co-convenor of the Collaboratory, Dr Keith Ray, has joined the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University, with effect from 1st January 2019. Keith has been awarded the title of Honorary Professor of Archaeology in recognition of his several-decades-long professional involvement in archaeology.

Keith’s career has spanned academic and research posts in Cambridge, Nsukka (Nigeria) and Lampeter, as well as archaeology in English local government in Oxfordshire, Plymouth and, latterly, for over 15 years as County Archaeologist in Herefordshire (to 2014). In recent years, he has worked part-time as an archaeological consultant. He has otherwise devoted his time to research and writing, and to voluntary archaeological and historical endeavours (Honorary Secretary of the Herefordshire Victoria County History Trust; Recorder for Archaeology at the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, Hereford).

Regarding the linear earthworks and landscapes of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, Professor Ray is author of The Archaeology of Herefordshire: an Exploration (Logastan Press, 2015) and has lead authored the first modern comprehensive book on Offa’s Dyke, considering in detail its design, placement and landscape context: Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain (Windgather, 2016, with Ian Bapty). Keith’s latest book, written jointly with Professor Julian Thomas, is Neolithic Britain: The Transformation of Social Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2018).

At Cardiff, Keith aims to build upon the distinguished tradition of studies in Neolithic and in Iron Age Britain at that institution, as well as to further explore the history and archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia’s frontier with Wales through his research and outreach initiatives.

The Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands – the 4th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference

9am–5pm, Wednesday 20th March 2019, Grosvenor Museum Chester

Open to All

From IndyRef and Brexit to the Refugee Crisis and Trump’s Wall, frontiers and tensions surrounding the movement of people across them dominate our news. Archaeological research can provide perspectives and insights into how frontiers and borderlands are created, perpetuated, defined, fragmented, moved, removed and reinvented. Archaeological research shows us that frontiers are not lines on a map, but zones that might possess topographic, economic, social, political, religious and ideological dimensions. Borderlands, meanwhile, needn’t relate to clearly defined zones either side of a coherent ‘border’. Frontiers and borderlands can thus operate as zones of interaction and creativity as much as barriers and blockades in which new identities and perceptions of the environment can be fostered and reproduced.

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Hadrian’s Wall

The conference will tackle public archaeology’s critical engagement with frontiers and borderlands past and present. Hence, by interrogating the heritage and public archaeology of many different frontiers and borderlands, from Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke to the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall, the conference critically explores the perspectives and stories archaeologists can tell about borders as barriers and bridges.

At this free day conference to be hosted by the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, final-year Archaeology students will present the results of their research tackling how archaeologists and archaeological research on frontiers and borderlands must navigate complex relationships and political discourses with communities both digital and tangible, contributing to how frontiers are conserved, managed and interpreted.

There will be three special guest speakers offering their perspectives on the public archaeology of frontiers and borderlands:

  • Dr Penelope Foreman – Memory Maker, Storyteller and Community Archaeologist, Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust
  • Professor Keith Ray – Honorary Professor of Archaeology, Cardiff University
  • John G. Swogger – Archaeologist and Illustrator (https://johngswogger.wordpress.com/)

Further information about the venue and event can be found here.

 

Beyond the Walls: In Search of the Celts

Last month, Howard appeared on TV. Having been filmed on location at the Pillar of Eliseg and at Offa’s Dyke near Ruabon and looking across at Offa’s Dyke where it hits the River Dee at Ty Mawr Country Park in October, only a small section of the interview was aired, filmed on the dyke at Ruabon.

The documentary was produced by AlleyCats for BBC 4, entitled: Beyond the Walls: In Search of the Celts.

The programme explored the conflicts and interactions between the Romans and, subsequently, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with the Celtic (Brythonic)-speaking peoples of the island of Britain. It was first air at 10pm on Tuesday 4th December on BBC4: The official blurb reads:

Historian Dr Eleanor Barraclough travels through some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes – Hadrian’s Wall, the Lake District and Offa’s Dyke – in search of new evidence to reveal the true story of the mysterious ancient British tribes often called the Celts.

According to the official history books, the Celts were defeated and pushed to the edges of Britain by waves of Roman and Anglo Saxon invaders. However, a growing body of evidence suggests this is not the full story.

To help give the Celts back their proper place in our history, Eleanor examines freshly discovered treasures, new archaeological evidence from real photographs and clues hidden in ancient poetry to reveal a fresh narrative – one that suggests the relationship between our ancient British ancestors and those who came to conquer them was much less repressive, and far more co-operative, than we have thought.

I was being filmed in order to talk about the early medieval kingdoms of Britain, focusing on the relationship between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. To do this, I wanted to talk about the Pillar of Eliseg and Offa’s Dyke, and how they afford contrasting perspectives, one ‘Welsh’, one ‘Saxon’, on the Christian kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages.

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me: whilst filming by Offa’s Dyke, near Ruabon

I won’t evaluate the programme, but make of it what you will.

All I can say is that I did my very best to articulate the stories of two complex monuments, and they gave me every opportunity to make my points as clear and coherent as possible. Whether I do make sense remains my responsibility, not theirs, despite being heavily edited! Certainly, this was my first time working on a TV documentary in a decade and it was a very positive experience for me to get to work with David Starkey and Alfie Turner from AlleyCats.

In doing so, I got to represent my work on Project Eliseg and my work with the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory. even though I’m very disappointed that the Pillar of Eliseg didn’t make the final cut. Still, I was delighted to be able to talk about two monuments that should be regarded as key to the study of early medieval Britain, and yet which rarely feature on television documentaries.

The choice not to discuss the Pillar of Eliseg was odd. I had discussed some ideas to appear in the forthcoming Project Eliseg monograph. I addressed the complex biography of the early ninth-century cross, including its form and text. I also considered how the monument operated in its landscape setting, and how and why the monument reused a prehistoric cairn. Most importantly, I identified how the monument was positioned in relation to, and perhaps in defiance to, the Mercian linear earthworks to its east.

 

The Pillar of Eliseg in March of 2018

Regarding Offa’s Dyke, I addressed how it was positioned in relation to the Vale of Llangollen and the River Dee. I then talked about changing views on its functions and significance as a part of the Mercian frontier, and its legacy to this day.

What I hope the programme shows, even though the Pillar and the Dyke should/could have been discussed together, is the complex and fluid relationships between the British and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: a ‘prehistory’ to the March of Wales as it developed following the Norman conquest of England.

It was a pity that the equally significant Wat’s Dyke couldn’t be featured, especially in relation to the Pillar of Eliseg. Still, for a 29-minute programme, I think packed in quite a lot of new and interesting research! Many have commented to me that, even for abbreviated TV shows, it seemed far too rushed.

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Cameraman/Director/Producer David Starkey, at work at Ruabon
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David, busy trying to film the Dee Valley at Ty Mawr Country Park, and attempting to avoid the llamas…

Wat’s Dyke at Pandy off Plas Acton Road

Adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Around Wrexham, Wat’s Dyke remains an important monument but heavily damaged by agricultural, industrial and construction activities. Running c. 38 miles from Basingwerk to Maesbury, it is a monument often overshadowed by its larger neighbour: Offa’s Dyke. Excavations at Gobowen suggest that it is later than Offa’s Dyke: a Mercian construction of the early 9th century AD.

At Pandy, as part of a recent field trip exploring the industrial and post-industrial uses of the landscape, I encountered a section that runs from near the railway line across the fields towards what is now the A483, before it enters into what is now the suburbs of Wrexham. See my previous discussions of it at this location here, and nearby at Erddig here and here.

Fox, writing in Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1934, has this to say about the section.

Wat’s Dyke begins again 50 yards to the S. of the “Y” road junction, near Pandy Farm. (From this point northwards to the road, there is a mere hedge bank). The construction of the railway obscured the topography, but it is clear that the terminal point is exactly what was the head of a lateral (and doubtless boggy and thickly wooded) ravine opening northwards down Wilderness Wood to the main river (see Fig. 26, 5, a). From the very beginning, the Dyke was straightly aligned (Type I) to the 300ft contour, 620 years away, and was throughout on a large scale with a broad W. ditch present-day irregularities are due to destruction and levelling.

While the bank is denuded, it is clearly larger than any later field boundary, and straight-aligned with extensive views westwards. Moreover, nothing more than a wide depression running west of the bank, it is evident that a large ditch once existed on the dyke at this location.

In this position, Wat’s Dyke is not following the top of a ridge or ravine. Instead, it is running as straight as possible over relatively flat ground in order to navigate between the Alyn and the Clywedog rivers. To the south, it crosses the Clywedog before following the eastern ridge of the Black Brook past Erddig Hall. To the north, it crosses the Alyn and incorporates the earthworks of Caer Alyn hillfort.

We also encountered an inquisitive horse!

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Harold’s Stones, Trellech

This isn’t precisely about Offa’s Dyke, but it is some of Howard’s musings about a site not far west of the Dyke, reposted and adapted from Archaeodeath.

I want to bring things down a key with this next post. I focus on the archaeology and folklore of an archaeological site I visited when in South-East Wales last year: Harold’s Stones, Trellech, Monmouthshire.

DSC03026These three megalithic stones stand in a line south-west of medieval and modern settlement of Trelech, just east of a stream and close to springs. This rare stone arrangement is intriguing and evocative: I’ve only previously addressed anprehistoric standing stone alignment once before for the much-larger and widely spaced Devil’s Arrows. The Trelech stones tip at different angles on a gradual hillside, the middle and north tip slightly westwards, while the tallest and southernmost has a striking lean eastwards. Indeed, Elizabeth Whittle (1992) described their collective impression as being ‘drunken’.

DSC03021The stones are set on a NE-SW alignment. Each stone is over 2m tall: with the largest to the south. They are each comprised of conglomerate puddingstone.

DSC03017The central stone might have been shaped by human hand, and has two cup marks on its south side.

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Coflein tells me that geophysical survey around the stone revealed traces of medieval or later structures and a c. 40m diameter subrectangular ditched enclosure (presumably undated). Further images can be found on the Megalithic Portal.

DSC03012Folklore

So these are prehistoric standing stones, presumably of late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date, and perhaps part of a longer alignment and other monuments, now lost. I recognise the standard later association with the Devil in folklore: namely that they were thrown from the Sugar Loaf mountain by Jack o-Kent – a giant, when playing pitch and toss with the Devil. Such satanic associations tend to be of early modern in origins.

DSC03006Naming: Why Harold?

Yet there seems to have been more to these stones in the medieval mind than devilish connections. The place-name ‘Trelech’ means the ‘settlement/village of the stones’. This suggests that the vicinity was defined by these prominent triad of megaliths that acquired the roles of prominent landmarks and perhaps also the association with rich now-lost fables.

Why Harold’s stones? Before getting one in the eye, Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex and then Hereford too, defeated Gruffyd ap Llywyelyn in 1063 and thus continued his rise to power as a war leader. At some unknown point, these three stones could have been ascribed to Harold’s victories in battle, and more specifically, that each stone commemorates a chieftain slain/defeated in battle by Harold. I’m still intrigued by the possible and specific association of the Trelech stones with the man to briefly become King of England and died at Hastings in 1066.

Now, there are 3 “Harold Stone” place-names in Pembrokeshire, each associated with a single megalith:

All are single isolated standing stones, two in coastal locations, the third not far from the sea. Given the far-west location of this cluster, their association with the victories of Harold over the Welsh in the 1060s doesn’t seem very likely. However, they might well be connected to the travels of Harold and his fame. The logic of this cluster might lie less in 11th-century events and more than the extensive settlement of Normans, Saxons and Flemings during the 12th/13th centuries. Could these groups have been prompted to attribute ancient stones in the west Welsh landscape with earlier invaders of famed reputation?

Might such an explanation work for Trelech? Certainly, but perhaps there’s more. The triad of stones at Trellech is more logically located in relation to sites of potential Saxon-Welsh conflict. Trelech is located just west of the Wye and thus the line of the eighth-century linear earthwork – Offa’s Dyke. Hence, the feasibility that this is the site of a battle, or became equated with a series of epic conflicts between the West Saxons and the Welsh, is persuasive. Moreover, using the Pillar of Eliseg as an analogy, perhaps the stones served as a regular assembly place before and after such conflicts. What is perhaps important from a Welsh perspective is that any memorials attributed to Harold would commemorate a powerful aggressor, but one who eventually met their doom in a cataclysmic fashion in the field. Such an association might have been more powerful than any positive megalithic attribution to a legendary Welsh ruler.DSC03002

I’m not saying that we can believe these stones marked an assembly site, a battle site or a burial site of early medieval date. However, I do propose that sometime in the 12th/13th centuries, they may well have become linked to a legacy of Harold’s impact on the Welsh landscape, and the deeds of his enemies, as much as to Harold himself. These stones might have thus served in discourses of resistance to the Saxons and Normans with this attribution, as much as ‘colonial’ monuments, in a complex and fluid Anglo-Welsh borderland.

Heritage dimensions

There is a metal Ministry of Works-style sign, but actually it is far more recent, dating from the Cadw era (1986, i.e. post-1984). It is just decidedly ‘retro’. DSC02997

A more modern yet faded heritage board by the gate. It speaks of the archaeology and the legendary associations.

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A further heritage aspect is that the gate is itself commemorative: a threshold enforcing association between stones and heritage organisations.

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In summary, this is a fascinating site and well worth a visit. The potential of early medieval activity of some sort at this location – assembly, battle, burial site – and thus inspiring the Harold attribute, remains a temptation. Whether so or not, the Harold association does suggest a now-lost specific story linked to Harold Godwinson and circulating in the area in the Anglo-Norman period.

Reference

Whittle, E. 1992. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales: Glamorgan and Gwent. Cardiff: Cadw.

 

Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth

Re-posted and adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The fabulously preserved section of Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth can be found where the linear earthwork navigates the slopes on the south side of the Glyn Ceiriog.

IMG_2049IMG_2050IMG_2056I’ve recently posted in detail about this section here and I’ve also posted about it before here. I also mused on the presence of a boot hanging from the post of a stile.

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The main reason for posting on this again here is to consider:

  1. a first-time visit with students: to show a picture of my students actually getting to see this (usually it’s a long walk to get to this location from the nearest easy parking, but we had our bus driver stop in the lane for a short while so we could complete this visit);
  2. the dyke’s scale and design: at this point it was possible to discuss with students the scale of the ditch in particular, where so often it isn’t preserved to this depth;
  3. the visual envelope of the dyke was considered too: to point out again how the dyke looks uphill and has a limited prospect in this location but amazing long-distant views back over (‘Mercian’) territory it was defending and even out over Cheshire towards Lancashire (‘Northumbria’);
  4. the dyke’s positioning: indicate how the monument descends and thus cuts across a major river-valley
  5. the dyke’s conservation at this point is good survival since it is incorporated into a field boundary, but we also noted the badger-damage to the earthwork;
  6. surrounding land-use: we observed how ploughed farmland encroaches right up to the back of the monument;
  7. the use of the linear earthwork for leisure activities was identified, as seen on other locations where the Offa’s Dyke Path navigates the back-side of the monument;
  8. present-day interactions from visitors were identified: graffiti on beech trees;
  9. aesthetics: we took note of the wonderful autumnal colours as the sun set on our successful field trip!

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A Research Network for Offa's Dyke, Wat's Dyke and Early Medieval Western Britain