Re-posted from the Archaeodeath blog of Professor Howard Williams
The Offa’s Dyke Centre at Knighton, opened in 1999 and supported by (among others) the Offa’s Dyke National Trail, is located on the edge of Knighton, Powys. It has already become one of my all-time favourite museums/heritage centres, despite the fact that I have so far only visited once just a few months back. Here’s why:
- How many other museums or heritage centres are uniquely dedicated to educating the public about one of Britain’s largest and longest monuments?
- How many other museums or heritage displays focus near-exclusively on the Early Middle Ages (‘Dark Ages’ for some)?
- How many other museums or heritage centres seek to explain and contextualise a linear earthwork?
The answer to each of these questions is the same: very few. Put the questions together and the answer is: none. We should add to this one further dimension: not only is the Offa’s Dyke Centre unique, it is FREE.
The Offa’s Dyke Centre stands in contrast to any other heritage centre I’ve visited. For example, it contrasts in the importance of its role with the wide range of museums and pay-to-enter sites and monuments, as well as large numbers of free-to-enter monuments and sections of public-access landscape allowing the visitor to explore Hadrian’s Wall.
It also operates next to the monument itself, as discussed here. It is especially important since many heritage destinations along the line of Offa’s Dyke neglect or ignore the monument in their interpretation for visitors, as discussed for Chirk Castle.
Finally, it does this its job of explaining Offa’s Dyke and its landscape without seemingly containing any ancient artefacts as part of its permanent displays.
There are other dimensions beyond Offa’s Dyke to pursue at the Centre, including the environmental context, the history of Knighton, and an explanation of the activities associated with maintaining the Dyke and the National Trail which runs for long sections close to, or along, the Dyke. There is also a cafe and shop, and plans to enhance its role as a community-run information centre and research facility for those working on the Dyke.
However, in this post, I want to briefly reflect on the heritage displays.
About the Dyke
There are so many great elements to the core of the Offa’s Dyke Centre: the panels explaining the story of Offa’s Dyke. I was particularly struck by how the challenge was answered: how is it possible to visualise and explain a monument so large within a space so small? The answer: draw upon the monument in section – exploiting the key components most often witnessed in the landscape: the bank and ditch.
On both sides of the core exhibition, one sees through the earthwork, a stylised archaeological section, into which different aspects of the archaeology and history of the monument are told. On the north side, this includes the history of investigation, as well as how it might have been built and why. On this side, the methods of bank construction, and the likely original depth of the ditch, are made clear.
Also on the north side is a rather down-trodden Offa, wearied by responsibility, slumped on his gifstol (I’m guessing a replica of the one from Hexham and dated to the 8th century).
Meanwhile, on the other, south, side, the geographical span of the monument and its National Trail are narrated. The places one can see along the way are also visualised, so that the dyke encapsulates a landscape across time.
Inevitable weaknesses with the story are inherent, including an inability to for this kind of space to tell about how the dyke works in the landscape, how it varies in relation to geology and topography, and how it varies in relation to modern land-use. Still, it is a powerful and effective display within the limited space avaialable.
A local and national focus
The powerful thing about this moderately small Centre is the many dimensions it hopes to embody from its role as a local centre through it its role in relation to a National Trail stretching from the Irish Sea to the Severn Estuary. The centre’s relationship with the Shropshire and Powys landscapes are therefore balanced, as shown in this plan, with a broader historical and geographical sense of its identity between ‘Wales’ and ‘England’ historically and today.
This has a weakness too, since it coalesces the National Trail with the Dyke itself, and doesn’t allow visitors to apprehend that the Dyke is neither extant continuously from ‘sea-to-sea’, nor might it have served a single function or stage of construction. Frustrating for me is the lack of reference to a monument that runs parallel to Offa’s Dyke for long stretches: Wat’s Dyke.
Here’s the Archaeodeath dimension.
You can hardly be surprised to learn that one of my motives for visiting was to see how the Pillar of Eliseg is represented at the Offa’s Dyke Centre. I’m writing up the results of my collaborative fieldwork on the Pillar of Eliseg as part of Project Eliseg.
First, I was struck but the size and scale of its display: standing as an icon to the largely invisible British (i.e. Welsh) involved in, suffering from, and controlled and affected by, the presence of this great 8th-century linear earthwork. This is a key element to how Offa’s Dyke’s story has been told over recent decades, and the Pillar of Eliseg has been an important dimension of it.
Second, it needs mentioning that the imagined head and upper-half of the monument, envisaged here by Howard Mason and also replicated in the display board within Valle Crucis Abbey, is depicted. Importantly, the reconstruction clearly distinguishes between the surviving fragment and the lost section. Howard’s art envisages a wide broad cross-head, without figurial art but with the panels denoted to suggest it might have once had some.
Third, the text is apparent: this is the Latin text first incised on the stone in the early 9th century by Conmarch on behalf of King Cyngen of Powys, here denoted as transcribed by Edward Lhuyd in the late 17th century. It is this text that tells us why the Pillar is so important for recording the history of Offa’s enemies, or one of his rivals – the dynasty led by Eliseg in the mid-8th century against western Mercia.
Fourth, whether by design or accident, it sits west of the panels depicting the linear earthwork, and thus records within the museum space a broader spatial relationship of the entire middle of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands in the 8th/9th centuries, into which the earthwork was emplaced.
Fifth, the base is grossly under-sized – the base of the original Pillar is actually quite significantly larger in relation to the surviving fragment of column.
Finally, I want to comment on how the Centre commemorates itself. Like all museums and heritage centres, they have their own memorial plaques. These are beside the entrance. They are smart and reflect the slate of the centre itself. They reveal the complex array of partners then involved in supporting the Centre and continuing its aims and foci.
In conclusion, I would recommend anyone to visit the Offa’s Dyke Centre, whether walking the National Trail, exploring Knighton, or embarking on a walk to see the dyke itself.