Dykes through Time – Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks

At the 39th Theoretical Archaeology Group conference – 18th-20th December 2017 – I organised the second meeting of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory – a research network set up to foster new research on the early medieval linear earthworks of western Britain. Building on from a first and very successful workshop at Shrewsbury in April 2017, this second event aimed to draw together researchers interested in the biographies and landscape contexts of early medieval linear earthworks. This was a half-day session of an Introduction, 8 papers and a Discussion on the theme of Dykes through Time – Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks. 

Here’s the session abstract:

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 significance 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.

I introduced proceedings with a brief statement regarding the theoretical vision and context of the Collaboratory and the session, and I chaired the 8 papers. Dr Keith Ray generously providing a Discussion and there was vibrant Q&A for the entire session at the end.

Many of the paper abstracts and slides from the talks can be found on the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory website here.

The session met all of the key aims of holding the second meeting at the closest the UK has to an open, inclusive national annual archaeology conference where archaeology students, heritage professionals and academics attend. The papers and discussions:

  • constituted the first-ever session dedicated to early medieval linear earthworks in the history of TAG, and perhaps the history of any major conference in the UK (I’m happy to be corrected on this point);
  • attracted a good audience bigger than the capacity of the room: with c. 50 people in attendance;
  • incorporated a wide range of researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, including both those who have published extensive on prehistoric and early historic linear earthworks and those who are just entering into this field from various perspectives;
  • contributed to all of the key points outlined in the session abstract, if in varying degrees and depths;
  • notably the session contributions can be divided into two areas:
    • a quartet of papers addressed new perspectives on linear earthworks in western Britain, offering long-term and/or comparative perspectives on Offa’s Dyke: Seaman, Leggatt, Fleming and Belford
    • another quartet explored invaluable case studies and comparative perspectives from elsewhere in Britain and the Continent: Bell, Mortimer, Tys and Rohl.

Inevitably, there were gaps and issues not addressed. The session theme was aimed to chime with the conference theme of ‘time’ by prompting speakers to not only think about how linear earthworks operated through time but how they constructed and manipulated senses and experiences of space, time and memory in a variety of fashions. In hindsight, this thrust was not made explicit in my session abstract although it was raised overtly in my Introduction and subsequently tackled directly in papers by Seaman, Tys and Rohl.

With the perspective of seeing the range of contributions to the Cardiff session combined with the Collaboratory workshop in Shrewsbury, the first two events of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory have set a firm comparative foundation for future research on Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and the short dykes of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands.

Note: Thanks to Mel Leggatt and Wulgar the Bard for permission to use one of Mel’s slides for this blog.



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