Oswestry – The Offa’s Dyke Conference – the 4th Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory Meeting

Thanks to the staff and logistics of CPAT (notably Dr Penelope Foreman) with additional financial support from the University of Chester, the fourth Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory event successfully took place at the Marches School, Oswestry, Saturday 15th September. This follows on from 3 previous events:

This fourth event aimed to bring together the convenors and members, focusing on identifying the rationale and achievements of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory, together with reports on local groups up and down the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. The event was combined with a field trip in the afternoon to see CPAT’s dig on the Chirk Castle estate.

IMG_1059The event was attended by c. 50 individuals, including some celebratory figures of Welsh and Borders archaeology – including Margaret Hill and Sian Rees.

The morning comprised of a series of talks by convenors and members. Together these presentations show how, 17 months since inception, the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory is making real progress in building momentum for new research on the linear earthworks of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. As well as fostering new work on dykes’ design and construction, new work is afoot to explore their landscape contexts and biographies of use and reuse.

The convenors’ talks were by

  • Dave McGlade of the Offa’s Dyke Association
  • Me!
  • Dr Paul Belford – Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust
  • Andrew Blake – Wye Valley AONB

The second half of the conference comprised of talks by local groups introduced by Dr Keith Ray:

  • Alan Brown – Caer Alyn Archaeology
  • Niall Heaton – Trefonen Rural Protection Group
  • Mel Roxby-Mackey and Ian Mackey – CoSMM (Community Stewardship for Mercian Monuments)
  • Ray Bailey – Offa’s Dyke Collabatory North
  • Dick Finch – Offa’s Dyke Collabatory Gloucestershire

After lunch and a chance to chat with the audience and fellow-speakers, we re-convened in the National Trust car park at Chirk Castle for a brief sermon from the mound by Dr Paul Belford, before visiting the CPAT dig.

Before we dispersed, there was a brief opportunity to get a photo of 5/6 of the Collaboratory convenors (L-R): Dr Keith Ray, me, Dave McGlade, Dr Paul Belford, Andrew Blake.

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Offa’s Dyke Rises at Chirk!

This summer has seen headlines about fantastic archaeological discoveries from the air. Archaeological features are being found by aerial reconnaissance to an unprecedented degree, together with enhanced details and elements of already known sites and monuments.

Why? This all is the result of the 2018 heatwave and limited precipitation, meaning that cropmarks and parchmarks across the British Isles (identified using aeroplanes and drones) have shown up fresh evidence from across the full time span of human occupation of these islands, from later prehistory to the recent past. From an Archaeodeath perspective, it is exciting to see many of likely mortuary or ceremonial function alongside settlements, field systems and other traces of past human activity.

A further aspect of the 2018 summer’s lack of rain and intense heat has been the lowering of water levels for rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. This has had its own effect on the visiblility of some archaeological sites and monuments usually languishing out of site below the water.

This is broader context for what I witnessed at Chirk Castle on Saturday, when the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory visited Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust’s excavations of an unscheduled section of the dyke to the north of the castle. After the morning’s presentations in Oswestry by members of the Collaboratory, including members of local groups up and down the Anglo-Welsh border, many delegates made their own way to Chirk Castle to see the dig.

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Viewing along Offa’s Dyke towards Chirk Castle during the Collaboratory visit

As readers of this blog will know, Offa’s Dyke is an amazing and unique eighth-century linear earthwork comprising of a bank, ditch and associated quarries and counterscarp bank, constructed as part of a frontier zone asserting Mercian hegemony over its Welsh rivals. Its full extent, function, duration of use and legacy remain much disputed.

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Ian Grant and Dr Paul Belford of CPAT

Offa’s Dyke has long been known to run through the National Trust-managed grounds of Chirk Castle and in places survives as an impressive monument. Yet in other stretches, it is heavily denuded and poorly understood. Moreover, the heritage interpretation of Chirk almost completely ignores the dyke’s presence and significance and much of the dyke is on pasture land that is not accessible to visitors. 

CPAT and the National Trust have been working together to create new community archaeology excavations at Chirk, including investigating the dyke to better understand its composition and location at points where it has been badly damaged. Perhaps these endeavours will one day lead to better public appreciation of the monument at Chirk as a premier tourist attraction in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands.

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Ian explains the dig to the Collaboratory conference delegates
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One digger, lots of onlookers!

 

The dig itself is as yet inconclusive in identifying the full extent of the ditch and bank of the monument: the structure has clearly suffered from multiple stages of denudation. Still, Ian Grant of CPAT was able to show the Collaboratory delegates clear evidence of bank-material from Offa’s Dyke and at least part of the ditch.

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CPAT have opened a c. 30m-long trench to identify the dyke at this very denuded point

In addition to viewing the excavations, we got to see over the nearby lake at an eerie site. It has long been known that Offa’s Dyke at one point on the Chirk estate is submerged beneath a lake created by 18th-century landscaping. Indeed, on aerial photographs this section of dyke looks like an uncanny submarinal monster lurking beneath the depths of the lake: a watcher in the water.

The glimpse of the dyke rising to the surface of the lake!

Well, thanks to the drought, the leviathan has temporarily risen to the surface and its top is exposed from bank-to-bank across the centre of the lake. Access is private, and the lake is framed by trees, but from one tight angle from close to the CPAT dig, I got a glimpse of this beast’s huge bulk.

Ducks, geese and a heron were perched upon it, and after two-and-a-half centuries, it looks like a shingle bank with bushes growing on one section that usually pokes up above the lake.

Thanks to CPAT and the National Trust, we are learning more about Offa’s Dyke at Chirk. Yet it is a shame that access to, and visibility of, the dyke’s path through the Chirk estate cannot be more readily accessible and explained to the public. Certainly this submarinal dyke will soon be below the water once again and out of sight and mind for most visitors to Chirk.