This is the first of a series of posts regarding an October 2018 full-day field trip with University of Chester archaeology students exploring the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, focusing on Offa’s Dyke. The aim is to get the third-year students on module HI6001 – Archaeology and Contemporary Society – out into the landscape to think about the history, archaeology, and heritage of borderlands and frontiers, and using the building and afterlife of Offa’s Dyke as a case study.
First up on our day was Montgomery Castle. I’ve blogged about this 13th-century castle before, and its ‘archaeodeath’ dimensions. As discussed on this earlier post, we explored the castle’s architecture, evidence of its attendant town wall, and also how death and memory features in its heritage interpretation.
I also used the castle to talk about the complexity and fluidity of the Anglo-Welsh borderland, and how castles had many functions in this regard. They were (in part) attempts to control the March of Wales militarily. Yet equally, together with their boroughs, they were attempts to socially engineer and exploit the borderlands economically and ideologically. We also discussed how the military significance of the borough and castle came to the fore once more in the early 17th century, in the English Civil War. The largest battle fought in Wales took place north of the castle. This revealed how, while not always a focus of conflict, the topography and locality had latent strategic importance down the ages.
We also discussed how the limitations of the heritage interpretation regime – with no phased plans or details of archaeological investigation allowed – provide only a partial appreciation of the castle.
I’d like to add one additional comment about its memorial dimensions. En route back to the bus, one of the students asked: why doesn’t this particular bench have a memorial plaque? I suggested an answer: its location is prominent – between the car park and the castle – but it lacked a long-distance view. Perhaps no one wanted to be memorialised here for that reason. Its location is practical, but lacks the aesthetics of a panorama as afforded by benches elsewhere. So with the help of the students, I added something to my thinking about this site in memorial terms.
Anyway, the main point of visiting was to look east from it over the landscape and appraise Offa’s Dyke from this paranorama. To look east from Montgomery Castle is to view of the line of Offa’s Dyke as it traverses the Vale of Montgomery east of Montgomery and west of Chirbury and Church Stoke. The photo above shows the famous Dudston Fields stretch from the inner ward of Montgomery Castle.
Ray and Bapty postulate that Montgomery Castle may overlay an earlier Welsh elite centre, so this close proximity might be significant for the 8th century AD. Sadly there is no definitive archaeological evidence in support of this. Moreover, there is no heritage interpretation pointing out the line and significance of Offa’s Dyke in an area that was to become a strategy later medieval frontier zone and where the Dyke follows the modern border for a significant length.