The Offa's Dyke Collaboratory

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

Notes towards a Research Design in 100 Questions


There are many questions that remain to be answered about both Offa’s Dyke and the British-Mercian frontier, for the latter especially for the several decades either side of the year 800AD. As was explained in Chapter 2 of Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain (Keith Ray and Ian Bapty, Windgather Press, 2016, pp.59-66; hereafter, ‘ODLH), some of these questions relate to discussions and debates dating back to the 19th century and beyond.

It is possible to list these questions, but not everyone would have the same list, and to a degree the formulation of questions is potentially limitless. My list of February/March 2017 would be unlikely to be identical in six months’ time. The best approach is therefore iterative: and for there to be questions formulated that engender research at a variety of different scales. In this way, there are not simply ‘global versus local’ questions, and we need to tack between micro-scale and macro-scale probing. Likewise, we should not underestimate the degree to which an investigation or study that produces wholly unexpected results can serve to shift the direction of future enquiry: sometimes dramatically. Our research focus needs therefore not to be too ‘closed’.

That said, more than one among the Conveners of the new ‘Offa’s Dyke (and early Anglo-Welsh frontier)’ Collaboratory research initiative has quite reasonably expressed concern that as many as possible among the questions that have arisen over the past 150 years or so should be made explicit. So this document identifies categories of question, and particular questions, even though most of these have been raised either explicitly or implicitly in ODLH. To a degree, all these questions are here abstracted from that book. However, this document brings them together in one place and notes those relating to both individual localities and phenomena such as finds distributions and place-names. The identified questions are presented arbitrarily here in batches of ten: and of course each question requires further explication and exploration, including a careful ‘unpacking’ of its direction and implications.

I have not included here, questions relating to the ‘frontier’ landscapes and communities before the advent of the Dyke. Nor have I posed research questions that refer to the ‘after-life’ of the monument, either in the later Anglo-Saxon/early Welsh context, or subsequently. This is not because such questions are unimportant, not least because research in pursuit of them (for instance on the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Marches; or on medieval place-names) may throw light on both later and earlier circumstances. Rather, the purpose of this ‘100’ is to provide a starting-point. There are myriad ways in which the answering of these questions can be approached. In a companion document, ‘Offa’s Dyke in 100 Projects’, I shall suggest some potential avenues of inquiry that involve those with both a more ‘general’ and a more limited project focus.

  1. The 100 questions listed below are mostly as selected and phrased by KR in February – March 2017. Many of these questions are correlated with relevant sections of ODLH (wherein ‘answers’ are also often provided, if tentatively). In some cases the questions identified here are versions of the 35 or so questions posed in ODLH as examples of questions (in groups cited at the beginning of each of the nine constituent chapters). Various of the questions have also been framed following how they were expressed in a May 2016 paper by Christopher Catling containing 55 questions (subsequently re-ordered by Paul Belford into ‘What, Where, How, When, Who and Why’ sections, and with some additional comments). These latter questions, sometimes slightly re-cast here, are referred to below as ‘CC/PB’ in italics, with the relevant ‘Q’ number.

Ten questions about the course of Offa’s Dyke

  1. Why does the Dyke take the route it does, at the widest scale (cf. ODLH, 123-131)?
  2. Does it/did it run ‘from sea to sea’, or is that just conventional hyperbole (eg ODLH, 23-25, 88, 123-125, 362-364 and endnotes)?
  3. Why does Offa’s Dyke not continue northwards beyond Treuddyn in Flintshire (specifically, ODLH, 60, 289-290, 356-360; p. 382, n.18)?
  4. Why, if the Gloucestershire ‘component’ is integral to the scheme, is there a massive ‘gap’ across south Herefordshire (CC/PB, Q4a; ODLH, eg 50-52; 272-274, 355-356)?
  5. How was the overall course of Offa’s Dyke chosen (ODLH, eg 123-126; 275-285)?
  6. Why is the Dyke sited at or near to the eastern edge of the uplands (ODLH, eg 124)?
  7. Why does the Dyke bisect the specifically west side of the Vale of Montgomery, beneath the uplands to the west of that (later) town (ODLH, eg 253, 270-271, 278-279)?
  8. Why are there large-scale lengths of the Dyke that instead of running more-or-less due north and south, are set on a north-west to south-east axis (ODLH, eg 43-49; 126-129)?
  9. Can we explain the discontinuities in the Dyke in terms of an ‘alternative’ continuous barrier in the form of ditches, palisades or ‘forest rides’ (CC/PB Q 5; ODLH, eg 77-78, 226-228)?
  10. Why is there also a ‘geographic dislocation’ north and south of Herefordshire, such that the Gloucestershire lengths are so far to the east of the Dyke’s course north of the river Lugg (ODLH, eg 128-129)?

Ten questions addressing the location of the Dyke in the landscape

  1. What features in the landscape did Offa’s Dyke exploit, control, block, or overlook (CC/PB 4b; cf major sections of ODLH eg 135-163, 225-250, 275-297, 336-341);
  2. What features in the landscape were chosen to enable controlling, blocking or overlooking to be achieved most effectively (CC/PB Q 4c; cf ODLH, 126-151)?
  3. Why does the Dyke in several places face uphill, at an apparent tactical disadvantage (ODLH, 148-149)?
  4. Why does the Dyke often not seek an ‘overlooking’ advantage, westwards, by failing to achieve a prominent overview position (ODLH, 142-143, 154-163)?
  5. How did the Dyke approach, and relate to, the major rivers it encountered (ODLH, 126-131)?
  6. Why does the Dyke approach more minor river-valleys in the various ways that it does – are there any clear recurrences in such approaches (ODLH, 135-142)?
  7. How did the Dyke negotiate immediate crossings of minor rivers (rather than the relevant whole valleys), physically (ODLH, 135-7)?
  8. Are there any clear patterns in the way that it traversed prominent hilltops (ODLH, 142-145; 149-151)?
  9. Is there a discernible purpose to the practice of placing the Dyke just below the skyline along steep west-facing scarps at the various points where this occurs (ODLH, 151-156)?
  10. Why were particular alignments chosen, and why were particular stances taken up? (One example being the consistent line 1km east/south of the middle reaches of the River Severn south of Welshpool). All the above are dealt with at some length in ODLH (especially but not exclusively in Chapter 4), but they still merit further investigation.

Ten questions regarding date, build-sequence and attribution of the Dyke

  1. When exactly was Offa’s Dyke built (CC/PB Q2; ODLH, eg 19-22, 56-63, 72-76, 86-92, 111-119, 214-219, 255-257, 288-297, 338-341, 344-364)?
  2. Can we demonstrate that Offa’s Dyke was built as a single monument (CC/PB Q1a,1b; ODLH, eg 131-151; 164-188)?
  3. Was it built in one effort, over a short span, or piecemeal over an extended time (CC/PB Q3b; ODLH, 164-208; 214-226)?
  4. Did it simply ‘connect up’ pre-existing lengths (CC/PB Q1, 3d; ODLH, eg 71-75; 340-341)?
  5. Is there any evidence for multi-phase construction of the Dyke in any one place (CC/PB Q 3c; ODLH, see above, Qs22, 23, 24)?
  6. Is there any evidence for maintenance or re-digging (CC/PB Q 3c; ODLH, see above, Qs22, 23, 24)?
  7. How permanent was it as a border, and why were there gaps in it (CC/PB Q 5, 15a; ODLH, Chapter 2; 353-362)?
  8. Who ‘commissioned’ it – was it really King Offa of Mercia (ODLH eg 20-23; 340-350, 353-356)?
  9. Or was it named after his death, as a memorial to the great king (CC/PB Q11; ODLH, 334)?
  10. Is there any evidence for subsequent re-use of it, for instance in the ninth century, or later, for example by the Normans (CC/PB Q 15b)?

Ten questions about the relationship of Offa’s Dyke to Wat’s Dyke (CC/PB Q1c)

  1. Which was built first, Offa’s Dyke or Wat’s Dyke (ODLH, 23-25)?
  2. Why do both dykes turn north-westwards, having been headed straight for the Mersey estuary (ODLH, 23-25)?
  3. Do both dykes share the same build techniques (ODLH, 23-25)?
  4. If not, why not (ODLH, 23-25)?
  5. If the two Dykes were in use at the same time, why are they parallel for such a long distance (ODLH, 356-60)?
  6. Was the northern part of Wat’s Dyke originally an interrupted ‘continuation’ of Offa’s Dyke, hence explaining the persistent confusion, especially locally in Flintshire, between the two Dykes (ODLH, 356-60)?
  7. Why are the two Dykes positioned always less than 3 miles apart, and why are there places where the two Dykes are less than a mile apart (ODLH, 31-9; 281-2; 357, 361)?
  8. What, or who, was ‘Wat’ (ODLH, 358-60)?
  9. Was ‘Wat’s Dyke’ also named after a person (ODLH, 359-60)?
  10. Do place-names give us clues to relationships – eg ‘Wat’s Dyke’; ‘Watling Street’, ‘Watling Street West’ (ODLH, 266-267; 358-60)?

Ten questions about the Dyke in reference to landscapes of settlement

  1. How frequently can we extrapolate the prior existence of ‘English communities’ west of the Dyke (ODLH, 265, 268-9)?
  2. What evidence is there for the absorption/survival of British communities east of the Dyke?
  3. What evidence is there for land use in the vicinity of Offa’s Dyke at the time of its construction (ODLH, 69ff, 255-262)?
  4. How strong is the evidence for the existence of hybrid Anglo-Welsh communities on either side of the Dyke (ODLH, 265-9)?
  5. Were there areas of particularly intense Anglo-Saxon settlement to the east of the Dyke, for instance in the Shropshire Plain (ODLH, 262-3)?
  6. To what extent can we detect differences in the cultural attributes of communities living either side of the Dyke/frontier at different places along its course (material culture, place/field-names, etc) after its construction/definition and attributable to that event/process (CC/PB Q8)?
  7. Can we characterise the landscape in which OD was built in reference to vegetation, agriculture, population size, density, natural resources farms, settlements, monuments, shrines, industry, changes over time (CC/PB Q 10; ODLH, 255-262)?
  8. What can the configuration of the Dyke/frontier north and (?) south of the Wye in Herefordshire indicate to us about the relative status of British and English settlements, and how does this relate to the ‘Ordinances Concerning the Dunsaete’, if at all? (ODLH, 262-9)?
  9. What, if anything, can be understood (eg in reference to hidages) about the landscape of Anglo-Welsh settlement in Cheshire and the area of (later) Flintshire and the Vale of Clwyd?
  10. What comprised the ‘Mercian march’ of Domesday, in settlement terms (ODLH, 290- 97; 344-50)?

Ten questions relating to the purpose and function of the Dyke

  1. How was Offa’s Dyke used? (CC/PB Q 6a; ODLH, 226-251; 334-353)
  2. Was it used for military purposes or for territorial display (CC/PB Q 6c; ODLH, 226-251; 334-353)?
  3. Was Offa’s Dyke merely (or was it very effective as) a deterrent?
  4. Was the Dyke designed for different purposes in different parts of the frontier?
  5. Was the Dyke supposed to be a boundary-marker or was it the main, but not the only, defining feature of the frontier (ODLH, 344-6)?
  6. If the Dyke was designed substantially for surveillance purposes, how did this work – for instance with a mounted ‘frontier-watch’ (see also Q84, below; ODLH, 226-228)
  7. Was the Dyke primarily a customs-barrier (ODLH, 228-34)?
  8. Was the Dyke positioned, replete with deliberate ‘gaps’ to perform a military function in respect to Mercian armies on campaign actually within Wales (ODLH, 355-60)?
  9. Was the Dyke built to some extent to provide an exhibition of Mercian military might to inhibit dissent within, or rivalry beyond, Mercia; or as a means of occupying the efforts of forces subject to Mercia to distract them from dissent (ODLH, 222-5)?
  10. If there were multiple reasons for building the Dyke, how can we tell which were the most important motivations, or are we doomed forever to speculate about these aspects (ODLH, 362-4)?

Ten questions concerning the build features/built form of the Dyke

  1. How was Offa’s Dyke built, over what time-span, using what levels of human resource and what constructional techniques (CC/PB Q3; ODLH, 216-19)?
  2. Can Fox’s conviction that the most important factor in determining the built character of the Dyke in any one location was the underlying geology in fact be borne out (ODLH, 167)?
  3. How homogenous is the built form of the Dyke from north to south (for example, how frequent are different build-modes, how common is ‘segmentation’) CC/PB, Q 17; ODLH, 165-74; 203-6)?
  4. Can the ‘adjusted-segmented’ form of the Dyke be regarded as a ‘standard’ or as an uncommon (but nonetheless important) feature of its build (ODLH, 203-6)?
  5. What evidence is there for frontal ‘walling’ of lengths of the Dyke, and how common a practice was this (ODLH, 184-8; 208-13)?
  6. Is there much evidence for a segmented form of build of the Dyke over long distances, even where these segments are not ‘adjusted’ (ODLH, 193-208)?
  7. Individual ‘dumps’ and spreads of primary material have been noted in various locations, but what evidence is there for ‘marker banks’ as a distinct part of the construction process (ODLH, 217-9)?
  8. How extensive is the evidence for the digging of substantial quarries to the rear of the Dyke (CC/PB Q 3c; ODLH,188-92)
  9. Why does the Dyke follow contours in some location, but traverse them obliquely (or even perpendicularly) in others (ODLH, 142-51)?
  10. How frequent is the evidence for the former existence of a prominent counterscarp bank (ODLH, 209-12)?

Ten questions about the organisation of construction of the Dyke

  1. How convincing is the evidence for a single ‘controlling mind’ (cf Fox) that determined the form and location of the Dyke (ODLH, 214-5; 222-6)
  2. Are there, at any rate, indications of construction planned, ordered and supervised by a cadre of (presumably Mercian) officers (ODLH, 225-6)?
  3. Over what length of time was Offa’s Dyke built (CC/PB Q3d; ODLH, 219-24)
  4. Are there any other ‘landscape features’ related to the Dyke and contemporary with it, such as road systems, river-ports, trading places, markets, defended positions, settlements, and field boundaries (CC/PB Q10; ODLH, 226-34; 240-51)?
  5. Is there a common ‘unit’ of build, such as the ‘Mercian perch’, that indicates how it was put together, ‘Meccano-style’?
  6. What evidence is there for the operation of distinct ‘work-gangs’ in the building of the Dyke (ODLH, 192-208)?
  7. Where was the Mercian ‘construction workforce’ drawn from (ODLH, 224)?
  8. Was it the work of a single summer, or was it a ‘many years’ project such as modern HS1/HS2 or motorway construction projects (CC/PB Q3a-b; ODLH, 214-28)?
  9. Did military involvement in the construction preclude major military operations in the years when the Dyke was in the building?
  10. What was the ‘cubic meterage’ of material (rock, turf, earth, timber) involved in its construction, and how can we calculate this (ODLH, 188-92)?

Ten questions focusing upon ‘Dyke infrastructure’ and facilities

  1. Were there gateways through the Dyke (ODLH, 228-34)?
  2. If there were gates, what kinds of location were chosen for them (eg river-valleys, passes, on former trackways, or all of these) (ODLH, 228-34)?
  3. If so, what form did the gates take (eg were they simple openings, did they feature bridges across the ditch, in what ways might they have been sophisticated) (ODLH, 228-34)?
  4. Is there any evidence for elaboration of ‘customs-posts’ close to gateways through the Dyke?
  5. Were there look-out facilities associated with the Dyke, positioned either forwards of it, or to the rearward of it (ODLH, 247-50)?
  6. Were there forts set in front of, or behind the Dyke, or both (ODLH, 244-7; 293-7)?
  7. Is there any evidence for a ‘military way’ (the Mercian equivalent of the Hadrian’s Wall Stanegate) servicing the Dyke to its rear?
  8. Is there any evidence for other military infrastructure, such as garrisons (CC/PB Q 6b; ODLH, 222-4; 244-7)?
  9. What is the possibility that earlier earthworks to the west of the Dyke were brought into commission to provide ‘forward posts’ (ODLH, eg 283-8)?
  10. Were there either work-camps or muster-locations to the east of the Dyke, and if so, how could we recognise them (ODLH, eg 283-8)?

Ten questions about historical sequence and the Mercian frontier

  1. Are the ‘short dykes’ the earliest evidence for the presence of the Mercians in the frontier region (ODLH, 76; 242-3)?
  2. Where did the Arrow Valley ‘Rowe Ditch’ fit into the sequence (ODLH, 242-3)?
  3. Was Wat’s Dyke built as a single enterprise or did it comprise a northern and then a southern section (ODLH, 353-60)?
  4. Is there any evidence for the building of the Dyke having been contested (ODLH, 360-2)?
  5. Was the Dyke ever built and then rebuilt on a different alignment, or to the east (or west) of its ‘original’ alignment (ODLH, 123-9; 360-2)?
  6. How could we tell if Offa’s Dyke was a composite structure, literally building upon earlier linear works in the same way that parts of ‘Wansdyke West’ (in Somerset) and the Fleam Dyke (in Cambridgeshire) appear to have been (ODLH, 25-9)?
  7. Is there any means of telling whether any parts of Offa’s Dyke were abandoned not long after completion (ODLH, eg 179-84)?
  8. Was there an initial focus upon the south of the frontier/Dyke and a later focus upon the north under Offa and then Coenwulf (ODLH, 355-60)?
  9. Did the ‘fight at Buttington’ in 894AD (if it did indeed take place on the middle Severn near present-day Welshpool) indicate that Offa’s Dyke still played a part in the definition of a frontier/march as much as 100 years on from its original completion?
  10. What came first, Dyke or frontier?

Keith Ray                                                        10th February-31st March 2017

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