Notes towards the creation of a Conservation Agenda complementary to research


It is one thing to state simply that conservation and research must work in parallel: it is quite another to explore how this can best be achieved. This is not the place to attempt to specify how the development of a Conservation Agenda for the Dykes as linear monuments (and the frontier they formed part of as something more than simply the ‘setting’ of the monuments) can best be linked to, and integrated with, an emerging Research Agenda. However, it may be worthwhile to take this opportunity to outline some potential strands of this process. I have identified just three of these here.

Firstly, there is the need to conduct research into the substance of the archaeology of a particular monument such as Offa’s Dyke in order to inform its conservation. Why does this matter? The old adage ‘We cannot conserve what we do not understand’ is often trotted out as the reason why research of both the ‘Presence, Absence, Character’ and ‘Higher Order’ kind must take place. But in practice, we continually do seek to conserve what we do not (fully) understand, in large measure because that very conservation of the resource is what enables its continuing availability for research. In other words, conservation and research are inter-dependent. We do nonetheless need to invest resources into the process of inquiry and understanding commensurate to the perceived importance of the monument.

As an example of the need for fundamental observation linked to research, in the field studies that led to the writing of Offa’s Dyke:  Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain we noted that variations in the height of the bank of Offa’s Dyke have been observed wherever it is reasonably well-preserved. These variations have habitually been attributed either to the vagaries of dumps of soil settling through time, or to post-construction acts of damage or gradual erosion by humans or animals. The observations we made of systematic variations in longitudinal profile linked to frequent short and often subtle changes of direction at many locations had previously escaped observation, or had been regarded as inconsequential. Their potential significance to an understanding of the overall construction process and purpose of the Dyke had therefore been entirely neglected.

This was not an observation made during the course of conservation work, but one that arguably will be fundamental to future conservation management. For example, to ‘repair’ perceived erosion in the ‘dips’ in the longitudinal profile where these instead derive from the original pattern and implementation of construction would (at best) serve to mask evidence for the latter.

Secondly, it is important wherever feasible to use conservation responses as an opportunity to address research questions. This should not be limited to excavation in response to either ‘controlled’ or unauthorised damage, although it is important that such work should take place informed by research questions to which any necessary interventions can be addressed. There is a particular, and pressing, need also to use opportunities provided by planning applications affecting the setting of the monument (for example) to document more fully the way in which the Dyke has been placed in the landscape to particular effect. And what are regarded simply as ‘management works’ also need to be undertaken within a framework of understanding of the particularities of Dyke construction and siting, and opportunities to further that understanding.

Thirdly, there is a need to undertake research concerning conservation itself, not only generically (‘the best way to restore turf following poaching of ground by stock’, for example – as has for instance been successfully achieved in respect to the management of Hadrian’s Wall), but also addressed to the particularities of such monuments. One example especially relevant to Offa’s Dyke is to research methods to prevent collapse of the fabric on steep slopes, given the particular construction attributes in certain kinds of location. It is also important to devise means by which change can be monitored in a consistent way – for instance, both photographically and within the scope of a volunteer-staffed management programme such as a ‘Dyke Watch’ scheme. This latter would be a bit like Neighbourhood Watch’, but would deliberately draw upon the idea of the ‘Dyke watch or guard’ (that may well have been part of the method for patrolling the frontier at and soon after the construction of the earthwork). Such a scheme would have a number of goals or spheres of conduct, some of which (such as erosion by walkers) could be linked into the work of maintaining and improving the Long Distance Path.

Keith Ray                                                                             24th April 2017