All posts by Prof. Howard M. R. Williams

Researcher and teacher in early medieval archaeology, contemporary archaeology, mortuary archaeology, the archaeology of memory and the history of archaeology. MA Archaeology of Death and Memory

Dyke-Denial in the Cemetery: Wrexham’s Heritage and Wat’s Dyke

Wat’s Dyke is one of Britain’s most important early medieval monuments. It is also Britain’s second longest!

IMG_6193In a previous post, I bemoaned the lack of any walking guide or heritage boards to mark and explain Wat’s Dyke bar from a few select locations. Notably, for Wrexham borough, where the monument passes through the countryside but also through suburbs and western side of Wrexham town, only in the cemetery is the monument marked in any fashion. I called this section ‘The Cemetery Dyke’ (PRN: 22995)

Here’s what I said about it:

The ditch has gone but the bank survives as a low earthwork running south from Bersham Road to the top of the hill before the cutting created by the Ruabon Road breaks it off.

The dyke lacks a separate PRN within the cemetery grounds, where it is discernible, if covered with 19th-century graves. Indeed, this is the only place where its edges are marked by heritage lines in the two driveways in the cemetery that bisect its line. Notably, the Welsh is on the ‘Mercian’ (east) side’, the English on the ‘Welsh’ (west) side of the monument! 

I was struck by the large number of early medieval-inspired graves of late 19th century date overlaying the early medieval monument! The funerary landscape incorporating such an important ancient monument is a rare thing.

IMG_6191While I remain positive that the denuded and grave-covered section of the Dyke marking the original western side of the 19th-century cemetery is marked out in the landscape for visitors to appreciate – unlike elsewhere in Wrexham where there is nothing – I have to add some additional points and suggest that, in heritage terms, even the cemetery is in ‘Dyke-denial’.

IMG_6265IMG_6266First, the cemetery display board does mark the line of the Dyke at the entrance, and I failed to point this out. Well done to the new redevelopment for including Wat’s Dyke on the map. Shame, however, there is no text to explain what Wat’s Dyke actually is!

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Second, none of the web resources about the cemetery make mention of the fact that a monument likely to be c. 1,200 years old runs through the cemetery. The cemetery’s story begins in 1876 and not before on the Wrexham County Borough Council website, and likewise near identical information appears on the Wrexham History website. The wonderful website Wrexham Cemetery Stories links the cemetery to stories about the history and landscape of the area, but again, there is no mention of Wat’s Dyke.

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Can you spot the line of Wat’s Dyke running through the cemetery, dividing the 19th-century graves from the later cemetery extension?

Third, the WCBC  has just received a massive £1.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery fund to improve the space and appoint a part-time development officer. Yet, beyond the pre-existing markers for the Dyke and the new map at the entrance that does note its presence, it looks as if again the Dyke has been overlooked. I evidence this based on the 2018 BBC website story shows a photograph of Wat’s Dyke covered in graves but doesn’t mention it! Meanwhile, in a lovely article in The Leader by Jamie Bowman, posted only a few days ago, a detailed discussion of the history of the cemetery was published, charting its reference back to the 16th century, but without a single mention of Wat’s Dyke.

So let’s be clear: Wrexham cemetery is a great place to visit and I’m delighted they’ve received the HLF grant to improve the cemetery. The landscape here, despite being transformed into a cemetery, already has a head-start from the National Trust estate to the south, and the town to the north, in actually having Wat’s Dyke marked out on its paths and mentioned on its new map. However, despite this, Wat’s Dyke remains written out of Wrexham’s past, and this is a great shame for locals and visitors alike. Currently, anyone looking for the history of the cemetery online or on the ground is being sold short: in dyke-denial.

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Wat’s Dyke at Gobowen – the Heritage Board

Where are the heritage boards for the massive early medieval linear earthwork known as Wat’s Dyke, running from Maesbury, Shropshire, north to the Dee estuary at Basingwerk, Flintshire?

The out-of-date and now nearly illegible and overgrown heritage board at Ruabon doesn’t really count. I visited in 2015 and it had ‘returned to nature’.

The Ruabon heritage board as it appeared in November 2015 – I really must go back…

The English Heritage display boards at Old Oswestry hillfort are next to useless too, focusing only on the Iron Age stages of the monument.

Meanwhile, at Erddig Park and Hall, the dyke is briefly mentioned and not given the correct dating.

Similarly, despite rich and varied heritage boards in the Greenfield Valley, only a small section of the Dyke is cited on a single heritage map, and it isn’t explained.

At Hope, there is a plaque afixed to a big stone marking the Dyke, but it is hidden within laurel bushes. It is also out-of-date in giving the monument an 8th-century date.

As previously mentioned, only at one point, in Wrexham cemetery, can one see due recognition that Wat’s Dyke exists on the ground, where paths cross it.

In short, this is a rather dismal state of affairs that needs remedying.

So is there at least one location that can salvage this collective heritage failing? Is there anywhere where an interested local or visitor might actually be presented with basic heritage information in the landscape about this important yet enigmatic early medieval monument? After all, this is a monument that thanks to the work of Hayes and Malim, is now thought to date to the early 9th century and regarded as a successor or reiterator of Offa’s Dyke? Wat’s Dyke, perhaps more than Offa’s Dyke, is key to understanding the origins of the Anglo-Welsh borderland.

Only one location seems to try. This is the location of Hayes and Malim’s excavation of Wat’s Dyke at Gobowen. The heritage board at a roundabout and on the line of the Dyke is visually striking and combines an artist’s impression of the dyke in use with archaeological excavation shots and schematics, as well as maps. Together with the text, this is a rare example of a heritage board that allows you to actually learn about a monument: both how it may have looked and the archaeological data upon which this inference is based.

To my shame, only recently did I make the modest detour from the A483 into Gobowen to stop and appreciate it. Here are some images.

The detail is superb.

The real downside of this board is not its images, maps and text. The problem is instead with the monument itself: the very fact that at this precise location, the dyke is nearly invisible! Without some further surface marker, like that deployed in Wrexham cemetery (see above0, this monument will continue to be blissfully dislocated from local knowledge and experience.

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Exploring with the ‘Collaboratory North’ Group

Yesterday, I went on a dyke-hunt in the April snow with members of the ‘Collaboratory North’ group affiliated with St Asaph Archaeological Society, The Holywell & District Society, Prestatyn History Club, Friends Of The Clwydian Range and others.

Since I started as co-convenor of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory from 2017, I have been visiting, researching, talking and thinking about Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke quite a bit. Over the last couple of weeks I have independently walked along and around various stretches of both monuments I hadn’t seen before, as well as bits I’ve explored before – blog posts will inevitably follow. Indeed, over recent years, I’ve now accrued a long list of posts about the monuments, both here on Archaeodeath and replicated on the Collaboratory website.

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It would be premature to reveal our precise itinerary, discussions and preliminary interpretations, but I want to publish this post as an important marker to celebrate a valuable between I had in the field (various fields actually) with Professor Keith Ray (Cardiff University), Ray Bailey, and other members of the St Asaph Archaeological Society.

What were we discussing? Well we were out looking in miserable snowy weather for possible traces of hitherto unrecorded linear earthworks in Flintshire. I felt like a Jon Snow of the Night’s Watch looking out from the Wall.

Did we find anything?

It’s too soon to say for sure. However, to whet your appetite, let me share these two images that do prompt me to question whether Ray, Keith and the ‘Collaboratory North’ team have indeed found traces of a monument long presumed to not exist….

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The CBA Wales Conference: “New Perspectives on the Dyke”, 30th March 2019, Offa’s Dyke Centre, Knighton

Last weekend, I was pleased and proud to represent the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory at the CBA Wales conference held at the Offa’s Dyke Centre, Knighton, Powys on the theme of ‘New Perspectives on the Dyke’.

The event served to celebrate three anniversaries, coinciding as it did with the 50th anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke Association, 75 years of the CBA and 45 years of the Welsh Archaeological Trusts. The range of fascinating talks revolved around the CBA Wales AGM and Business Meeting and showcased the flourishing interest in researching Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and related monuments and landscapes. I would like to thank Dr Cy Griffiths and those involved at the Centre in organising a fabulous day. I regret not being able to join delegates for an expert-led guided walk on the Sunday. The programme can be viewed here.

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The day opened with a welcome from Mike Greene (CBA Wales chair) and Dr Mike Heyworth (CBA Director), followed by an expert and in-depth review of the history of the Offa’s Dyke Association’s 50 years from its inception driven by local schoolmaster Frank Noble. Ian brought the story up to the present, including a review of the ODA’s conservation work and long-term support for the only information centre attached to a national trail. Ian then evaluated the ODA’s vision for the next 50 years by Dr Ian Dormer. Among other points, Ian highlighted the ODA’s support and contribution to the Offa’s Dyke Conservation Management Plan which has reported on the state of the Dyke, including the widespread threat of ‘benign neglect’, Ian also highlighted the ODA’s ongoing support and engagement with the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory which is fostering new research on the Dyke and its context.

digNext up, Ian Grant (CPAT) began by reviewing the C14 dates from the damaged section of Offa’s Dyke examined in 2014 at Plas Offa, Chirk, before reporting on the fabulous CPAT work in the summer of 2018, excavating Offa’s Dyke at Chirk and Wat’s Dyke at Erddig. Both these new interventions, each situated in places where the bank and ditch of the respective monuments were no longer visible, discovered not only the ditch but also slivers of the banks of each monument. The Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory visited the Chirk dig after the Oswestry conference in September ’18. Samples were taken for C14 and OSL dating at each location, offering a palpable opportunity, if funding can be secured, to enrich our knowledge of each monument’s dating and significance. Also notable is the fact that each dig uncovered earlier pits beneath the dykes, both containing cultural material.dig

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After lunch was a discussion led by former Denbighshire county archaeologist Fiona Gale and Dr Cy Griffiths, evaluating the relationships between the Dyke and the Path. Important issues were raised regarding how the Dyke is understood by walkers, and how the  Dyke is viewed from the Path. A host of further issues relating to heritage conservation, management and interpretation were explored.davdav

Next came a fascinating presentation by the Radnorshire Society’s Julian Ravest who has been producing high quality photographs and photogrammetric surveys using a drone, focusing on sections of Offa’s Dyke north and south of Knighton – Hawthorn Hill and Llanfair Hill.

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The day ended with a triple set of papers by myself and University of Chester doctoral researcher Liam Delaney (also the Herefordshire HER officer). Liam began by delivering a presentation outlining the rationale, methods and even some preliminary results from his doctoral research, including newly discovered, and further enhanced, understandings of Offa’s Dyke in Herefordshire, Radnorshire and Shropshire.

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I followed with a presentation of the comparative landscape dynamics of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in the northern section of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. I reaffirmed and extended previous discussions of the dykes’ similarities and differences in terms of placement and landscape context, focusing on their cumulative viewsheds, riverine relationships, and reuses of ancient monuments.

Finally, Liam and I presented an update on the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory’s academic publication that we are co-editing together: the Offa’s Dyke Journal. We were able to give the conference delegates a sneak-preview of the contents of the first volume: multiple ‘classics revisited’ papers, and also new original articles. More info on that one in future posts!sdr

Finally finally, I got to cheer up my old mate King Offa; he looked a bit down in the ditch.

Final finally finally, I got a new Offa’s Dyke t-shirt!

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The Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands Conference – 20th March 2019

Having previously posted about the Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands conference, I want to here report on its success.

The 4th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference was a superb event attended by 48 delegates. There were 8 student presentations exploring a range of aspects of frontiers and borderlands past and  present, delivered by between 1 and 3 students each. Furthermore, there were 3 excellent special guest lectures by Dr Penelope Foreman, Prof. Keith Ray and John G. Swogger. Details of the conference programme can be downloaded here: PAFB Programme. 

Meanwhile, I’ve created a Twitter Moment with images and responses to the day: The PAFB Conference Twitter Moment.

Marking and Commemorating Offa’s Dyke at Trefonen

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Up and down the length of Offa’s Dyke, Britain’s longest monument is communicated via different heritage signs, some raised by the Offa’s Dyke Path and Association, others by local initiative. There are also innumerable road-names and place-names alluding to the Dyke along its course. These, together with footpath signs where they coincide with the monument, constitute the present-day public ‘commemoration’ of this eighth-century monument.

I’ve addressed these ‘contemporary archaeology of heritage’ features before on this blog before, including:

I recently walked Offa’s Dyke near Trefonen and commented on the village’s industrial heritage sculptures.  

This gave me the opportunity to compile photographs of more material culture of the dyke relating to the path.

In addition to the signs, stiles and kissing  I witnessed three key additional initiatives to signs linked to Offa’s Dyke and the Offa’s Dyke Path.

First, I spotted a private house named in relation to Offa’s Dyke.

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Second, I witnessed the coincidence of the Dyke with conflict commemoration: a First World War centenary trail that runs, for s stretch, along the Dyke.

Third, I saw a local initiative by the Trefonen Rural Protection Group to explain the Dyke, including a faded but useful cross-section visual of the monument. Called ‘a view through time’, it takes the panorama visible from the Offa’s Dyke Path as it runs parallel, but west and uphill, of the Dyke.

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All these examples show the interleaving manners in which private individuals and local groups serve to mark and commemorate the Dyke and integrate the dyke into the heritage of the locality more broadly. These are good initiatives indeed, allowing the Dyke to join a rhizome of other stories of place and people over the longer term, from prehistory to the present.

Offa’s Dyke north of Pentrebychan Crematorium

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

In a previous post I addressed one aspect of this stretch of Offa’s Dyke: the fact that the Rhos branchline crosses and buries Britain’s longest monument.  Here I return to a stretch I discussed, between Cadwgan Hall (to the north) and Pentrebychan Hall (now the crematorium, to the south), in Wrexham. Here, the Dyke’s bank is striking and large at multiple locations, but there are minor breaks, the interruption by the 19th-century Rhos branch line, and the Dyke is cut by the Bronwylfa Road. There is also destruction caused by farm entrances and the ditch is badly damaged. It crosses undulating ground here, following a relatively subtle contour with short views downslop to the west.

There are three sections of note here, which Sir Cyril Fox (1955: 49) only very briefly addresses. Subsequent studies have afforded no specific attention to this part of the Dyke in any regard. Despite this, I would suggest they are a useful stretch to consider, since the Dyke here is navigating relatively easy terrain: neither following a significant hill or ridge, nor a valley. In this relatively ‘easy’ country, one can still gain a full sense of how the monument was carefully positioned to take advantage of the topography and command modest but sustained views westwards.

First, and southernmost, the footpath of the Offa’s Dyke path follows the ditch, allowing an appreciation of the sizeable bank covered with mature trees.

Second, north of the Bronwylfa Road the Dyke is within a field boundary. Fox regards as ‘very fine and with a steep scarp’ in at least one place, presumably referring to the bank, since the ditch is nearly gone, apart from a field ditch re-cutting its line. As it approaches the railway embankment, it is severely denuded and briefly lost at a field gate.

Finally, north of the railway embankment, again the Dyke survives in a field boundary. This section enjoys open views westwards approaching Cadwgan Hall. The Dyke is impressive indeed and topped by trees, even if the ditch has nearly completely gone. Again, it is broken by field gates.

Park at the crematorium, and this is a really smart short walk to see Offa’s Dyke with Wrexham County Borough Council public footpath signs to mark the route. It is an example of important stretches of Offa’s Dyke that lie beyond the National Trail’s route, which departs from the line of the Dyke north of the River Dee.

Reference

Fox, C. 1955. Offa’s Dyke. London: British Academy.