The Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory: Origins, Purpose and Parameters – Keith Ray

These notes have been prepared to accompany a brief prefatory talk at the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory Workshop held at The University Centre, Shrewsbury, on Friday 28th April 2017.


The present initiative to promote new research and field investigation into the Mercian-British frontier (broadly) between the Dee and the Severn estuaries in the borderlands of England with Wales was first developed in a series of discussions and meetings held during the 18 months preceding publication of the volume Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain (Ray and Bapty, Windgather, 2016).

That book reviewed past and current study of Offa’s Dyke and the western frontier of Mercia, made new field-based observations, and promoted several new approaches and interpretations. It suggested how the Dyke may have reflected, and helped create, a new ‘political landscape’ in late-eighth and early-ninth century Britain, extending well beyond the line of settlement and contact along what became the eastern Marches of Wales. But above all, the book sought to encourage a new era of research in a wider process of ‘connection’ between researchers and communities in the stretches of landscape concerned.

The five ODC Convenors represent a small cross-section of research and conservation interests in the Dyke, including the director (‘Secretary’) of the  national survey and documentation body for Wales; the Director of one of the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts with a conservation and investigative brief, and through whose ‘home territory’ lengths of the Dyke run; an Early Medieval Britain research specialist and senior academic based in a University whose home city, Chester, was integral to the history of Anglo-Welsh relations historically; the Principal Officer of an AONB whose territory straddles England and Wales and contains one of the most spectacular stretches of Dyke anywhere; and to the lead author of the first detailed modern book-length review of the evidence and context for Offa’s Dyke.


The idea of a ‘Collaboratory’ focused around a key theme or interrelated set of themes is that a loose confederation of organisations, agencies and individuals will agree to collaborate together, working both independently and in concert[1].The key point about this network is that it is envisaged as involving an active collaboration, on research goals, programmes, and projects. This collaborative network should involve experiment at all stages, including, but extending beyond, ‘tried and tested’, approaches. Innovation is a watchword of a purposefully collaborative researcher, at all scales of operation.

In the present case the proposal is to conduct research work and projects focused upon Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke, and the early history and archaeology of the Marches of Wales, broadly, but not exclusively, in the period c.700–900AD, and the conservation of monuments belonging to that era (to include studies of and protection of the landscape environs). Such projects and programmes would be conceived and conducted as independent activities, but developed and operated in such a way as to maximise the benefits of co-operation. The two documents concerning ‘Offa’s Dyke in 100 Questions’ and in ‘100 Projects’ issued in tandem with this Workshop are offered in the spirit of such collaboration: not to close down discussion, but to open up space for reflection, debate and creativity, and to demonstrate something of the potential of a collaborative approach.

It is proposed that the projects and programmes concerned should have as their primary aims either academic research and/or investigative and/or documentation goals on the one hand, or conservation and/or communicative objectives on the other hand. This is not to say (for instance) that conservation should not be a natural concomitant of research, or vice-versa, or that communication would not be an important corollary to the process and results of academic/investigative/ documentation work. The benefits of this approach are, the Conveners of the ODC believe, manifold, but it may be helpful to highlight some of these here.

Firstly, given the geographical extent and variable condition of Offa’s Dyke (and related monuments and the Marches landscapes), it is very unlikely that a single project or conservation programme will be able to tackle all the manifold questions and practical issues facing the future improved understanding and survival potential of these important ‘heritage assets’. It therefore makes sense to try to tackle these questions and issues from a variety of different directions, with geographical focus both at a local and at a ‘global’ level.

A second immediate benefit is that it creates a ‘big tent’ in which organisations and individuals with different kinds of expertise and different levels and nature of interest can be drawn in as key stakeholders.

The third and fourth identifiable benefits concern autonomy and risk. As regards the former, each participating organisation can play to their strengths and focus primarily on the aspect(s) of the questions and issues that most directly satisfy their interests, goals, aspirations and imperatives. For the latter, the overall purposes, to improve knowledge production and conservation outcomes, will be less dependent upon the achievement of funding by any one project or organisation. And a fifth benefit is that similar problems of study and conservation will be approached from different ‘angles’ and perspectives, and at a variety of different scales of effort, resources, and geographic scope.

A key question to be answered will be how all the various efforts, projects and programmes will collaborate, and be made aware of what one another are doing, and when. This will require one of the participating organisations to take a lead role in co-ordinating efforts to some degree, but mostly in establishing a sustainable network supported by the usual digital resources.[2]


The ODC parameters for consideration today concern the protocols for involvement in the ODC, the scope of activity, the definition, development and execution of projects, and frameworks for dissemination (communication and publication). Each of these parameters (or groups of parameters) requires some discussion.

Protocols for the ODC and involvement in its operation

The Convenors are aware that, until now (apart from the introductory explanations provided on the ODC website that not all the Workshop participants may yet have accessed) there has not been any full explanation for the rationale for establishing the Collaboratory, let alone an outline of how it is proposed that it should operate.

The intention is that the ODC should work, at the level of communication, fundamentally as a network; but that its scope and activities should extend well beyond this. The baseline element of the ‘communication strategy’ will be the ODC website itself, and it is proposed that initially at least, this is hosted and administered by staff of the University of Chester.

Although editorial control will therefore be exercised by members of the Department of History and Archaeology (and associated Centres), the aim will be to operate the website, and the Collaboratory itself, on the basis of being openly accessible to all. Basically, the concern of the Convenors   is to encourage people to participate actively in the Collaboratory by posting comments and creating blogspots, and by asking the administrators to upload items news, comment and documents that the members and correspondents would like to contribute to the forum.

Scope of activity

Besides facilitating and hosting communication between those interested in researching the dykes and the frontier, the role of the Collaboratory is envisaged to extend to such matters as acting as a forum also for the development of project initiatives from a variety of quarters. The aim is not to either direct or to inhibit such initiatives, but to act in an advisory capacity, helping to develop ideas, provide critical commentary where sought, to promote collaboration, and to avoid where possible duplications of effort. The ODC should act also as a point of contact and guidance concerning the frontier heritage and its monuments in addition to those conservation and information services already widely available.

Development and execution of projects

This is where it is envisaged that the most active collaborative operation of the ODC should take place. As such, while encouraging diversity of perspective and approach, and the development of projects with contrasting immediate goals and purposes, it should also attempt to operate as a research collective. By the latter is meant the cultivation of an ethos of shared endeavour, and the deliberate constructive involvement of individuals in an advisory way in projects that they are not formally part of, and may have no wish to directly participate in.

A key concern will inevitably be around the question of funding, and the dangers posed by numbers of projects chasing what are essentially the same ‘pots’ of money to achieve their aims and objectives. Some protocols for agreeing priorities may therefore need to be developed.

Frameworks for dissemination

Besides posting material on the ODC website, it would be envisaged that communication and dissemination of research should take place through direct contact and face-to-face discussion organised in and through seminars, workshops, public conferences, and colloquia.

Whether the ODC should have a dedicated Newsletter is a matter for discussion. The intention will be, however, to provide a vehicle for the publication of the outcomes of meetings and a locus for the generation of research papers and statements published elsewhere. Part of the process of publicising the aims and activity of the ODC will, we envisage, involve preparing and publishing papers that provide a ‘window’ on those things. So, for example, initial statements are envisaged as being produced by the present Convenors, and in the near future by others.


Today’s ‘workshop’

A key parameter for the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory is, therefore, the process of communication and operation of the networking aspect. Howard Williams and his colleagues at Chester have promoted two initiatory elements of this aspect, by, firstly, establishing the ODC website; and secondly, by organising this workshop today.

The ambition for today is, therefore, that it should be a ‘round-table’ meeting where all the organisations and individuals with whom individual discussions have already taken place are brought together to report on particular aspects of research and conservation concerning the frontier; to discuss the establishment of the Collaboratory; and to explore the potential content and purpose of contributing projects and programmes. Future aims will include the identification of which organisations will be pursuing which individual projects, and their associated funding bids; and what steps need to be taken to broaden the scope of the Collaboratory to include local heritage groups and interested individuals in a wider programme of activities.

There are, in this way two principal particular aims of the Workshop:

  • To bring together historians, archaeologists and (broadly) conservation professionals with an active interest in the Dykes and ‘frontier’ to share information and discuss ongoing research and other initiatives


  • To identify in both broad and specific terms possible future developments in research, but also to some extent also in conservation, in particular for the linear earthworks


We need, finally, to consider briefly what will constitute ‘success’ arising from the Workshop. This is difficult to define closely, but the presence of such a broad spectrum of individuals attending today (and thereby representing the institutions they are one form or another linked to) is encouraging. The rest will be down to the quality of our deliberations, the extent to which we can encourage others to become involved in the process, and the degree to which we are successful in following the discussions up with viable research and funding proposals for projects to be undertaken in the short to medium term designed to expand our knowledge and understanding of these works and the world that produced them.

  1. The term ‘Collaboratory’ for such an active and engaged network is in wide currency, especially in the USA/Canada and in continental Europe:


“A Collaboratory is more than an elaborate collection of information and communication technologies. It is a new networked organisational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreements on norms, principles, values and rules” (Derrick Cogburn, 2003; quoted in Paolo Divaccio et al Collaborative Knowledge in Scientific Research Networks: ICI Global, 2014). See also multiple reference to Collaboratory principles and practice in: William H. Dutton, Paul W. Jeffreys and Ian Goldin  World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities (MIT, 2010).

[2] The word “collaboratory” is also used to describe an open space, creative process where a group of people work together to generate solutions to complex problems. This meaning of the word originates from the visioning work of a large group of people – including scholars, artists, consultant, students, activists, and other professionals – who worked together on the 50+20 initiative aiming at transforming management education.

By fusing two elements, “collaboration” and “laboratory”, the word “collaboratory” suggests the construction of a space where people explore collaborative innovations. It is, as defined by Dr. Katrin Muff, “an open space for all stakeholders where action learning and action research join forces, and students, educators, and researchers work with members of all facets of society to address current dilemmas.”

The concept of the collaboratory as a creative group process and its application are further developed in the book “The Collaboratory: A co-creative stakeholder engagement process for solving complex problems”. Examples of collaboratory events are provided on the website of the Collaboratory community as well as by Business School Lausanne- a Swiss business school that has adopted the collaboratory method to harness collective intelligence.

Keith Ray                                                                 April 2017