Tag Archives: memory

Harold’s Stones, Trellech

This isn’t precisely about Offa’s Dyke, but it is some of Howard’s musings about a site not far west of the Dyke, reposted and adapted from Archaeodeath.

I want to bring things down a key with this next post. I focus on the archaeology and folklore of an archaeological site I visited when in South-East Wales last year: Harold’s Stones, Trellech, Monmouthshire.

DSC03026These three megalithic stones stand in a line south-west of medieval and modern settlement of Trelech, just east of a stream and close to springs. This rare stone arrangement is intriguing and evocative: I’ve only previously addressed anprehistoric standing stone alignment once before for the much-larger and widely spaced Devil’s Arrows. The Trelech stones tip at different angles on a gradual hillside, the middle and north tip slightly westwards, while the tallest and southernmost has a striking lean eastwards. Indeed, Elizabeth Whittle (1992) described their collective impression as being ‘drunken’.

DSC03021The stones are set on a NE-SW alignment. Each stone is over 2m tall: with the largest to the south. They are each comprised of conglomerate puddingstone.

DSC03017The central stone might have been shaped by human hand, and has two cup marks on its south side.


Coflein tells me that geophysical survey around the stone revealed traces of medieval or later structures and a c. 40m diameter subrectangular ditched enclosure (presumably undated). Further images can be found on the Megalithic Portal.


So these are prehistoric standing stones, presumably of late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date, and perhaps part of a longer alignment and other monuments, now lost. I recognise the standard later association with the Devil in folklore: namely that they were thrown from the Sugar Loaf mountain by Jack o-Kent – a giant, when playing pitch and toss with the Devil. Such satanic associations tend to be of early modern in origins.

DSC03006Naming: Why Harold?

Yet there seems to have been more to these stones in the medieval mind than devilish connections. The place-name ‘Trelech’ means the ‘settlement/village of the stones’. This suggests that the vicinity was defined by these prominent triad of megaliths that acquired the roles of prominent landmarks and perhaps also the association with rich now-lost fables.

Why Harold’s stones? Before getting one in the eye, Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex and then Hereford too, defeated Gruffyd ap Llywyelyn in 1063 and thus continued his rise to power as a war leader. At some unknown point, these three stones could have been ascribed to Harold’s victories in battle, and more specifically, that each stone commemorates a chieftain slain/defeated in battle by Harold. I’m still intrigued by the possible and specific association of the Trelech stones with the man to briefly become King of England and died at Hastings in 1066.

Now, there are 3 “Harold Stone” place-names in Pembrokeshire, each associated with a single megalith:

All are single isolated standing stones, two in coastal locations, the third not far from the sea. Given the far-west location of this cluster, their association with the victories of Harold over the Welsh in the 1060s doesn’t seem very likely. However, they might well be connected to the travels of Harold and his fame. The logic of this cluster might lie less in 11th-century events and more than the extensive settlement of Normans, Saxons and Flemings during the 12th/13th centuries. Could these groups have been prompted to attribute ancient stones in the west Welsh landscape with earlier invaders of famed reputation?

Might such an explanation work for Trelech? Certainly, but perhaps there’s more. The triad of stones at Trellech is more logically located in relation to sites of potential Saxon-Welsh conflict. Trelech is located just west of the Wye and thus the line of the eighth-century linear earthwork – Offa’s Dyke. Hence, the feasibility that this is the site of a battle, or became equated with a series of epic conflicts between the West Saxons and the Welsh, is persuasive. Moreover, using the Pillar of Eliseg as an analogy, perhaps the stones served as a regular assembly place before and after such conflicts. What is perhaps important from a Welsh perspective is that any memorials attributed to Harold would commemorate a powerful aggressor, but one who eventually met their doom in a cataclysmic fashion in the field. Such an association might have been more powerful than any positive megalithic attribution to a legendary Welsh ruler.DSC03002

I’m not saying that we can believe these stones marked an assembly site, a battle site or a burial site of early medieval date. However, I do propose that sometime in the 12th/13th centuries, they may well have become linked to a legacy of Harold’s impact on the Welsh landscape, and the deeds of his enemies, as much as to Harold himself. These stones might have thus served in discourses of resistance to the Saxons and Normans with this attribution, as much as ‘colonial’ monuments, in a complex and fluid Anglo-Welsh borderland.

Heritage dimensions

There is a metal Ministry of Works-style sign, but actually it is far more recent, dating from the Cadw era (1986, i.e. post-1984). It is just decidedly ‘retro’. DSC02997

A more modern yet faded heritage board by the gate. It speaks of the archaeology and the legendary associations.


A further heritage aspect is that the gate is itself commemorative: a threshold enforcing association between stones and heritage organisations.



In summary, this is a fascinating site and well worth a visit. The potential of early medieval activity of some sort at this location – assembly, battle, burial site – and thus inspiring the Harold attribute, remains a temptation. Whether so or not, the Harold association does suggest a now-lost specific story linked to Harold Godwinson and circulating in the area in the Anglo-Norman period.


Whittle, E. 1992. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales: Glamorgan and Gwent. Cardiff: Cadw.



Dykes through Time – Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks

At the 39th Theoretical Archaeology Group conference – 18th-20th December 2017 – I organised the second meeting of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory – a research network set up to foster new research on the early medieval linear earthworks of western Britain. Building on from a first and very successful workshop at Shrewsbury in April 2017, this second event aimed to draw together researchers interested in the biographies and landscape contexts of early medieval linear earthworks. This was a half-day session of an Introduction, 8 papers and a Discussion on the theme of Dykes through Time – Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks. 

Here’s the session abstract:

In stark contrast to Roman archaeology and despite their magnitude, linear earthworks have been marginalised in investigations of the Early Middle Ages (c. AD 400–1100). For example, among the 52 chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Hamerow, Hinton and Crawford (eds), OUP, 2011), Offa’s Dyke is mentioned only twice, Wat’s Dyke once, while other significance linear earthworks such as East Wansdyke receive no mention. Not only have early medieval settlement, burial and material culture studies side-lined linear earthworks in recent decades, dykes are even peripheral among most recent investigations of early medieval territorial organisation, warfare and landscape.
With only a few notable exceptions, this constitutes a collective ‘forgetting’ of early historic linear earthworks as foci for archaeological and interdisciplinary early medieval research. This situation is paradoxical given the long-term ambitions to conserve and manage linear earthworks and the heritage success which constitutes the incorporation of one into a high-profile National Trail since the 1970s: the Offa’s Dyke Path. This is also an eerie academic silence given the recent high-profile political debates on migrations, ethnicity, frontiers and nationhood (from Devolution to Indyref and Brexit) into which early medieval dykes have been repeatedly mobilised.

This session aims to foster new approaches and investigations of early medieval linear earthworks, theorising their significance in the past and the present. The focus in particular is upon the temporalities and materialities of early medieval linear earthworks as monuments operating to perform a series of complex space-time landscape dynamics. Incorporating new perspectives on historical, archaeological, literary and place-name evidence, the session invites contributions to address one or more of the following themes relating to linear earthworks as boundaries, components of frontier zones, and elements of broader political and cultural geographies in the Early Middle Ages:

  • dating dykes;
  • theorising beyond defence and display;
  • reinterpreting construction and materiality;
  • rethinking landscape contexts and dynamics;
  • evaluating life-histories from Prehistory to the present;
  • critiquing heritage conservation, management and interpretation;
  • uses and abuses in contemporary culture and politics.

I introduced proceedings with a brief statement regarding the theoretical vision and context of the Collaboratory and the session, and I chaired the 8 papers. Dr Keith Ray generously providing a Discussion and there was vibrant Q&A for the entire session at the end.

Many of the paper abstracts and slides from the talks can be found on the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory website here.

The session met all of the key aims of holding the second meeting at the closest the UK has to an open, inclusive national annual archaeology conference where archaeology students, heritage professionals and academics attend. The papers and discussions:

  • constituted the first-ever session dedicated to early medieval linear earthworks in the history of TAG, and perhaps the history of any major conference in the UK (I’m happy to be corrected on this point);
  • attracted a good audience bigger than the capacity of the room: with c. 50 people in attendance;
  • incorporated a wide range of researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, including both those who have published extensive on prehistoric and early historic linear earthworks and those who are just entering into this field from various perspectives;
  • contributed to all of the key points outlined in the session abstract, if in varying degrees and depths;
  • notably the session contributions can be divided into two areas:
    • a quartet of papers addressed new perspectives on linear earthworks in western Britain, offering long-term and/or comparative perspectives on Offa’s Dyke: Seaman, Leggatt, Fleming and Belford
    • another quartet explored invaluable case studies and comparative perspectives from elsewhere in Britain and the Continent: Bell, Mortimer, Tys and Rohl.

Inevitably, there were gaps and issues not addressed. The session theme was aimed to chime with the conference theme of ‘time’ by prompting speakers to not only think about how linear earthworks operated through time but how they constructed and manipulated senses and experiences of space, time and memory in a variety of fashions. In hindsight, this thrust was not made explicit in my session abstract although it was raised overtly in my Introduction and subsequently tackled directly in papers by Seaman, Tys and Rohl.

With the perspective of seeing the range of contributions to the Cardiff session combined with the Collaboratory workshop in Shrewsbury, the first two events of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory have set a firm comparative foundation for future research on Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and the short dykes of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands.

Note: Thanks to Mel Leggatt and Wulgar the Bard for permission to use one of Mel’s slides for this blog.