Offa’s Dyke – The Past in its Place?

This is a reblog from Prof. Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath site.

Offa’s Dyke is sixth century, not eighth century?

I rarely post responses to breaking archaeological news, and at first glance this news does not relate to the archaeology of death and memory. However, this morning’s news comes from Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and relates to new discoveries regarding a national monument: new radiocarbon dates from Offa’s Dyke. The dates seemingly come from a reliable context: re-deposited turf from underneath the bank. You can read the first press release here and the BBC story here. It is relevant to the Past in its Place project because Offa’s Dyke delineates the eastern end of the Vale of Llangollen study area for Strand 3 of the project.

I aim to show why this has implications not only for understanding the political and military development of Mercia and its Welsh rivals, but also the literary and memory culture of the Welsh border in the Early Middle Ages. Death and memory comes in because these results, if correct, have knock-on implications for understanding the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context.

These results come from emergency excavations following the shameful destruction of part of the dyke near Chirk last summer.

Of course, the usual provisos apply: this is only one section of the monument, the radiocarbon dates have yet to be published, and there are inevitable problems in dating any earthwork based on the material it covered over. Still, these results are extremely important: the first to be obtained from the monument despite decades of digging.

The key results published in the press release are that the part of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk might date to the late sixth century, not the late eighth century.

The Rise of Mercia and the Construction of Earthworks

CPAT’s press release challenges convention and that is always fun. This is true not only for our understanding linear earthwork building as a military and political practice in the Early Middle Ages but also our understanding of the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and its relationship with both British and Anglo-Saxon rivals. It also runs counter to a trend: the shorter and more modestly built Wat’s Dyke is now thought to date later than Offa’s Dyke to the early ninth century. If correct, the radiocarbon dates might suggest that the entire earthwork is a late sixth-century construction: a time when Mercia was only coming into the light of history as an aggressive, expansionist military force and political entity in the West Midlands (and so was Mercia the group building the sixth-century dyke? Or, perhaps more likely (and hinted at in the press release), the results open up the possibility that while ‘Offa’s Dyke’ was indeed late eighth century, it had a more complex history of evolution over the two centuries prior to Offa’s reign.

Early Medieval Literary Culture and Memory

Furthermore, these results also have the ramifications for our understanding of the literary and memory culture of the Early Middle Ages , because until now the only real dating evidence for the earthwork has been the ninth-century Life of Alfred the Great by the Welsh monk Asser, ascribing the earthwork to King Offa  who reigned from Chester to London between AD 757-796:

There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea (translation by Keynes and Lapidge 1983: 71).

So was Asser wrong? Was he simplifying a complex situation? Or are we simply expecting too much from Asser who was lifting from Gildas anyway? Was Offa really nothing to do with the dyke, or was he simply  the last king of Mercia to extend and effectively use a pre-existing earthwork, making it thus effectively ‘his’? Was Offa simply the best and meanest Mercia king in memory, and perhaps the one with the right ancestral name from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, worthy of association with this earthwork in the context of the later ninth century? Indeed, is Asser recalling a tradition of earthwork-building from the Migration Period Continental Offa – a mythological attribution to a famed earthwork – rather than evidence of the historical deeds of the eighth-century Offa in any case?

The Vale of Llangollen as a Landscape of Contestation

Regardless of whether Asser was wrong or has simply been misunderstood by generations of historians and archaeologists, and regardless of whether the radiocarbon dates apply to the construction of the whole dyke or just the segment near Chirk, there is no question that these results promise to have implications for understanding the Vale of Llangollen in the Early Middle Ages.

For me, this is important because of my on-going collaborative work, as part of Project Eliseg, investigating the early ninth-century monument known as the Pillar of Eliseg, supposedly set up to honour the king of Powys who was a contemporary of Offa: Eliseg.  I have recently discussed the Pillar of Eliseg and its landscape context as part of my other ongoing project: the Past in its Place. If these results are correct, they remind us that this territory was a landscape of contestation far earlier than was previously realised.

It will be interesting to learn how archaeologists and historians respond to this news…