Talk by Keith Ray March 15th 2017 Offa’s Dyke and the Western Frontier of Mercia 760-840 AD,

Keith Ray, formerly chief archaeologist for Herefordshire, gave us an overview of the researches done in previous times on Offa’s Dyke. He recalled Sir Cyril Fox who studied it between 1926 and 1931, pioneering landscape archaeology. He understood the need to excavate deep trenches, how the Dyke moves through the landscape, and to understand it in relation to other features around. He realised it was definitely post-Roman because there were remnants of a Roman villa found beneath. What he didn’t recognise was the value of aerial photographs.

Subsequently, there were two major studies. Noble established the Offa’s Dyke Association and gave more description. Hill and Worthington suggested that Wat’s Dyke (an earthwork to the north and roughly parallel to Offa’s) extended further south than had been thought and that the dykes were connected with blocking the Kingdom of Powys. New technologies now date Wat’s Dyke as early 9th century so later than Offa’s. Keith Ray, who has spent a decade studying the Dyke, said it was important not to conflate it with a frontier, but a ‘device of hegemony.’

He pointed out that Bishop Asser in his ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ spoke of Offa and a ditch in Alfred’s time, as did Gerald of Wales confirming its historicity.

His own researches have shown that Offa’s Dyke gives visibility towards the west whilst keeping a constant distance from the river Severn. It maintains a specific alignment which is not always on the hilltops but is constructed by expert Anglo-Saxon fort engineers in individual lengths which adjust direction to always maintain a view of the valley, and so that it looks larger when seen from the valley. Where there are apparent errors this is actually a gap which is a sophisticated control, a customs point.

A ‘march’ is an area of ill-defined control, so The Marches were a buffer zone between Mercia and Wales. The Dyke enabled Mercian armies to go in and out of Wales, and The Marches an area where trade could occur. An approaching trader would be warned by a sentry on the dyke not to evade the customs point. It is likely that Offa was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall as it uses the same features.

The movement of goods was taxed between England and Wales and there would have been a customs point in Knighton, one of nineteen different toll locations. Leintwardine is significant as it is at the crossroads of the Teme and the main highway from Wales. It wasn’t cattle that were taxed, as has been assumed, but minerals such as gold and lead. The Domesday Hundreds say that the Leintwardine road was a key boundary, and that the Sheriff had to provide twenty-four horses for the king to visit Shrewsbury. This might be a responsibility established in the Roman period, and was perhaps a mounted bodyguard. Keith was convinced that the circular lines around the village, especially visible in aerial photographs, are significant. This is underscored by the name – Leintwardine – in which the ‘wardine’ part is the same as in ‘warden’ (The Wardens, Middle Wardens etc) meaning ‘enclosure’. The church is at the centre of this enclosure.

In response to questions, we learned that the Teme may have been crossed by a causeway across the flood plain, that the dyke often would have had surfaces of freshly quarried limestone, which would have whitened the bank and enhanced its visibility and dominance. Also very few coins have been found here because it was not at the time of building a monetary economy. He also proposed that Wat’s Dyke might be where the two Watling Streets (our own and that traversing the country from SE to NW) meet. The meeting concluded with an opportunity to buy Keith Ray’s book, ‘Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eight Century Britain.’




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