Field Trips in Snowy Wales

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The Pillar of Eliseg, being the remains of an inscribed 9th century cross, sitting on a barrow of probable Early Bronze Age date.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday with Howard and his students on field trips into north-east Wales and back across the border into Cheshire and Shropshire. I got to see the area under highly unusual circumstances: covered in snow and lit by an unclouded sun. Beautiful! We’ve seen the early church site of Shotwick, the Cistercian abbey ruins of Basingwerk and Valle Crucis, the hillfort of Oswestry, the Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke defensive walls and the stone crosses of Maen Achwyfan and Eliseg, the latter sitting on a barrow beneath a forbidding mountainside. Not far from the barrow, Howard and I had a good pub lunch and finished it up with Spotted Dick in a custard lake.

After the Tuesday field trip I walked along the top of Chester’s Medieval walls, saw the police prepare to fish a dead person out of one of the canal locks just outside, and studied the exhibits in the Grosvenor Museum. On Wednesday evening, I gave a talk on my Östergötland project to the department’s faculty and students, and nobody fell asleep!

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The ruins of Basingwerk Cistercian abbey.

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The southern transept of the abbey church at Basingwerk.

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The sculpted ring cross of Maen Achwyfan.

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Wat’s Dyke, a 9th century defensive wall, where it joins the Oswestry Iron Age hillfort from the north.

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Standing in the moat on the Welsh side, Dr. Howard Williams prepares to storm Offa’s Dyke, an 8th century defensive wall, thus finally letting go of any lingering loyalty to his English roots.

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Snowmelt dripping off a sagging wall at the Cistercian abbey ruin of Valle Crucis.

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View from the road to the Horseshoe Pass.

Comments

  1. #1 Sam C
    February 5, 2009

    Pedantry from a local: Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dykes would not usually be called walls; they’re earth dykes (linear mounds of earth) and associated ditches.

    As for them being defensive – that’s rather lax talk from an archaeologist! I don’t think there is any hard evidence of their purpose, especially not of Wat’s Dyke.

    Offa’s Dyke is far more likely to be an aggressive statement, one of “Hear me! I am Offa! I rule!” rather than “oh dear, I hope we can keep those annoying Welshmen out of our area”. A statement of conspicuous consumption, like parking the Rolls on the drive.

    The most plausible story I have heard for Offa’s Dyke suggested that it was put where it was precisely because relations between the then-powerful Mercians were not afraid of reprisals that they could not handle from the Welsh groups to the west, so they thought they could build it with impunity. The Mercians might not have been afraid either because the relations were friendly, or the Welsh might have been too weak at the time. I’m inclined to the second idea – the placing of the dyke does not look like an agreed line, it is always placed as if defending Mercia and controlling Wales.

    A large defensive boundary would have been much use to the Mercians on their northern borders with Northumbria, but Northumbria was powerful then, and if the Mercians had started building dykes, there might have been a very nasty conflict which would not have been in the Mercians’ interest. No point in picking a fight that you might lose, better to insult the seven stone weakling.

    Why the dyke? Perhaps Offa was harking back to his namesake, Offa of Angeln?

  2. #2 DianaGainer
    February 5, 2009

    Being more of a linguist than I am an archeologist, I’m more interested in Offa’s name than his dyke. What sort of a name is Offa anyway? Is it related to Welsh “ofer,” meaning vain, idle, dissipated, waste? That’s not very promising for a leader. Or was he trying to intimidate his neighbors by calling himself Mr. Dreadful, from “ofn” meaning fear and dread? Or could his name have been very plain and ordinary and derived from something more akin to “ofer,” meaning implements and tools? Any thoughts on that subject?

  3. #3 Sam C
    February 5, 2009

    Sorry, Diana, but your suggestion is worse than ridiculous. Why on earth would Offa’s mum and dad name him after a foreign (to them) word for vanity (vanity?! not “great” or “wise” or “bear” or something positive or macho!) or a non-specific tool and then get the pronunication wrong? If you’re a linguist, you should know that in Welsh the “f” in “ofer” and “ofn” is a /v/ sound, not an /f/ (which is written “ff”). Without the “e” and “r” or the “n” you have agreement on one letter – not really strong evidence!
    ;-) But perhaps Offa was a pet name and his full name was Offthalmasgob? :-(

    What would you think of a suggestion that your name comes from the Greek “dia” meaning “two” and the Hindi word “anna” for a small coin, so your name means two small coins?

    On the other hand, it’s entirely plausible that Mr and Mrs Offa named their child after a famous and successful regal ancestor (or putative ancestor) or that they just liked that Anglo-Saxon name. Anglo-Saxons cared about pedigree and inheritance.

    In general, the Mercians and other Anglo-Saxons never used Welsh names as far as I know.

    While it is difficult to know how much intermixing and communication there was between Welsh and English communities in the 8th/9th centuries, it is a fact that the Celtic place names in England pretty much disappeared as the Anglo-Saxons moved westwards to be replaced by Anglo-Saxon names (the -tons, -bys, -burys, etc.). Look at the map of Shropshire and you will see very few Welsh names on the English side of the border, and most of those are recent re-introductions rather than long term survivals (such as Llanfair Waterdine and Cefn Einion). In fact, modern English has relatively few imports from Celtic languages.

    The evidence suggests that the Mercians didn’t really care much about the Welsh. Offa was corresponding with the ultra-powerful Charlemagne on continental Europe and trying to marry his daughter off there, he had bigger fish to fry than bothering with Welsh princes.

  4. #4 Howard Williams
    February 5, 2009

    Great to see you on your visit Martin and for your Swedish perspective on our landscape and archaeology here in the Welsh borders.

    Sam C is right that Offa’s and Wat’s dykes are not normally called ‘walls’, but that is in essence what they are. It is worth noting that Hadrian’s Wall is for large stretches a linear earthwork but it remains referred to as a ‘wall’ in common useage.

    I am not an expert on the current debates, but it was my understanding that early medieval linear earthworks/dykes/walls can operate as both defensive and offensive structures. Martin’s Swedish perspective has made me think very hard about whether the actual line itself was intended to define a boundary of a kingdom, its sphere of influence or zone of direct control at all. Were there position more about the most feasible topographical location to impede the movements of armies?

    I agree regarding the power and prestige that Offa hoped his creation would afford, but I am a little unsure about dismissing the military effiacy of the Welsh in the 8th century. The Mercian/Gwynedd alliance was very successful in the mid 7th century and the Welsh treachery at Winwaed quite successfully destroyed the hegemony of the last great pagan king of Mercia (Penda). I am not at all sure of the evidence that shows that Mercia was so secure in its Welsh frontier that it thought it worthwhile to create a dyke purely to show off to far weaker rivals and without fear of attack. Perhaps the Welsh kingdoms would not face a Mercian army in pitched battle in the 8th century, but most early medieval warfare before and during the Viking period was about raiding not about kingdoms going to war.

  5. #5 Jonathan Jarrett
    February 6, 2009

    I once—er,2003, now I look it up—saw a paper given by Martha Worthington which pointed out that the ends of the Dyke don’t reach the coast. She said, I paraphrase, we’ve looked and looked round the ends, there’s no more, we would have found something if there were; that means it actually only covers the border with Powys. She then linked it to a war with Powys in the early part of Offa’s reign which would imply an even shorter time of construction before it became irrelevant. And even then its function must have been essentially the conspicuous display of power, kind of like Sam C says in first comment. I don’t know if the literature has disproved all this or moved on over it but it stays with me.

  6. #6 Maggie
    April 22, 2009

    Does anybody know, or have any ideas about, how the Pillar of Eliseg might relate to Mercia, in particular Offa’s Dyke? Might it have been the inhabitants of 9th century Powys who knocked the top off it, or did they accept it?

    I am studying the collection of round-shafted Mercian crosses of East Cheshire and the Peak District, with outliers in Cumbria, Cornwall, Wales (Pillar of Eliseg) and apparently a few in Yorkshire. There has to be a link between all these crosses, as style-wise they are so unique, and obviously of a different tradition from the carved rectangular Anglo-Saxon crosses which they seem to live amongst quite happily.

    Any comments or thoughts would be most welcome.

    Maggie K