Chapter 9 – Dykes, Ditches and Earthworks

Book Extract……………………………..

The modern word dike or dyke most likely derives from the Dutch word “dijk”, with the construction of dikes in the Netherlands well attested as early as the 12th century. The 126 kilometres (78 mi) long Westfriese Omringdijk was completed by 1250 and was formed by connecting existing older dikes. The Roman chronicler Tacitus even mentions that the rebellious Batavi pierced dikes to flood their land and to protect their retreat (AD 70).  The word dijk originally indicated both the trench and the bank.

If you study archaeology at university or even on an ordinance survey map at length, you will notice strange earthworks on the sides of hills of Britain, with no rational explanation to why they are there and for what reason.  At university, these features are mostly ignored, or an excuse is made for their construction.  The reality is that these features do not make any sense unless there are other factors in operation, which have been ignored.

The first thing to notice is that the word ‘Dyke’ is associated with water.  It does seem strange you would call an earthwork on top of a hill a Dyke, unless there was some history passed down through the years to its real use.  If we look at the most famous Dyke in Britain ‘Offa’, we notice that it is attributed to a Saxon King and therefore could not be prehistoric.   Or is this a clear indication of how archaeologists find excuses for these features rather than true empirical evidence?

“Offa’s Dyke (Welsh: Clawdd Offa) is a massive linear earthwork, roughly followed by some of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet (19.8 m) wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet (2.4 m) in height.  In the 8th century it formed some kind of delineation between the Anglian kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys.”

At face value, this explanation seems to answer all the questions about this dyke – except the water connection.  But if you delve further down to look at the evidence such as findings from the dyke and any written history you get a different version, for the Roman historian Eutropius in his book, Historiae Romanae Breviarium, written around 369 AD, mentions the Wall of Severus, a structure built by

Figure 97– Offa’s Dyke (Red) – note that it is only complete if you connect the existing rivers to the ditches

Septimius Severus who was Roman Emperor between 193 AD and 211 AD:

“He had his most recent war in Britain, and to fortify the conquered provinces with all security, he built a wall for 133 miles from sea to sea. He died at York, a reasonably old man, in the sixteenth year and third month of his reign.”

So, the Romans built the dyke 700 years before Offa, or did they?  For they are now finding Neolithic flints inside the ditches of dykes – so how did they get there?

As we have shown on our case study on Old Sarum, the Roman are famous for taking existing features, such as ditches and adding a defensive bank for their own use as did the Normans who followed them so time later in history.  Offa’s Dyke has nothing to do with Offa, but this archaeological reality or misinterpretation is the key to why our history is not as we perceive.

But that is not enough to prove the higher groundwater levels in prehistory contributed to these strange earthworks, so let’s look at some in our study area where we have constructed detailed inflated river maps of Wiltshire in both the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods of history.

CASE STUDY – Wansdyke

According to Wikipedia Wansdyke consists of two sections of 14 and 19 kilometres (9 and 12 mi) long with some gaps in between. East Wansdyke is an impressive linear earthwork, consisting of a ditch and bank running approximately east-west, between Savernake Forest and Morgan’s Hill. West Wansdyke is also a linear earthwork, running from Monkton Combe south of Bath to Maes Knoll south of Bristol, but less impressive than its eastern counterpart. The middle section, 22 kilometres (14 mi) long, is sometimes referred to as ‘Mid Wansdyke’, but is formed by the remains of the London to Bath Roman road. It used to be thought that these sections were all part of one continuous undertaking, especially during the Middle Ages when the pagan name Wansdyke was applied to all three parts.

East Wansdyke in Wiltshire, on the south of the Marlborough Downs, has been less disturbed by later agriculture and building and remains more clearly traceable on the ground than the western part. Here the bank is up to 4 m (13 ft) high with a ditch up to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) deep. Wansdyke’s origins are unclear, but archaeological data shows that the eastern part was probably built during the 5th or 6th century. That is after the withdrawal of the Romans and before the takeover by Anglo-Saxons. The ditch is on the north side, so presumably it was used by the British as a defence against West Saxons encroaching from the upper Thames Valley westward into what is now the West Country.

West Wansdyke, although the antiquarians like John Collinson considered West Wansdyke to stretch from south east of Bath to the west of Maes Knoll, a review in 1960 considered that there was no evidence of its existence to the west of Maes Knoll.   Keith Gardner refuted this with newly discovered documentary evidence.  In 2007 a series of sections were dug across the earthwork which showed that it had existed where there are no longer visible surface remains.

Figure 98– Map comparing Wansdyke (green) to the Kennet and Avon canal

It was shown that the earthwork had a consistent design, with stone or timber revetment. There was little dating evidence, but it was consistent with either a late Roman or post-Roman date. A paper in “The Last of the Britons” conference in 2007 suggests that the West Wansdyke continues from Maes Knoll to the hill forts above the Avon Gorge and controls the crossings of the river at Saltford and Bristol as well as at Bath.

As there is little archaeological evidence to date the western Wansdyke, it may have marked a division between British Celtic kingdoms or have been a boundary with the Saxons. The evidence for its western extension is earthworks along the north side of Dundry Hill, its mention in a charter and a road name.

The area of the western Wansdyke became the border between the Romano-British Celts and the West Saxons following the Battle of Deorham in 577 AD.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the ‘Saxon’ Cenwalh achieved a breakthrough against the British Celtic tribes, with victories at Bradford on Avon (in the Avon Gap in the Wansdyke) in 652 AD,  and further south at the Battle of Peonnum (at Penselwood) in 658 AD,  followed by an advance west through the Polden Hills to the River Parrett.  It is however significant to note that the names of the early Wessex kings appear to have a Brythonic (British) rather than Germanic (Saxon) etymology.

I thought I should give you all the ‘considered’ opinions of this dyke, just to show how confused and inaccurate our history books are today.

There have sadly been very few excavations, or thorough investigations of these dykes (remembering there are over 1000 dykes in Britain), one of the earliest excavations was overseen by Lieutenant – General Pitt Rivers, who excavated Wansdyke at Shepherd’s Shore, Devizes.

Although most of the findings and accounts lack scientific accuracy, we find some aspects that support the dating of dykes earlier than current ‘expert’ theories of Saxon Britain.  In one of his cuttings through the ditch and bank he noted that “At Wand’s house, there is a break in the line of the Dyke, which is occupied by the site of the Roman station of Verlucio, where quantities of Roman pottery are scattered on the soil”.

Pitt-Rivers also found vast amounts of pottery and iron nails in the bank of Wansdyke further down the earthwork.  Isn’t it more likely, that the Romans placed their settlement actually on the Dyke as it may have still held water two thousand years ago and looking at the positions of the findings, actually cleaned it out, which would allow them to take and receive supplies by boat to and from the river Kennet? Moreover, he noticed that in Section 5 Stockley to Heddington and by the Roman settlement in Spye Park – the river was still running inside the Dyke!

In fact within his excavation of the dyke we noted that: “Very little ‘silting’ had accumulated on the escarp, but in the ditch, it had collected to a depth of about 3 feet in the centre” – showing that the main purpose for the dyke was to take water like a canal.

Figure 99– Stukeley’s Map of 1724 showing the Roman road ‘sitting on top’ of the Wansdyke ditch

The final proof of the fact that the Dykes predate the Roman invasion can be found strangely with empirical evidence from a drawing produced by the first British archaeologist William Stukeley in 1724.  Where the Roman road is clearly made on and above the Wansdyke ditch and then cutting through the dyke’s bank – this is impossible to do if the bank and ditch was built AFTER the road (archaeologist and historians, please take note!!).

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