|Welcome to Wansdyke
Project 21, a unique web-based study which
focuses on the enigmatic, least-known Dark Ages
earthwork, known as Wansdyke. Edited by Robert M. Vermaat,
it features narrative histories, original source
documents and important texts, extensive
bibliographies, reading lists, informative
articles by guest writers, maps, polls and more.
Wansdyke Project 21 is part of Vortigern Studies,
which has the internet's most comprehensive
treatment of Britain's history from the end of
the Roman era to Arthurian times.
Vortigern Studies Index
.Wansdyke Project 21
is part of
- What was Wansdyke?
Most likely, Wansdyke was a defensive linear
earthwork. This means, generally speaking, a wall
to defend yourself, dug with a deep ditch in
front and the earth from that heapeded up behind
it. The 'linear' means that it streched over some
distance, not just blocking a road, but for miles
across the landscape. Later, during medieval
times, parts of Wansdyke were used as a road.
Most part of Wansdyke were not meant to be
defended, but as a clear boundary mark. It was
nothing like Hadrian's
Wall, nor should one expect a
palissaded wall here, nor strong forces guarding
it. Only where Wansdyke is crossed by roads does
the earthwork show that it was meant to block
these roads and control all passing traffic.
- When was Wansdyke built?
not sure. There have not been archaeological
finds that date Wansdyke securely. Also, the
first time we hear of it in historical sources is
when it is called "Old Dyke" (Ealden
Dic) in a charter of the 9th century.
Because the name was Anglo-Saxon (see
below), this meant it was some time older than
that first charter. The late sixth century was
usually taken as assumed construction date, which
would connect it to the early dynasty of Wessex.
However, it is increasingly becoming clear that
Wansdyke looks very similar to earthworks built
during Late Roman times (such as Bokerly Dyke),
which means it may date to the fifth century
- What was
Wansdykes original name?
know what Wansdyke was called by the builders.
The name "Wansdyke" means "Dyke of
Woden". Woden was an Anglo-Saxon god, and he
was also a god of boundaries, so it made much
sense when you see that Wansdyke still stretches
over two counties. Therefore, it was generally
assumed that Wansdyke was built by the
Anglo-Saxons, and during the period when these
were still pagans. However, there are parts of
Wansdyke that are by no means part of an
earthwork, but in fact a Roman road! Yet even
these parts were called Wansdyke by the
Anglo-Saxons, which may tell us that when these
Anglo-Saxons arrived, they had no idea what it
was or who built it, simply naming it after their
god of boundaries.
- Who built Wansdyke?
some earlier scholars thought that Wansdyke was
pre-Roman, later research clearly showed that it
was built during or after Roman times at the
earliest. As shown above, it is still difficult
to tell when it was built, and hence the name of
the creator will probably remain a mystery.
However, because I don't think that any Saxon
king responsible for this grand monument would
have been forgotten (hence we still speak of
'Offa's Dyke', after the initiator), I think that
we should look for a fifth century warlord. One
very good candidate could be Ambrosius
Aurelianus, whose fame was sung by the monk
Gildas in the early 6th century. Ambrosius may
have been a landowning magnate in the West
Country or on Salisbury Plain, and therefore
interested in a defensive line to the north. He
is connected to Vortigern in many ways and also
to the nearby fought battle of Wallop in
Hampshire (437 AD), also pointing to this
- Why was Wansdyke built?
From what we know today, Wansdyke follows the
southern border of the civitas of the Dobunni. As
it becomes ever more certain that its date of
construction is Late or sub-Roman period (400-500
AD) rather than early Anglo-Saxon period (500-750
AD), this becomes even more significant.
Apparently, this civitas or Roman county
became a political threat to the area to the
south, which later became the kingdom of
Dumnonia. In modern terms, these areas would be
roughly comparable with the areas of
Gloucestershire vs. that of the West Country.
From what scant information we have, this could
have taken place either in the late fourth
century, or in the fifth. It remains very much
possible that the enemy to the north was under
the sway of the infamous king Vortigern, of whom
we have information which suggests that his
family had a powerbase in Gloucestershire and
- How was Wandyke built?
As modern research of the West Woods has shown,
Wansdyke was very well surveyed. First an
engineer looked at the land, and how to cross
valleys and streams. Then a series of marker pits
were dug in front of a small trench, which was
dug to lay out the line of the dyke. Then the big
work started, with several gangs of labourers
digging deep pits at timed intervals. These pits
were enlarged and connected, forming the ditch.
The soil was heaped up behind the ditch, forming
the bank. Then the trench was deepened, allowing
the earthwork to become as impressive as today
still visible at most parts of East Wansdyke.
Sometimes a counterscarp was added.
- How long is Wansdyke?
Wansdyke consist of three parts, West Wansdyke
which is 9 miles (14 km) long (from Maes Knoll to
Odd Down), the Roman Road section which is 15
miles (22 km) long and East Wansdyke which is
12,5 miles (19 km) long (from Morgan's Hill to
- Where can I find Wansdyke?
in the West Country. East Wansdyke lies across
the Marlborough Downs south of Swindon, in the
county of Wiltshire. West Wansdyke is situated
west of Bath and south of Bristol, in the county
of Bath and North East Somerset. The Roman Road
which connects both these sections runs due East
from Bath to where it meets East Wansdyke at
Morgan's Hill, south of Calne.
- Was Wansdyke
anything like Hadrian's Wall?
No, only in parts of its function. Hadrian's Wall
was a patrolled military fortification, Wansdyke
was not. There has been no evidence of any
military occupation such as forts or towers,
although there may of course have been
patrolling. But Wansdyke is first and foremost a
means of border control, cutting the roads and
other communications. This also meant that only
those parts needed to be controlled and