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  Vortigern Studies > Wansdyke Project 21 > Frequently Asked Questions

Welcome to Vortigern Studies!

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.

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.Wansdyke Project 21
is part of
Vortigern Studies




  • What was Wansdyke?
  • When was Wansdyke built?
  • What was Wansdyke’s original name?
  • Who built Wansdyke?
  • Why was Wandyke built?

  • 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?
    That's still 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 after all.
  • What was Wansdyke’s original name?
    We don't 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?
    Although 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 possibility.
  • 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 East Wales.
  • 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 Savernake Forest).
  • Where can I find Wansdyke?
    In England, 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 patrolled.

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