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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.
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THE WANSDYKE MYSTERY

10:40 - 08 August 2006

Was the mysterious Wansdyke - a defensive earthwork that straddles the Chew Valley from East Dundry to Bath - built by the Romans, or much later during the turbulent times of the Saxon advance and the semi-mythical Arthur and his mounted troops? Gerry Brooke takes a look at a new book on the subject.

The purpose of the 40-mile long Wansdyke or Woden's Dyke as it is also known still remains something of an enigma. The mysterious bank and ditch earthwork extends, if only in remnants, from the Dundry Hills through to the Savernake Forest south of Marlborough.

After taking in an iron age hill fort, Maes Knoll, at East Dundry, the earthwork crosses the Chew valley near Compton Dando before joining up with another hill fort, Stantonbury, above the village of Marksbury.

From Newton St Loe it runs for some miles east of Bath before disappearing. It then pops up again in Wiltshire.

Archaelogists used to think that the two sections - east and west Wansdyke - were built together, but some now believe that they may have been constructed as two separate dykes, serving different purposes.

And that's the view of historian David Higgins, former head of Italian studies at Bristol University, who has now put his researches in print.

Both or either section could have been built as a defensive work or as a line of demarcation - a border between territories such as Offa's Dyke which, cutting through the Marches, divides the West Midlands from Wales.

As Higgins points out, if it was meant as a fortification then it would have required a large mobile army to patrol it effectively and, whatever its purpose, a large, well-organised workforce to build and maintain it.

The Wansdyke - thought by many archaelogists to have been constructed as a defence against the ever-encroaching Saxons - is generally accepted, because of finds, as being post-Roman and pre-Saxon, that is, dating somewhere between 410AD and 500AD.

That's because it's cruder than most works constructed by the Roman military - such as Hadrian's Wall - and also because, it's argued, the Roman authorities would have had no need for such a defence or boundary in a land that they were already in control of.

But the short-lived Antonine Wall, north of Hadrian's Wall, is actually very similar to the Wansdyke. It, too, was constructed solely out of turves, rather than stone, by the Second Augusta Legion, later based at Caerleon in South Wales.

Some writers had even suggested - although it's unlikely - that, given the vast amount of labour required, Offa's Dyke was also built by Roman troops but then claimed, renamed and possibly rebuilt centuries later by Offa, the Saxon king of Mercia (the West Midlands) as a bulwark, or defensive wall, against the Welsh.

It's very possible, argues Higgins, that our section of the Wansdyke (which, some authorities argue, may have extended westwards through Ashton Court, over the Failand Hills and onto Portbury or Portishead) was also built by Roman troops (plus civilian labour) in the late fourth or early fifth century - a few years before they finally abandoned Britain and the population was left to look to its own defences.

But, with the main threat from the Saxons many years away, where was the enemy that the Wansdyke was supposed to be protecting the British from?

Higgins speculates that it could very well have been Irish war bands, the sea borne Scotti (meaning "plunderers") who had been plaguing the Bristol Channel coasts ever since united bands of Saxons, Picts and Irish had struck at a weakening Roman administration in 367/8AD.

It was these same war bands - looking for booty - who would later capture St Patrick (perhaps from his home in Banwell) and sell him into slavery in Ireland.

It was certainly a time of great uncertainty. People were fleeing and leaving valuable goods behind.

Thirty hoards of hidden gold and silver dating from 388AD to 410AD have so far been unearthed throughout the country - and there are no doubt many more yet waiting to be discovered.

With the regular Mobile Field Army - the actual Legions - depleted by a jostling for power amongst military commanders, both in this country and overseas, the Roman authorities in the West Country were perhaps looking instead to some sort of fixed defences that could easily be manned by a regular Frontier Army - or even locally raised lightly armed troops. Could the solution have been the west Wansdyke?

Lying, as it does, between Bristol and Bath, the earthwork could have been seen, Higgins argues, as "part of a grand defensive strategy for the entire basin of the Bristol Avon, gateway to the wealth of Bath and the villa estates and smaller industrial sites of the river valley and its hinterland".

The controversy over the Wansdyke's date (solved one day, I'm sure, by the archaelogist's spade and growing technological expertise) might be academically interesting, but one thing we do know for sure - the earthwork was in existence when the Saxons' defeated the British at the decisive battle of Dyrham in 577AD.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that three British (Celtic) kings died here and that the old Roman towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester fell to the victorious Saxons. But, according to Higgins, it was the Wansdyke defences that prevented then from overrunning the rest of the region in the same campaign.

They were, instead, diverted towards Wales only to be defeated, two or three years later, on the banks of the Wye, near Tintern.

What part the Wansdyke played in the Battle Of Badon of about 500AD - in which the Saxon advance west was halted by the British for at least 50 years, possibly under the leadership of the semi mythical Arthur and his cavalry or Ambrosius Aurelianus, the west's last "Roman" leader - we just don't know. But as the battle is thought to have been fought somewhere near Bath, it's certainly a possibility.

But why, you might ask, was the Wansdyke named after the pagan god Odin? Perhaps, speculates Higgins, it was given the name by Penda, a Mercian pagan ruler who, two generations later, took control of South Gloucestershire as an act of defiance against Christians.

l If you would like to know more about our hidden West Country past during the so- called Dark Ages, buy David Higgins' fascinating little book The Bristol Region In The Sub Roman And Early Anglo Saxon Periods.

Published by the Bristol branch of the Historical Association, it's not half as stuffy as it sounds - and will only cost you 3.50. It should be on sale at the Bristol Museum bookshop in Queen's Road or, failing that, from Peter Harris, 74 Bell Barn Road, Stoke Bishop BS9 2DG. Add 35p to cover the cost of the postage.


[Source: Bristol Times Evening Post, 8 August 2006]


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