September 2018 - Digging for history

A view down a section of Offa's Dyke on the Chirk estate where it descends to the Ceiriog Valley
Published : 28 Aug 2018

As I remember it, for several pupils at Ysgol Rhiwabon in the early 1970s, the rampart of Offa’s Dyke (which still runs directly parallel to the school) represented not a historic boundary between Wales and the rest of Britain, but a fairly safe shelter to hide behind rather than attend lessons!

For others, it had a different relevance. Mr Davies, Welsh master and gifted storyteller, used the Dyke to fuel our adolescent imaginations with stories from Welsh ‘Dark Age’ folklore: magicians, maidens and monsters came to life as we listened to tales which had been ancient ‘before Offa built his Dyke’!

The ancient earthwork became as relevant to us as the Berlin Wall... but we knew very few actual ‘facts’ about it. We knew only that it had been constructed by a King called ‘Offa ’, and that it ran from Prestatyn in the north to Chepstow in the south... to keep the troublesome Welsh out of his kingdom of Mercia. This frustratingly sketchy overview is the one which has been held for generations – surely there is much more to the construction of something which has been likened in scale to the building of the pyramids? What sort of a man would even suggest building a dividing wall between two nations?

So, who was Offa? We know that he was the King of Mercia (a massive Anglo-Saxon realm) from 757 until 796AD, and a man who extended his Kingdom through war and careful marriage settlements. He split the Diocese of the Archbishop of Canterbury into two, thus creating the Archdiocese of Lichfield, and he visited Rome and the Pope more than once. He also established an international relationship with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor! Not a bad work record for a King from the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

A hundred years after Offa’s death, King Alfred the Great’s biographer, Bishop Asser, confidently asserted that '...a certain vigorous King called Offa... had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea”.

But did he?

Archaeological opinion is now divided about the actual age of the dyke - certainly the part which runs through Chirk Castle grounds - and this argument also calls into question the name of the individual who built both it and the nearby (almost parallel) earthwork, Wat’s Dyke. A current suggestion is that both may be considerably earlier in construction than the 8th-century, with one suggestion that Offa’s Dyke may have been established as long ago as the 5th-century!

In August 2013, considerable damage was done to a section of the dyke near Whitegates, and in the wake of this destruction, archaeologists took the opportunity to take a careful look at the dyke’s construction. Dating of initial findings produced a 95% chance that ‘Offa’s Dyke’ was built between 430 and 652AD – some 200 years before the usually accepted date of construction.

We have long been waiting for a detailed archaeological survey to establish the facts.. and hopefully that time may at last have come!

Between 10 and 21 September 2018 (except Friday 14), a team of archaeologists led by Ian Grant of Clwyd Powis Archaeological Trust, and a team of volunteer Community Archaeologists from both Chirk and Erddig, will be working on ‘our’ section of dyke which runs from the Castle car park to the Pool.

The final day of the excavation in June 2018 at Wat's Dyke on the Erddig estate
Archaeologist Ian Grant examines the trench during the dig on Wat's Dyke on the Erddig estate in June 2018
The final day of the excavation in June 2018 at Wat's Dyke on the Erddig estate

Sadly, this stretch was badly damaged during the 18th-century landscaping of the Parklands by William Emes, and has been reduced to almost ground level, but the line of the earthwork is still clear from the castle.

During the week in which the archaeologists are here, visitors will be able to join volunteer guided tours of the dig site - whenever it may be appropriate.   We hope that Ian’s team may find evidence to help date this section of the earthwork, and to help us define who may have built it. Is it Anglo-Saxon? Might it even be Roman? We are genuinely excited to see the results of their investigation, although they may not be published for some while.

At weekends, the team of archaeologists will shift their focus to the meadow area directly in front of the castle, where last year’s primary investigations suggested that further work might reveal some interesting features... This area will have information boards to explain the ongoing work to visitors, and hopefully it will be possible to chat to some of the archaeologists during relevant breaks in their busy schedule. There will also be an exhibition to help visitors understand the work taking place, and where it fits into the history of teh Chirk estate, and there will be a kids archaeology trail on the site.