Walking the Wansdyke during the festival of British Archaeology

on Friday, 21 October 2016. Posted in Archaeology

On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire.  Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.

We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.

View east from Tan Hill

From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.

The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.

There has been much discussion as to the construction date of this enigmatic monument. Its name is a reference to the Anglo-Saxon god Woden and it is referred to in a number of Anglo-Saxon charters. It appears to overlie the Roman road at Morgan’s Hill so a late Roman or sub-Roman date has been accepted by many earlier authors on the subject. Leland, back in the sixteenth century said that it was built to separate the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.  Sections through the monument (Shepherds Shore, Brown’s Barn, Spye Park, Red Shore, New Buildings and Wernham Farm) have found only Roman evidence on the ground surface beneath the monument thus providing a terminus post quem for its construction date. The monument’s position and construction suggests that whoever built it was defending themselves against invaders to the north or controlling north-south access through a number of gateways. Others such as Aileen and Cyril Fox who surveyed its full length in the 1950s concluded that East Wansdyke and West Wansdyke are separate earthworks and that East Wansdyke extends only from Morgan’s Hill to New Buildings west of Savernake; the Bedwyn dyke and other linear earthworks further to the east are thought to relate to other monument constructions. A more recent study by Davies, Halsall and Reynolds (2006) has published a radiocarbon date of AD 890-1160 from the ditch of the dyke at Wernham Farm but they argue that further investigation is still required. They argue for a middle Saxon date for construction of the monument based on documented skirmishes between Wessex and Mercia at this time rather than before AD 600 as earlier studies have suggested.

Further investigation will no doubt continue but still one can marvel at the magnificence of this impressive manmade monument and take in the views which its position commands.

Views north towards the Kennet valley from the Wansdyke (between Milk Hill and Tan Hill)
Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist

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