Blog Post

Dykes Ditches and Earthworks

Dykes Ditches and Earthworks

Indeed, the modern term “dyke” or “dijk” can be traced back to its Dutch origins.  As early as the 12th century, the construction of Dykes in the Netherlands was a well-established practice.  One remarkable example of their ingenuity is the Westfriese Omringdijk, stretching an impressive 126 kilometres (78 miles), completed by 1250.  This Dyke was formed by connecting existing older ‘dykes’, showcasing the Dutch mastery in managing their aquatic landscape.

The Roman chronicler Tacitus even provides an intriguing historical account of the Batavi, a rebellious people who employed a unique defence strategy during the year AD 70.  They punctured the Dykes daringly, deliberately flooding their land to thwart their enemies and secure their retreat.  This historical incident highlights the vital role Dykes played in the region’s warfare and water management.

Originally, the word “dijk” encompassed both the trench and the bank, signifying a comprehensive understanding of the Dyke’s dual nature – as both a protective barrier and a channel for water control.  This multifaceted concept reflects the profound connection between the Dutch people and their battle against the ever-shifting waters that sought to reclaim their land.

The term “dyke” evolved as time passed, and its usage spread beyond the Dutch borders.  Today, it represents not only a symbol of the Netherlands’ engineering prowess but also a universal symbol of human determination in the face of the relentless forces of nature.  The legacy of these ancient Dykes lives on, a testament to the resilience and innovation of those who shaped the landscape to withstand the unyielding currents of time.

Upon studying archaeology, whether at university or examining detailed ordinance survey maps, one cannot help but encounter peculiar earthworks scattered across the British hillsides.  Astonishingly, these enigmatic features often lack a rational explanation for their presence and purpose.  Strangely enough, these features are frequently disregarded in academic circles, brushed aside, or provided with flimsy excuses for their existence.  The truth is, these earthworks defy comprehension unless we consider overlooked factors at play.

One curious observation revolves around the term “Dyke,” inherently linked to water.  It seems rather peculiar to apply such a word to an earthwork atop a hill unless an ancestral history has imparted its actual function through the ages.  Let us consider the celebrated “Offa’s Dyke,” renowned for its massive linear structure, meandering along some of the present boundaries between England and Wales.  This impressive feat stands as a testament to the past, seemingly demarcating the realms of the Anglian kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys during the 8th century.

However, delving further into the evidence and historical accounts challenges this seemingly straightforward explanation.  Roman historian Eutropius, in his work “Historiae Romanae Breviarium”, penned around 369 AD, mentions a grand undertaking by Septimius Severus, the Roman Emperor, from 193 AD to 211 AD.  In his pursuit of fortifying the conquered British provinces, Severus constructed a formidable wall stretching 133 miles from coast to coast.

Yet, intriguingly, none of the known Roman defences match this precise length.  Hadrian’s Wall, renowned for its defensive prowess, spans a mere 70 miles.  Could Eutropius have referred to Offa’s Dyke, which bears remarkable similarity to the Roman practice of initially erecting banks and ditches for defence?

- Offa's Dyke (Red) - note that it is only complete if you connect the existing rivers to the ditches - Dykes Ditches and Earthworks
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Figure 1- Offa’s Dyke (Red) – note that it is only complete if you connect the existing rivers to the ditches (Dykes Ditches and Earthworks)

The enigma persists, leaving us to ponder whether Offa’s Dyke, with its impressive extent, holds an ancient Roman legacy or represents a separate and awe-inspiring creation.  As we navigate the depths of history, it becomes increasingly apparent that these earthworks hold hidden stories waiting to be revealed, revealing the multifaceted montage of Britain’s past and the extraordinary engineering feats that have shaped its landscape through the ages.

Indeed, history is a complex tapestry woven with a multitude of threads, and the interpretation of archaeological evidence often shapes our understanding of the past.  Throughout history, conquerors and civilisations have repurposed existing features, such as ditches, augmenting them with defensive banks and walls to suit their strategic needs.  The Romans and the Normans, among others, have demonstrated this practice.

In the case of Offa’s Dyke, the enigma deepens if we consider the possibility that the Romans were the architects behind its creation.  Such a scenario challenges the conventional attribution of the Dyke to King Offa and raises questions about the true origins and purpose of this massive linear earthwork.  Archaeological realities, or perhaps misinterpretations, can indeed hold the key to unveiling hidden facets of our history.

It is essential to approach historical accounts and archaeological evidence with a critical eye and an openness to multiple interpretations.  The past often leaves tantalising clues that may require careful examination and reevaluation.  By embracing the complexities and uncertainties of history, we can better appreciate the intricacies of human civilisation and the varied influences that have shaped it over the ages.

In pursuing truth, historians and archaeologists must remain receptive to new insights, allowing the evidence to guide their conclusions, even if it means challenging established narratives.  By unravelling these historical puzzles, we can better understand our collective heritage, appreciating the rich combination of human experiences and the myriad forces that have moulded history.


The peculiar earthworks etched upon the British landscape have not eluded the discerning eyes of archaeologists and cartographers alike.  These enigmatic features, often defying conventional explanations, have intrigued the curious minds of scholars and historians.  A new designation, “Cross-Dykes,” has partially acknowledged their distinctiveness and unusual placement.

Cross-Dyke (Dykes Ditches and Earthworks)
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Cross-Dykes, substantial linear earthworks, grace the upland terrain, their lengths varying between 0.2km and 1km.  Besides one or more banks, they bear ditches, running parallel in an enigmatic dance upon ridges and spurs.  Historical excavations and analogies with related monuments paint a broader picture, extending back to the millennia of the Middle Bronze Age.  Their purpose, though elusive, leans towards territorial boundaries, delineating parcels of land within ancient communities.  But beyond such boundaries, they may have served as tracks or routes for cattle or even as defensive structures.

A pivotal element to grasp lies in the acknowledgement that Cross-Dykes have, at their core, a prehistoric origin.  No longer shackled to erroneous notions of Saxon or medieval connections, these ancient features warrant a fresh lens to illuminate their true significance.  The names of notable earthworks, like Wansdyke and Offa’s Dyke, may well bear a more profound revision in light of this newfound understanding.

Yet, we must not overlook the Historic England claim that only “very few” of these earthworks remain.  The broader landscape contradicts this assertion, teeming with over 1500 scheduled ‘Linear Earthworks,’ showcasing the scope and magnitude of these intriguing remnants.  Moreover, advancements in the art of surveying, as heralded by LiDAR, have revealed hidden troves of earthworks, once lost to the unyielding grasp of time and misinterpretation.

To critique archaeological theories with acuity, one must first comprehend their tenets.  The evolving narrative seeks to unravel the enigma shrouding these linear earthworks, breathing life into ancient histories etched in the soil.  Embracing a spirit of inquiry and remaining receptive to novel discoveries, we embark on a quest of unravelling the untold stories lingering within the terrain.  With each revelation, the layers of history peel back, revealing a canvas of human ingenuity, perseverance, and the grandeur of the past, etched forever in the folds of Britain’s landscape.  Archaeologists have (partially) recognised that these many earthworks are placed in strange areas for conventional explanations.  Consequently, they have attempted to split a section away from the global term earthworks and called them ‘Cross-Dykes’.

Boundary Markers

With their reliance on earthworks as territorial markers, the historical hypothesis surrounding land boundaries emerges as a thought-provoking inquiry.  Yet, as we delve deeper into the evidence, a poignant need for more compelling proof becomes evident.  Throughout history, societies have indeed relied on markers to delineate their domains, be they natural features like rivers or human-made constructs like hedgerows.  The practicality and economy of such choices are undeniable, especially when contrasted with the labour-intensive and costly endeavour of constructing extensive ditches and banks.

In the case of the renowned Offa’s Dyke, a perplexing puzzle emerges.  The border, at times, gracefully follows the course of a river, a logical and sensible demarcation.  However, the sudden shift to an earthwork set behind the same river defies easy explanation.  Such inconsistency leaves us questioning the premise of these earthworks as unequivocal markers.  The presence of inexplicable gaps in the land border only deepens the enigma, raising further doubt about the validity of the hypothesis.

We must seek coherence and reason within any historical proposition.  The current hypothesis falls short in offering a convincing rationale for this transition from river to earthwork, and it fails to address the glaring accessibility of the river as a natural and readily available boundary marker.

Path of Offa's Dyke - showing its not remotely straight
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Figure 2 – Path of Offa’s Dyke – showing its not remotely straight

As we navigate the terrain of ancient earthworks, a commitment to rigorous scrutiny is paramount.  Only by subjecting our hypotheses to relentless examination can we hope to uncover the authentic truths that lie obscured beneath the layers of time.  In embracing a spirit of inquiry and humility, we may yet unlock the profound secrets of these age-old earthworks, shedding light on the intricate relationships between humanity and the landscapes they once inhabited.  The pursuit of understanding is a journey marked by discovery and wonder, and in this voyage, we honour the legacy of those who once shaped the contours of history upon British soil.

Defensive Features

According to the pronouncements of esteemed Historical England, discerning the precise function of ancient boundaries proves to be an intricate endeavour.  Whether they were intended for defence, stock-herding, or carrying symbolic significance remains elusive.  In truth, most boundaries likely fulfilled a mosaic of roles, their purpose evolving and adapting over time.  To presume that significant boundaries were solely for defence and smaller ones merely for livestock control would be an oversimplification of the intricate tapestry of history.

These artificial boundaries’ form, extent, and very existence offer vital clues, providing glimpses into their intended purposes.  Additionally, their construction’s social and political context can provide insightful context.  Yet, as we probe deeper into the historical narrative, it is evident that the written accounts primarily speak of Roman and Norman defence systems.  With their ingenuity, the Romans devised the “ankle breaker” ditch – a V-shaped trench with a heightened counterscape masterfully designed to ensnare attackers or thwart mounted assailants.

These ingenious Roman ditches, predominantly surface near Roman sites, are conspicuously absent from 90% of excavations across Linear Earthworks.  This absence challenges the prevailing hypothesis and prompts a reevaluation of past assumptions.  In particular, investigations into Dykes such as Offa’s have uncovered an unsettling revelation – the defensive banks, in over 10% of the alignment, face the “wrong way.” This finding raises questions about the potential bias that may have influenced the support for this theory in the past.

As the archaeological landscape evolves, a shift is subtly underway, with many archaeologists quietly distancing themselves from this 20th-century hypothesis.  The quest for truth demands unyielding inquiry, and as more mysteries come to light, the intricacies of ancient earthworks unfurl before our eyes.  In the spirit of intellectual progress, we must approach each enigma with an open mind, ever eager to shed the limitations of preconceived notions and embrace the unfolding revelations of history.

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