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Understanding the Wansdykes

After a decisive battle at Edington in 825 those parts of Wiltshire to the north of the Wansdyke came under the control of Wessex. The original 'Wiltonshire' had focused on the area around Wilton and, subsequently, Sarum. The Vale of Pewsey was as far north as Wiltshire originally extended. North of there was 'debatable lands', mostly under Mercian control. Only after the Mercians lost to Wessex at Edington did the modern county of Wiltshire finally begin to 'shape up'.

There are two sections of linear bank-and-ditch defensive earthworks which we know by the same name: the Wansdyke. Both sections have a ditch to north, which means they were built to defend territory to the south. So we know that the West Saxons – later the kingdom of Wessex – were responsible. There are numerous breaks, though most were probably made by farmers in recent centuries. However that's about as far as the similarities go, as there are significant differences between the western and eastern sections.

The western Wansdyke

The western Wansdyke runs south of the River Avon. The most easterly part is on the high ground to the west of Limpley Stoke, overlooking the Avon as it flows from Bradford on Avon and heads north to loop around Bath. The Wansdyke passes to the south of Bath, taking in the Iron Age hill fort at Stantonbury, then following high ground to another Iron Age hill fort at Maes knoll, near Bristol.

Although there are no surviving earthworks, plausibly the Wansdyke continued to more Iron Age hill forts above the southern side of the Avon gorge, to the west to Bristol. A deed dated 1310 suggests that the Wansdyke was then thought to end at the hill fort known as Stokeleigh Camp above the Avon Gorge (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 45).

Iron Age hill forts are both defendable enclosures and statements of local status and power. Almost all of them are on, or overlook, tribal boundaries. The Wansdyke follows a long-established ridge route linking numerous Iron Age hill forts. This ridge has clearly been a frontier since Iron Age times, and quite probably the Bronze Age. Whoever occupied the land to the south of this stretch of the Wansdyke had long feared invasions from the north.

Strategic defence or emphatic statement?

A line of substantial earthwork defences overlooking a river wide enough to slow down any army suggests serious strategic planning. But the reality is a little more complex. Visibility of the River Avon is obscured in some places by intervening high ground, so some 'tactical' concessions have been made which choosing the Wansdyke ridge. Furthermore, the Wansdyke is not easily-defendable without far more soldiers than could have been mustered at the time. No doubt it would hinder an advancing army, and the bank-and-ditch would greatly assist anyone defending, but those defenders would at some point by outflanked by any outnumbering force.

The reality is that the Wansdyke is more of a deterrent to low level 'cattle raiding' and the like than it is to any serious invasion. So the Wansdyke must be considered more of an 'emphatic statement' than a strategic line of defence.

The eastern Wansdyke

The eastern section is nowhere near a river and mostly ignores Iron Age hill forts in the vicinity. It follows the chalk escarpment above the Vale of Pewsey (which drains into the Hampshire Avon), from Morgans Hill in the west to (slightly confusingly) West Woods in the east. This eastern part of the Wansdyke seems not to be prehistoric and was most likely created by the Wessex fyrd (army) to defend against incursions by the Mercians. But we do not know when it was built, as archaeologists have not discovered any datable evidence and the oldest surviving written reference is from the ninth century.

The best-preserved section of the eastern Wansdyke, near Tan Hill

When were the Wansdykes built?

Once upon a time historians shared the opinion that both sections of the Wansdyke were constructed in the fifth or sixth centuries. However we should treat such opinions with considerable caution.

From the fifth century onwards there was certainly a frontier near the western section. This separated the early Anglo-Saxon settlers – the West Saxons – from the indigenous British-speaking population. But that does not automatically mean there were earthworks between the Iron Age hill forts. The frontier could have been defined by the course of the River Avon rather than by the high ground. Although the western Wansdyke does follow high ground, there are other hill ridges running roughly parallel. This means that there is no 'decisive' geomorphological feature as there is with the eastern Wansdyke.

The English Heritage survey prepared by Fiona Small in 1999 states that the eastern stretch of the Wansdyke

    … obviously post-dates the Romano-British field systems and numerous linear ditches and boundaries which it clearly overlies, but throughout its length there is evidence of construction from the late 3rd century AD or later at Bishops Cannings to post-Roman construction close to its eastern end at Savernake Forest

Nevertheless, Small considers that 'various parts of the linear boundary have their origins well into the late Bronze Age.' For example, where the parish boundary between All Cannings and Bishops Cannings crosses over the Dyke (OS Grid Reference SU 081652)

    … there are the remains of the junction between three irregular linear ditches, the northern and eastern branches of which pass beneath the Wansdyke, with the northern ditch appearing to disappear beneath and follow the line of the dyke. The junction of the three ditches has a distinct central hollow which has been compared with similar associations of boundaries recorded on Salisbury Plain which have been attributed to the Late Bronze Age.
    (Small 1999; sources cited in the original text are omitted here)

So, just as with the western section, what makes a good boundary in Anglo-Saxon times also made a good boundary in the prehistoric eras. No surprise. But just because a boundary is old does not mean that the earthworks are as old. Frustratingly, old boundary earthworks are typically damaged beyond easy recognition when they are enhanced or repaired.

Hannah and Martyn Whittock have considered the available evidence and concluded that the western and eastern Wansdykes had independent origins, only later becoming part of an unfinished 'unified' project. While there are prehistoric origins to both sections, the western section seems to have acquired its present form in the fifth century, while the eastern section shaped up in the sixth century. Both sections were likely to have been repaired until the early ninth century. These dates suggest that the earthworks owe their origins to inter-tribal rivalries in the sub-Roman period. Later conflicts, not least inter-kingdom rivalries in the Anglo-Saxon era, continued to 'respect' this frontier. Or, putting it the other way about, made it a 'conflict zone' as the rivals successively sought to regain control. (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 45–9)

How late could the eastern Wansdyke have been created or substantially revamped? It seems unlikely to have been after 786, when Offa made Beorhtric something of a 'puppet king' over Wessex. And yet the nearest parallel is Offa's Dyke between Mercia and Powys. Did the already-existing Wansdyke inspire a similar configuration in the Welsh marches? Limited archaeological evidence suggests that at least parts of Offa's Dyke were originally constructed in the sub-Roman period (Hannaford 1999), making the two earthworks similar in age as well as construction.

Although both the Wansdyke and Offa's Dyke offer some military advantages, their main function is to intimidate. They hinder 'cattle raiding' and similar low-level skirmishes much more than the movement of full-blown armies. And, intentionally or otherwise, they also funnel the movement of goods and livestock through specific 'gateways' where, no doubt, tolls and taxes were extracted.

How long has it been called the Wansdyke?

Just such a gap on a routeway seems to have given the Wansdyke its name. But long after it was first constructed. Indeed it is only referred to Wodnes dic ('Woden's Dyke') long after it has gone out of use. Wodnes dic is mentioned in various charters, the oldest of which is from 892.

At this time Woden had long since ceased to have the status of a deity and had been 'demoted' to a legendary superhero. The name 'Woden's Dyke' is a direct parallel to the numerous 'Devil's Dykes' and 'Devil's Ditches' to be found throughout England (especially in East Anglia) and related names such as the Devil's Punchbowl or Devil's Chapel.

As Jeremy Harte has adroitly explained, the Devil only begins to be used in place-names after the seventeenth century (Harte 2009). In other words, after people have stopped taking the Devil very seriously and feel able to invoke him in a light-hearted manner. Almost certainly the same applies too to Woden – he would only 'lend' his name to a ditch once he was no longer 'taken seriously'. And, by the late ninth century, that is almost certainly the case. No longer a god, but not forgotten.

The trees running from left to right mark the line of the Wansdyke. The gap in the middle is Woddes geat (Woden's gap or gate) in Woden's dene (the shallow valley)

But why Woden's Dyke? A road runs from Lockeridge, through the eastern Wansdyke and to the Neolithic causewayed enclosure known as Knapp Hill (with a dramatic view over the Vale of Pewsey to the south) and overlooked by a Neolithic long barrow now known as Adam's Grave. That road follows a dry valley on the chalk escarpment which was once known as Woden's Dene (denu being the Old English word for just such a shallow valley). And Adam's Grave was then know as Wodnes beorge ('barrow'). Indeed an important battle was fought near here in 592 (see Wiltshire battles).

Where the road along Woden's Dene passed through the Wansdyke it went through a gap or gate, referred to in old documents as Woddes geat, 'Woden's gate'. What seems to have happened is that this very local link to Woden 'transferred' to the adjoining part of the earthwork, which then became known as the Wansdyke. And the term Wansdyke then 'transferred' to the whole eastern section, and subsequently to the western section too.

Because too few documents survived from before the tenth century we cannot be sure exactly when the Wansdyke became known by that name. But sometime in the ninth century seems probable. In all probability, when the earthworks were built and being maintained they were not known as the Wansdyke. The only two such references we have are from 682 and 688 when it is called 'the king's boundary' and 'Alfgar's boundary' (Whittock and Whittock 2014: 48). Who Alfgar was is unclear, but presumably a local leader.

Such references to unnamed kings or local warlords who would have been all-but forgotten two hundred years later are entirely consistent with the earthwork subsequently being attributed to a by-then archaic 'superhero'.

Who built the Wansdykes?

We might also ponder on who provided the labour for these massive construction projects. There are two options. Firstly, if the state of affairs was such that a substantial standing army was needed then those men needed to be kept fighting fit. The hard physical labour associated with digging and moving soil and rocks was ideal. The Romans had done exactly the same – their network of roads was constructed by fighting men who were having 'time off' from combat.

The second option is that these earthworks were constructed by 'conscripts'. What happened to the men of a defeated army? They would no doubt try to escape, and then regroup to cause trouble again later. Better that they were rounded up and enslaved. And what better use could they be put to than digging a strategic defence against future incursions? Both physically demanding and psychologically demoralising – a win, win, win scenario.

In the absence of any documentary evidence associated with the construction of either the Wansdyke or Offa's Dyke such speculations can have no substance. But someone – a great many 'someones' – created these earthworks and the social implications of funding and, at the very least, feeding a substantial workforce would have been significant, as would the loss of such men from the normal agricultural duties they would otherwise have been providing.

The site of the now-deserted village of Shaw – the trees on the left follow the Wansdyke

Feeding the soldiers who manned the defences and 'checkpoints' might have required the creation of new farmsteads. This would neatly explain the existence of the now-deserted medieval village at Shaw, immediately adjacent to the eponymous Woden's Gap in Woden's dene.

'Shaw' and 'shore' are both modern English spellings of the same Old English word, sceaga, which refers to a wood on a boundary or 'shore', so presumably the name of the settlement arose after the earthworks ceased to have any military function and had become overgrown. But the settlement itself could plausible date to a time when the dyke was first manned. As such it would be a parallel to the numerous burh tuns which seem to have been independent settlements for garrisons of troops, set out with enough fields and woodland to be self-sufficient.

Gallows sites on the Wansdyke

Some of the oldest references to the Wansdyke also mention another type of landmark: gallows. A document compiled in 957 refers to þa wearh roda on wodnes dic – the felon's gallows on Woden's dyke – on the boundary of Stanton St Bernard (Hooke 2010: 173).

The only section of the Wansdyke visible from the moot sites of administrative hundreds of Selkley and Swansborough (to the north and south, respectively, of the eastern section of the Wansdyke above Woden's Dene) is known as Red Shore. It is also where the Ridgeway crosses the Wansdyke. This significant place was also the site of a gallows. (Interestingly, Red Shore is also the only part of the Wansdyke visible from the middle of the Neolithic henge at Avebury.)

Not too far to the west, a gibbet was known to have stood on Morgan's Hill, where the Wansdyke is cut by a road (Jordan 1990: 48).

There is nothing surprising about the locations of these gallows. Judicial executions typically took place at boundaries, especially at the side of major routes crossing the boundary. They were intended as gruesome reminders of the consequences of transgressing the law.

Although it is just circumstantial, such hangings link back to the legends associated with Woden – he is said to have hung on a tree for three days to acquire 'secret knowledge' – and with the Germanic custom of sacrificing felons and captured soldiers to Woden and similar 'gods of war'.


The first time I ever walked along the Wansdyke, back in 1977, was on a Wednesday (Woden's day)…


Costen, Michael, 2011, Anglo-Saxon Somerset, Oxbow Books.
Hannaford, H.R.,1999, Archaeological Investigation on Wat's Dyke at Maes-y-Clawdd, Oswestry. Archaeology Service, Shropshire County Council.
Harte, Jeremy, 2009, 'The Devil"s chapels: fiends, fear and folklore at prehistoric sites', in Joanne Parker (ed), Written on Stone: The cultural reception of British prehistoric monuments, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Hooke, Della, 2010, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England, Boydell and Brewer.
Jordan, Katharine, 1990, The Folklore of Ancient Wiltshire, Wiltshire County Council, Library & Museum Service.
Small, Fiona, 1999, Avebury World Heritage Site Mapping Project, Wiltshire; online at
Whittock, Hannah and Martyn, 2014, The Anglo-Saxon Avon Valley Frontier: A river of two halves, Fonthill.

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:

Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.

Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.

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Copyright Bob Trubshaw 2015

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury sunrises and sunsets

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery