Walls, Borders and Frontier Zones – Past & Present

Walls, Borders and Frontier Zones – Past & Present

I have recently returned from attending and presenting at an international academic workshop called Walls, Borders and Frontier zones in the Ancient and the Contemporary World held in Jerusalem 17-22 December 2022.

Upon arrival, I had a free day to explore the environs and dimensions of Jerusalem’s Old City Walls and Mount of Olives.

The workshop began the following morning and comprised a half-day tour of the Old City including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall Plaza excavations.

This was followed by two-and-a-half days of presentations, – the first half day was open to the public and held at the Tower of David. The remaining two days at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Following the workshop in Jerusalem, the organisers arranged for a two-day study tour in south Israel exploring key archaeological sites in the Negev Desert region including Shivta, Nessana, Mezad Hazeva and Moa as well as visiting the contemporary borders of Egypt and Jordan with Israel.

Sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the European Research Council project: ‘The Wall: People and Ecology in Medieval Mongolia and China‘ and organised by Dr Tal Ulus, Professor Gideon Avni and Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi, the conference brought together an interdisciplinary set of speakers and audience addressing frontier zones, borders and linear monuments past and present. This included a special guest speaker addressing the recent and ongoing Israel/Palestinian peace negotiations.

The details of the event can be found here.

I learned a great deal about ongoing research on the conference theme from the exceptional range of presentations and the discussions after each session.

I had the opportunity to present aspects of my ongoing research and thinking regarding early medieval linear earthworks from Britain. In doing so, I show-cased the ongoing research of University of Chester doctoral researcher Liam Delaney, the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory including its co-convenors and members, and the role of the Offa’s Dyke Association in supporting public engagement with these linear earthworks. I also show-cased the collaboration with John G. Swogger to produce a comic heritage trail: What’s Wat’s Dyke? as well as the Offa’s Dyke Journal and my recent co-edited book The Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands.

While my extended abstract (below) promised to use Wat’s Dyke as a case study (drawing off my recent publication on that monument in the 2021 article ‘Rethinking Wat’s Dyke: A Monument’s Flow in a Hydraulic Frontier Zone‘, in actual fact I also presented my as-yet unpublished ideas regarding Offa’s Dyke and Wansdyke too.

I very much appreciate the hard work of the organisers in running this event on such a sensitive but far-ranging and important topic, as well as for their generous hospitality and efficient running of the workshop and tour during my stay.

Extended abstract of my talk

Dykes as Deeds? Revaluating Linear Earthworks from Early Medieval Britain

Professor Howard Williams, University of Chester

Can we consider dykes as ‘deeds’: memorable and efficacious for their creation and placement more than their longevity of use? This paper presents a new framework for interpreting the significance and mnemonics of dyke-building in early medieval Britain, focusing on the process of rampart construction, their appropriation of striking landmarks and ancient monuments, and strategies of place-naming. Together, this evidence contests dykes as either purely military/ territorial constructions or conversely as royal projects whose ideological motives were focused on promoting the authority, prestige and fame their creators. Instead, I suggest that linear earthworks fostered and transformed mobilities and social memories through their construction and implementation. This approach is explored in relation to archaeological evidence for the largest of Britain’s linear earthworks – Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke – as well as smaller-scale linear earthworks in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, East Anglia and southern England. As complex monuments built to transform landscapes and control movement through them, I present the case that linear monuments created a genealogical and legendary ‘fame’ as a strategy of memory-making which worked to articulate and project the identities of kings and kingdoms beyond their core territories into contested frontier zones.

Rethinking the building of linear earthworks

I review important new work that identifies the importance of the utilising the concept of chaîne opératoire to inform the process of construction of early medieval linear earthworks in socio-political, economic, territorial and military terms and specifically in projecting this process across the landscape and into memory. This involves challenging the persistent misunderstanding of the scale and character of work involved in the following key processes:

A second element of understanding linear earthwork building is further consideration of the adjusted-segmented design of linear earthworks (as identified by Ray and Bapty 2016) as part of the chaîne opératoire of design-construction-use of these monuments. Rather than a unique element of Offa’s Dyke, I not only identify further earthworks where this construction method was used, but I also consider how it reveals the organisation and performance of earthwork building.

Placement in the landscape

Having considered the process and construction of building early medieval linear earthworks, we now move to consider their landscape placement, I focus on four points regarding how they were installed to operate in relation to observing and controlling mobility in the early medieval landscape, and again projecting social memories of their buildings onto those navigating the landscape on local, regional and national scales:

Placing and naming: creating fame

The third strand of the argument is to reconsidering early medieval ‘dykes as deeds’ by rethinking place-names as a strategy for creating fame. There are two elements to consider here:

Wat’s Dyke as a case study

Briefly, I will apply this approach to rethinking Britain’s third longest linear monument (behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall) as a case study, considering each of these three strands to consider how the monument might have operated as a ‘deed’ which asserted and constituted social memories of their creators and their claims to identity, power and history through the performance and placement of the construction and subsequent use to choreograph mobility over land and water, as well as through its naming.


Together, this mnemonic approach to early medieval linear earthworks helps us to shift away from monofunctional explanations and to navigate between contrived oppositional stances that perceive these earthworks as military and territorial barriers or alternatively as symbolic expressions of kingship and political hegemony. Instead, through a range of new research on the dating, construction, landscape placement and broader historical and archaeological contexts of linear earthworks of the 5th-9th centuries AD, we can identify their roles in the manipulation and projection of social memories as integral to strategies for the construction and use over the short-term, as well as dykes’ longer legacy and remembrance in the British landscape.


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Biography Howard Williams is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester and researches public archaeology and archaeologies of death and memory. He co-convenes the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory – – co-edits the Offa’s Dyke Journal (2019-present: and writes an academic blog Archaeodeath: . Email: [email protected]

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