About the Project

In Britain, there have been two main periods of building monumental linear earthworks, the Iron Age and early middle ages. Despite this, and other similarities, these periods have never been studied comparatively. The construction of such labour-intensive structures reflects a step-change in social organization in each period, revealing a capacity to mobilise large populations from wide geographic regions. Viewing the transformation of these societies through these monuments offers a new perspective on expressions of power, in comparison to the study of ostentatious graves and extensive settlements around which traditional narratives of social organisation are constructed. What makes these societies distinctive in this way?

Around 550 linear earthworks in the UK are thought to date to the Iron Age and early medieval periods. Although well-catalogued in national listings, individual records are mostly brief and ambiguous. Certain monuments have received greater attention than others. For the Iron Age, these include Ave’s Ditch, the Oxfordshire Grim’s Ditches and the multiple ditch systems of East Yorkshire. The well-known earthworks of the early middle ages include Offa’s Dyke and Wansdyke. The studies of this individual earthworks have prompted speculations about the organization of labour within the societies that built them.

Despite similarities in the evidence, research traditions and interpretative frameworks vary between Iron Age and early medieval scholars. In a move away from perceiving linear earthworks as territorial boundaries, prehistorians increasingly view such features as attempts to choreograph movement, focusing on their relationship with ‘territorial oppida’. Early medievalists, meanwhile, place such features in the context of boundaries and frontiers. This research will reflect upon these traditions to invigorate debates about social complexity and develop applications that can be utilised in wider geographical regions and periods. Few historical archaeologists have considered early medieval earthworks, while prehistorians have instead concentrated on the earliest phases of land divisions during the Bronze Age.

Project Objectives

The project will redress the scholarly neglect of linear earthworks by including, for the first time, all known examples across Britain. We define the earthworks for study by their monumental characteristics, compared to more functional features such as drainage ditches and field boundaries.

Our project has the following objectives:

i) To produce the first definitive atlas of linear earthworks across Britain.

ii) To quantify the construction of these monuments by applying newly developed methods for labour estimation.

iii) To produce new theoretical models of social organization and complexity based on empirical data.