Erik Grigg
Robert Hale, £25
ISBN 978-0719826788
Review Alan Hardy

They are the biggest relics of their age, and there are more than a hundred of them in Britain, yet because they do not easily fit into the modern view of post-Roman society – stripped of its hordes of rampaging Saxons – linear earthworks, or dykes, have become almost invisible.

But ignoring them will not explain these puzzling structures, nor make them go away. In this book, Grigg presents a well-argued case that seeks to rehabilitate them as practical defensive structures, showing how useful they were in the relatively chaotic centuries after the collapse of the Roman order and before the emergence of fortified burghs, which were, he suggests, the logical successors to dykes.

Beginning with a very useful résumé of the changing interpretations of conflict in post-Roman society, Grigg examines how this has affected the perceived role of dykes. He is not convinced by modern attempts to reinterpret them as ritual sites, inter-tribal boundary markers, or trading control stations. He argues that in an age of low-level, endemic inter-tribal conflict, warfare most often took the form of raiding (or being raided by) neighbouring tribes. How do you protect yourself, and your tribe, without recourse to standing armies? Constructed across likely routeways, dykes would not only defend against incoming raiders, and provide a platform for defence, but would greatly hinder the driving of stolen cattle, a prime raiders’ target, out of your territory.

Grigg’s calculations show that, contrary to many presumptions, surprisingly few people would be required to build the majority of dykes. Only in the later 7th and 8th centuries, as kingdoms coalesced, did they become more statements of a kingdom’s power, culminating in the grandiose enterprise we know as Offa’s Dyke – one of the last constructed.

Despite no mention of them in its title (curious!), this book is a thorough and readable examination of every aspect of these enigmatic structures. Supported by much archaeological and historical data, as well as by personal observation, Grigg argues a forceful case for their rehabilitation as practical elements of defensive infrastructure in the uncertain context of early medieval Britain.

This review appeared in CA 354.

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