Do not go gentle: we need you

For years the Offa’s Dyke Association has been my favourite source for updates on early mediaeval Welsh border studies. If the association’s volunteers or staff don’t have an answer, then surely one of the historians or archaeologists who underpin its efforts will know.

Offa's Dyke in Northern Shropshire near Trefonen village
Offa’s Dyke in Northern Shropshire near Trefonen village. Photo courtesy of Offa’s Dyke Association.

In the late 1970s I started reading about Offa’s Dyke—the earthwork built in the late eighth century mainly between the English kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys—as a reflection of early English-Welsh relations. By then the ODA had been an energetic, visionary organization for a decade. Two years ago today, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary, one of the speakers was a University of Chester archaeologist who has been a mainstay of the ODA’s research and public education programs, Professor Howard Williams.

On various projects over the years I have asked questions of scholarly writers, many in the disciplines of history, archaeology, earth sciences, early literature and languages. Most are helpful, but a few stand out for aid to a non-academic writer. One of these is Howard Williams.

A couple of years ago I read a paper by Prof. Williams on the archaeology of Offa’s Dyke, which along with the later Welsh memorial cross Eliseg’s Pillar and the poetry cycle Canu Heledd, anchors a fascinating period of Welsh-English history.

Prof. Williams’s paper shed new light on the subject, but when I tried to access his other work, I ran into paywalls and sheer unavailability in Western Canada. As a last hope I wrote to ask him how to read further. He immediately pointed me toward new papers and open-access sources.

Later I discovered his entertaining and informative blog, Archaeodeath: Death & Memory – Past & Present, which offers commentary on “research interests in mortuary archaeology and archaeologies of memory as well as archaeological heritage, the Middle Ages, public archaeology and contemporary archaeology.”

If you think that’s a dry subject, you’re wrong. The Archaeodeath blog romps through zombie movies, Vikings real and imagined, The Dig and other films in their historic context, every possible permutation of Offa’s Dyke and other border studies, Eliseg’s Pillar (Prof. Williams codirected a 2011 excavation, Project Eliseg, with Prof. Nancy Edwards and Dr. Gary Robinson) and discussion of mortuary monuments in today’s landscape. Prof. Williams did much of his recent research with his children in tow during a stringent pandemic lockdown.

His blog, like his broader social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), is a model for popular outreach by a working archaeologist and is highly valued both at the community level and among academics. Williams thinks it’s less important to complain about inaccurate popular treatments of historical subjects than to raise public interest and encourage involvement, for example in groups like the ODA.

Take a look around Archaeodeath and you’ll see what I mean:

https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/

But on 1 April 2021 yet another pandemic disaster struck. Prof. Williams was put on notice that his university position, in fact his entire department, was at risk of being made redundant. He and his colleagues are currently waiting to hear the outcome.

A petition to continue funding Archaeology & Heritage at the University of Chester received a remarkable 4,266 signatures.

This is a major blow to Offa’s Dyke studies, said ODA chairman Dave McGlade.

“The outreach work of the department is second to none without which the ODA would not be where it is today,” he wrote. “The staffs’ friendly guidance, and they are always willing to listen, has encouraged us to become more proactive in our own outreach and conservation work, safe in the knowledge that when we need it there is advice close to hand. Good reputations take time, relationships between organisations don’t happen overnight and the University of Chester’s Heritage and Archaeology staff have helped to nurture connections between experts and lay people the length of the Dyke.”

“The University of Chester is such a natural fit for a Faculty of Heritage/Archaeology,” Andy Heaton, another ODA member, wrote to me. “Cities such as York and Bath have successful schools of Archaeology, so why not Chester?  Howard [Williams] has done an enormous amount of outreach work; his boundless enthusiasm has led to the development of archaeological initiatives in the locality.” 

The ODA and other local history organizations would be at a loss without the digs, reports and lectures offered by Prof. Williams and his colleagues at the University of Chester.

If you care about studies in the early Welsh-English landscape and history, or even about good research and outreach in a general way, consider following these sites to support the department’s struggle for survival:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ArchaeologyChe1

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArchaeologyChester-113512180835613

WordPress: https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/

Meanwhile, let’s hope the University of Chester comes to its senses, realizes what a treasure it has in Archaeology & Heritage and scraps this ill-timed talk of redundancy. We all have better things than worrying to do with our summer—such as taking a walk on Offa’s Dyke.