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Bokerley Dyke, Dorset and Hampshire

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A view of Bokerly Dyke.

In southern England there is a large expanse1 of gently rising chalk grassland on the Hampshire/Dorset border, near the village of Woodyates, where you can find an abundance of prehistory. Two ancient earthworks dominate this landscape - Bokerley Dyke2 and Grim's Ditch. The area surrounding the dyke is rich in ancient monuments including Penbury Knoll and Mistlebury hill forts, ten round barrows, three long barrows and a ring-shaped earthwork called Soldiers Ring.

There are also three cursuses to be found on the downs. A cursus is a pair of parallel banks constructed by digging two ditches and piling the earth on the inside edges to form the banks, and several cursuses have been discovered in this region of England. Cursus monuments date from the late Stone Age and are thought to have been used as ceremonial or processional routes. They vary in width from 15 to 90 yards, and the lengths vary from 45 yards to more than five miles. This type of feature is always strongly connected with ancient burials or with henges, as part of a planned landscape. The best known example is probably the Greater Cursus at Stonehenge.

Finally there is a henge and an ancient trackway, both in almost unspoilt condition. This entire area offers visitors a fascinating walk through early British history with a superb selection of earthworks and monuments to explore.

The Dyke

Often referred to in documents as Bokerley Ditch, Bokerley Dyke is classed as a Romano-British3 defensive dyke and is 3.25 miles (5.2 km) long. It was constructed as a ditch 18 to 20 ft. deep, and the excavated soil used to form a defensive bank or rampart 20 ft. high. Academically referred to as a linear feature, it is simply a bank and ditch that it is neither rectangular or circular and which has two distinct ends.

Although its precise origins and uses are unknown, it is thought that Bokerley Dyke was an important political and cultural boundary which divided areas showing markedly different patterns of land division. Once established, it was in continual use but it was eventually reworked and adapted to suit the needs of later periods: these may have included the defensive requirements of the later Iron Age, Roman and possibly post-Roman periods.

Proof that it was constructed before the Roman occupation of Britain is provided by the fact it has been cut through by the Ackling Dyke4, a 1st Century Roman Road running from Old Sarum5 to Badbury Rings in Dorset. In the 4th Century AD it was repaired and the section cut by Ackling Dyke rebuilt. The discovery of a coin of Emperor Valens dates this work to shortly after AD 364, when Roman sources report that Britain was attacked by Picts, Scots and Saxons in a supposed Great Conspiracy. This occurred when the garrison of Hadrian's Wall mutinied, which allowed forces to penetrate as far south as Dorset.

Bokerley Dyke appears to be in alignment with Grim's Ditch, another ancient trackway which runs east into Hampshire. They might at one time have been part of a continuous earthwork, but the differing construction styles casts some doubt on that.

The best place to see this feature is at Martin Down where it winds across the downland. The uphill section as it passes the barrows is perhaps the most evocative. Bokerley Dyke has retained some of its previous importance as it now forms part of the county boundary between Hampshire and Dorset.

Bokerley Dyke Origins

Archaeologists agree that the dyke was originally built around 700 to 300 BC by Bronze Age or early Iron Age peoples, but the original purpose of the earthworks still remains a mystery. It has been said by some scholars that it is too small for military use and it may have served to demarcate territory6.

If we could turn back the clock we might find that Bokerley Dyke did not exist in isolation. It may have joined with other defensive systems, evidence of which could have been eradicated by time as the banks were levelled and ditches filled in, and eventually turned into farmland. It might have connected to the local sections of Grim's Ditch to form a cohesive defensive work, which could indicate the existence of either a large well-organized population, or a co-operative group of tribes that offered each other military support. It is evident that whoever built the dyke had settled the area to the eastern side, as the defensive ditch is on the western side of the bank. It could be that it was never completed because either the supposed threat didn't materialise, or the builders were overwhelmed before completion.

Another possibility for the fragmentary nature of the Dyke is simply that the landscape was dramatically different 2,000 years ago. It is possible that the area was more densely wooded and the dyke was constructed to defend the gaps between areas of woodland. There is some supporting evidence of this from the time of the Battle of Hastings. A dense forest called the Andersweald, or Forest of Anders, is known to have covered the countryside to the north of the battle site. In 1066 this was a serious barrier to the advance of the Norman army7. It is not inconceivable that similar dense woodland could have covered southern England from Hastings to the Dorset border when Bokerley Dyke was being built, penetrated only by easily defended tracks.

Further evidence of this is the name 'Bokerley' which could derive from the Anglo-Saxon 'Bok-leag', meaning a feeding ground for fallow deer. If this is correct it suggests the area may have been heavily wooded in the Saxon era as fallow deer do not populate open areas.

Walkers may like to know that the Jubilee Trail crosses Bokerley Dyke just to the south of Martin Down.

Other Monuments Located Within Five Miles of Bokerley Dyke

The population of the area during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age was very active, and the numerous surviving monuments provide evidence of this.

  • Grim's Ditch: A linear earthwork extending 14 miles (23 km) east into Hampshire which differs to Bokerley Dyke as it was constructed by digging a deep ditch and constructing a bank on each side of the ditch with the spoil8.
  • Martin Down: A Bronze Age enclosure settlement with ditch9.
  • Vernditch Chase: Long barrows10.
  • Wor Barrow: A long barrow on Oakley Down, noted as the first properly recorded excavation of a barrow in Britain.11
  • Marleycombe Hill: Part of the Bowerchalke Downs which include Woodminton Down and Knowle Down. A hill top bowl barrow burial.12
  • Pentridge Long Barrows: Numbered 1 to 4.
  • Longbarrow House: A long barrow.
  • Blagdon Hill: A group of round barrows.
  • Bottlebush Down: A barrow cemetery.
  • Scrubbity: A barrow cemetery.
  • Wyke Down: Round barrows and a henge.
  • Oakley Down Barrows: A barrow cemetery.
  • The South Down Ox Drove: An ancient trackway, and round barrows.
  • The Dorset Cursus: The longest known cursus in Britain.
  • Pentridge Cursus: A processional cursus.
  • Gussage St. Michael Cursus: A processional cursus.
1About 7500 acres (3050 hectares)2English Heritage monument number 906268.3The Romano- part of the classification comes from the remodelling during that later era.4Ackling Dyke was recorded in an account of the era by a Dr. Wake Smart in 1887 as the Via Iceniana.5The original settlement of modern-day Salisbury, Wiltshire.6However, hill fort defensive banks and ditches are of similar dimensions.7Any army travelling through dense woodland would be forced to use tracks and pathways. In doing so they would be strung out in long marching columns of four to six abreast. Easy to ambush and slaughter.8Ordnance Survey grid reference SU05651802.9Grid reference SU035204.10Grid reference SU043200.11Grid reference SU012173.12Marleycombe Hill is at map reference SU020226.

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