Was the Devil’s Dyke in England once Part of the Legendary City of Troy?
In a small village northeast of Cambridge, near the most northern route of the ancient Icknield Way, a great 'dyke' emerges smoothly from the ground and rises to over two stories high. This incredible earthwork stretches for nearly eight miles, heading southeast to Wood Ditton. This huge bank and ditch are assumed to be of Anglo-Saxon origin and is the most complete of all the dykes in Britain. However, some researchers say that Troy was in fact in this area, and the Devil’s Dyke is proof of that.
Devil's Dyke circa 1853 (public domain)
We visited two parts of the dyke with author David Hatcher Childress and Jennifer Bolm recently, along with local archaeologist Michelle Bullivant. We started our survey at Reach, where the earthwork officially starts, however Michelle quickly corrected what was written on the information board by explaining that it once continued northwest for a few hundred more yards, in to the village to join up with the Fen edge.
Archaeologist Michelle Bullivant and Author Hugh Newman. Credit: Hugh Newman
Devil's Dyke was built in the 'prehistoric' style, looking like the builders were the same team who constructed Avebury henge or the ditches around Maiden Castle in Dorset, only not circular or irregularly shaped, but a dead-straight, mega-earthwork that disappears in to the distance. Whether the dyke was actually constructed around the time of Avebury and Stonehenge, or whether it was a Saxon defense is still undecided by archaeologists.
“There have been several archaeological excavations through the Dyke in the 20th century. In 1973, during the construction of the A14, an archaeological section was excavated and this helped to reveal how the Dyke may have been constructed. It showed that the first stage was a marker bank using topsoil from the immediate area. Material was then quarried from the ditch and was hoisted to the top of the bank in great tips on earth hauling ramps. Gangs of workers were responsible for different sections. However, it is thought that the defenses went out of use after only a few years but it did confirm a construction date in the 5th or 6th century AD .”
However, since then Roman coins have been discovered there, and under Fleam Dyke. Michelle Bullivant also told me that the Romans knew about how the dykes were being used by Boudica’s army in the first century AD. In Fleam Dyke, some early and middle bronze-age pot sherds were discovered, so this could push the date even further back to around the time of Troy (1500 BC) or even to the era of Avebury (3000 BC).
The Devil’s Dyke, Cambridgeshire, UK. (CC BY 2.0)
Who Made the Mysterious Creations, and Why?
When contemplating the immense size of the dyke, I often wonder what must have gone through the minds of the builders when the foreman said, "Ok, this dyke is going to be at least 30 feet high, with a rampart of 20 feet below ground level and, let’s say, make it eight miles long?" The sighs must have echoed through eternity.
The official line that the “Saxons did it” suggests there must have been rather a lot of them, but why? That is the big mystery of this incredible engineering marvel. It appears to have been put there to stop something coming through from the southwest, as the ditch is on along the inland edge. Whether it was the invading tribes from the southwest and Queen Boudica was trying to protect her territory in the first century AD, or whether it may have been constructed much earlier, will be discussed shortly, but like with many earthen henges (such as Wandlebury,) defense may not have been its primary purpose.
Suggestions from various researchers propose it was used as a 'toll' for travelers upon the Icknield Way, as this ancient track had multiple pathways along its length, not just a single track. It’s interesting to see on old maps that the different tracks on the Icknield Way do tend to stretch about as wide as the total width of the dykes, strengthening the 'toll' theory for the purpose of its construction, to be able to control trade and movement in the area.
Icknield Way, Lewknor, Oxfordshire, Great Britain. (David Hawgood / CC BY-SA 2.0)
History of the Dykes
During the Middle Ages it was known as 'St Edmund's Dyke', because it marked the limit of the jurisdiction of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds. From the Middle Ages there are references to the 'Great Ditch'. During the 11th century siege of Ely by William the Conqueror, it was referred to as 'Reach Dyke'. Devil's Dyke or Ditch is a post-medieval name, probably deriving from a belief that such landforms must be of supernatural origin.