The Rotherwas Ribbon

The Rotherwas Ribbon before heavy rain.

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit Rotherwas to see the new dis­cov­ery there. The photo above is of what is called either the Rotherwas Ribbon or the Dinedor Serpent. It’s been found dur­ing excav­a­tions to build a new road and it’s all a bit of a mystery.

Roman Ditch in the Rotherwas Ribbon
A Roman ditch cut through the Ribbon.

What you can see is a ditch with a mass of fire-cracked rocks laid over the top of it. It must be at least 2,000 years old because a there’s a Roman ditch cut through it. The best estim­ate at the moment is that it’s Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, as this would match the age of the flints and pot­tery found in the ditch. Another clue is the pres­ence of an Early Bronze Age set­tle­ment a few metres away, the old­est set­tle­ment known in Herefordshire at the moment. Dating the site to the Early Bronze Age cre­ates fur­ther puzzles though because of the use of fire-cracked rock.

Usually if you show archae­olo­gists fire-cracked rock they’ll assume you have a evid­ence of cook­ing. The pot­tery of the time wasn’t really very suit­able for sit­ting over a fire, so instead people would heat rocks and drop them into a pot to boil water. This kind of tech­no­logy was thought to date from around five hun­dred years later the date of this settl­ment. Using the rocks to line a ditch adds to the puzzle as it’s a very dif­fer­ent use. Hereford’s county archae­ology Keith Ray has described it as: “…a very excit­ing find not just for Herefordshire, and not just for the UK, but, appar­ently so far unique in Europe — it has inter­na­tional significance.”

Dr Ray and oth­ers ar e mak­ing some com­par­is­ons to the Ohio Serpent Mound but I’m not sure how help­ful that it. The Rotherwas site is a cut into the land­scape rather than a mound, and it’s a long way from the Ohio Serpent in both time and space. Additionally there’s not really much inform­a­tion about the length or route of the Ribbon. Personally I’d be look­ing more closely at the aven­ues found asso­ci­ated with stone circles of the time in the British Isles.

Rotherwas Ribbon Detail
Stones laid onto the soil. Click for a big­ger photo.

However if you look closely at the Ribbon there are good reas­ons to be scep­tical of it being a track­way. The stones are laid into sandy soil. This simply wouldn’t take reg­u­lar use as a track­way. Nor would you want to build a track into the ground. The Roman Ditch cut through the Ribbon seems to fol­low it to the river. The reason prob­ably isn’t that the Romans saw it and decided to hack it open. Rather the filled in cut would have been bog­gier that the sur­round­ing area, mak­ing it an obvi­ous choice for a ditch.

The state of the Ribbon and asso­ci­ated evid­ence of burn­ing at the site sug­gests that it was only briefly open to the world before being covered over. The re-exposure four thou­sand years later is now a big problem.

There are mem­bers of the pub­lic who’d like the whole site opened so that every­one can access it. The pho­tos I’ve taken are after rain the pre­vi­ous week­end. They were how­ever taken before the ser­i­ously heavy rains which made the inter­na­tional news fell. The site looks to be extremely fra­gile and expos­ure to the ele­ments would seem to be a good way to des­troy it, so some sort of cover would seem to be in order. This is the plan favoured by the local coun­cil. Unfortunately the council’s plan also includes build­ing a major road over the site, which raises its own ques­tions about the effects of shock­waves caused by Heavy Goods Vehicles run­ning over the site. Arguably if built cor­rectly this may pre­serve the remains, but would slice across the Ribbon.

It’s this road which is the most press­ing ques­tion over the Ribbon at the moment. There is an extremely frac­tious debate in Hereford at the moment over the value of the road. Additionally there are alleg­a­tions that the site was dis­covered shortly before local elec­tions and its announce­ment supressed to avoid embar­rass­ment for the rul­ing party. The Ribbon there­fore seems to be caught in a clash between those a long-term view and those whose pos­i­tions require deliv­ery of short-term success.

The ques­tion is whether or not work can be delayed so that the decision is made with more facts about the site, or if the eco­nomy of Herefordshire is in such a bad way that the road must be built as soon as pos­sible — regard­less of what the Ribbon is.

Links to other pages.

Herefordshire County Council have a page with news updates.

If you’re inter­ested in the news of devel­op­ment of the site you’ll find more inform­a­tion at Save the Dinedor Serpent.

The Megalithic Portal has dis­cus­sion on the state of the ser­pent and its implications.

There’s also dis­cus­sion at The Modern Antiquarian.

Anthropology​.net repor­ted on this at the start of the month.

My pho­tos are avail­able on Flickr under a CC licence. The BBC has more pho­tos, but they’re copyrighted.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Martin R says:

    No Mesolithic or Neolithic set­tle­ments known in all of Herefordshire? Not even from field walking?

  2. Alun says:

    It sounds odd and it’s pos­sible I’ve mis­re­membered, because I’d be sur­prised if there wasn’t some meso­lithic flint scat­ter. I think I should have said it’s the earli­est known house. There doesn’t appear to be any­thing earlier where you can point and say people say up home on this spot. One of the reas­ons the local archae­olo­gists are so excited is that it shows that Herefordshire wasn’t a back­wa­ter in the early Bronze Age.

    Whether or not the lack of earlier sites is due to a lack of sites or simply a lack of sur­vey I couldn’t say.