Ackling Dyke: A Significant Roman Road?

At 22 miles long, the Ackling Dyke is considerably shorter than more famous Roman roads in Britain such as the Fosseway. Even so, its significance should not be underestimated. 

Stretching between the ancient settlement of Old Sarum near Salisbury and the Iron Age hill fort at Badbury Rings in Dorset.The road tells a story of how the Romans enforced military dominance over the Britons both physically and symbolically.

The Ackling Dyke formed an important link between the settlement and its surrounding hinterland and the fort, along with its adjoining small town and Romano-Celtic temple.

Badbury Rings
This is an early aerial photograph of Badbury Rings taken in 1928 by Wessex from the Air. The Ackling Dyke can be seen running from the top center to the center left of the image. It’s worth noting how the outer rampart connects with the road, covering the southeastern bank and ditch.

This meant that the Ackling Dyke road was not only used by the Roman military, but also for trade and religious pilgrimage, meaning that it was walked by all strata of Romano-British society.

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The majority of the road is constructed as an impressively large embankment, measuring up to 50 ft (15 m) in width and 6 ft (1.8 m) in height. This remarkable width surpasses that of typical Roman roads.

Such a grand structure would have been easily noticeable from a considerable distance and undoubtedly served the purpose of leaving a strong impression on the local inhabitants. From an engineering perspective, this extensive embankment might have been considered unnecessary, but its primary function was to offer a swift and efficient transit route for soldiers across Cranborne Chase.

Old Sarum

Originally part of the territory of the Gallo-British Atrebates, Old Sarum submitted to the Roman emperor Augustus, and the Atrebates became known as the Regni. 

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After the Roman conquest, the Romans called Old Sarum ‘Sorviodunum’. Old Sarum would have appealed to the Romans for its defensive qualities, being an old hill fort with its double bank and ditch defences. 

Old Sarum, Wiltshire, England

For the Romans, the control of Old Sarum meant the control of the entire surrounding area and the benefits that came with it. Food and supplies for their military, a native British population on which to exact taxes and military service, and an already existing road junction which could be expanded to serve the ever growing needs of the Roman soldiers stationed at the hill fort.

The control of Old Sarum went beyond physical control. The Roman occupation of the massive hill fort would have had a symbolic effect also.

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The settlement was hugely important to the native British, being so close to Stonehenge and Avebury henge which bore huge significance, and its conquest by the Romans would have done much to quell any rebellious ideas harboured amongst their subjects.

Such an important place needed to be connected to the network of Roman roads, in order to maintain control, and six roads are known to have led out of Old Sarum. One of them was the Ackling Dyke which ran southwest toward Dorchester.

The Dyke Itself

The Ackling Dyke road ran across Cranborne Chase, giving Roman soldiers a rapid route across a potentially difficult to cross area.

Ackling Dyke Roman Road
Its grand scale would have been visible from afar. Interestingly, from an engineering perspective, such a sizeable embankment was unnecessary, suggesting its primary purpose was to showcase the might and power of the Roman presence.

The large size of the Ackling Dyke meant that it would have been visible from a great distance, especially on the high ground of Cranborne. 

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As there was little need architecturally for this great size, it was likely a symbolic show of power, designed to impress upon the native British the power of Roman rule. The construction of large earthworks as a display of power had been used since the Neolithic, in the form of barrows, dykes and hill forts, all usually placed in prominent positions on the landscape for all to see.

Another clue to the Roman symbolic dominance in the landscape can be seen in the way the Ackling Dyke cuts through earlier prehistoric earthworks and barrows.

Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery on the Cranborne Chase, Dorset.
A rare Bronze Age disc barrow that has had the bottom sliced off by a Roman Road. This is the Old Sarum to Badbury Rings Roman road cutting through the Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery on the Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

In doing so, the Romans effectively signalled to their British subjects that their previous places of power were now insignificant.

Badbury Rings

At the other end of the Ackling Dyke lay another hill fort called Badbury Rings. Originally built in the Iron Age, this fort had multiple bank and ditch defences and an inner enclosure. The significant defences would have been an imposing feature on the surrounding landscape.

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Badbury Rings is the fifth in a series of Iron Age earthworks. Within a sequential array of Iron Age earthworks, commencing from Hambledon Hill and encompassing Hod Hill, Spetisbury Rings, Buzbury Rings, Badbury Rings, and culminating with Dudsbury Camp.

roman road
Ackling Dyke, running next to Badbury Rings Iron Age hillfort

Whereas the hillfort at Old Sarum had been ruled by the Atrebates before the Roman conquest, Badbury Rings was originally controlled by the Durotriges, another British tribe whose territory neighboured the Atrebates.

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When the Durotriges too fell to the Romans and Badbury Rings came under Roman control, the construction of the Ackling Dyke would have been incredibly important as a connecting road between the two hill forts which were used to control two neighbouring British tribes. 

Communication between the Roman garrisons at Old Sarum and Badbury Rings would have been vital to quell any dissent or uprisings, lest the two tribes band together and force the Romans to fight on two fronts. So the Ackling Dyke provided a fast route for Roman messengers and soldiers between the two forts.

Roman road lidar
Stood right in the middle of the Salisbury to Badbury Rings Roman road. Blue arrow – me. Red arrow, Roman road. Yellow arrow – modern day A354.

The Badbury Rings hill fort overlooked a small Romano-British town, a short distance to the southwest, known as Vindocladia. This small town would have been home to Romans and native British alike.

Occupied from before the Roman conquest into the 5th century, the town was expanded by the Romans and another small fort was built in the 1st century, which may have given the town its name Vindocladia, meaning “white earthwork”.

The presence of a fort and evidence of ironwork, including smithing hearths, suggests that one of the purposes of this town may have been to supply and repair arms and armour to the Roman soldiers stationed in and around the Badbury Rings hill fort.

Approximate site of Vindocladia, looking northeast towards Badbury Rings

It is likely that the Ackling Dyke was used to transport trade goods and military supplies between the settlements of Old Sarum, Badbury Rings and Vindocladia.

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Just west of Badbury Rings lies the site of a Romano-Celtic temple, which was used from the 1st to the 5th centuries; roughly the same period as the occupation of Roman Vindocladia. With stone roof slabs, and painted plaster walls this small temple may have been visited by Romans and British alike, with finds of both Roman and Durotrigian coins within the temple boundaries.

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Despite its small length, the Ackling Dyke tells a great story. It shows a dynamic world in which Roman and Briton alike lived, worked and worshiped alongside each other, under the ever-present dominance of Roman occupied hill forts and the earthwork dykes that crisscrossed the landscape.