by Grace Woolmer-White
The Cleaven Dyke (PKHER: MPK6611) is a linear earthwork running for around two kilometres, located north of the village of Meikleour within the broad valley of Strathmore, on a plateau with the rivers Tay, Isla and Lunan Burn to its west, south and east. It comprises a pair of widely spaced parallel ditches flanking a central bank, broadly aligned overall northwest to southeast. It runs through woodland as an upstanding earthwork for 1800m and a further 350m survives as a cropmark in arable land at its south-eastern end. The two ditches lie between 38-50m apart and vary between 1.5-5m in width; the central bank is between 7-15m wide and up to 1.7m high. Neither are continuous, with causeways likely along the ditches and the central bank appearing to have several gaps, including that where the A93 passes through it.
Due to its apparent straightness and regularity and proximity to Inchtuthil Legionary Fortress, the monument was originally thought to be of Roman construction. However, following an increase in Neolithic monuments identified in Tayside from aerial photography, and recognition of the variation and complexity in the monument’s construction, it is now recognised as a cursus monument of Neolithic date (4000 BC- 2500 BC).
The Cleaven Dyke appears to be first mentioned in Pennant’s Tour of Scotland 1772 (1776) where Thomas Marshall, a local man, gives an account of the monument:
“The Romans profited of the commodious accident of the two rivers, the Tay and the Illa, which unite at a certain distance below. These formed two secure fences: the Romans made a third wall of great thickness, defended again by a ditch both on the inside and the outside. These extend three miles in a line from the Tay to the Illa, leaving within a vast space, in form of a delta… I must note that the wall is styled the Cleaving Wall.”
This interpretation is unchanged in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland in 1797 or Knox (1891), indicating the start of the tradition of the Cleaven Dyke as Roman in origin at least from the 1776. The Dyke is first mapped on Stobie’s map of 1783 and also on Omie’s map of 1784, which both shows the dyke labelled as ‘Roman Camp’ and ‘Roman Wall’ and connecting with a redoubt at the south east end (later identified as an Hallhole early medieval square barrow). Stobie’s shows no more detail beyond a stylised representation, but Omie’s does depict the bank and ditches, although these are basic and still ruler straight.
Some excavation at the Dyke was undertaken in the early twentieth century by Abercromby (1901) and Richmond (1939). Both approached the dyke on the assumption that it was Roman and continued to promote it as such, despite there being no direct archaeological evidence for this from their investigations. From the information published about each of their excavations, which each comprised three sections cut across the line of the bank, the bank was constructed of a sand and gravel, with an external revetment of clayish material. While Abercromby described it as running ‘perfectly straight’ (1902: 235), Richmond recorded some variation in its course. Richmond also suggested that the monument was ‘valueless as a defence’ (1940: 43), the ditches being not substantial enough or the bank high enough, and instead suggested it was a Roman political boundary.
Modern investigation and interpretation
Roman interpretation of the Cleaven Dyke was increasingly challenged in the 1980s as irregularity in the shape and alignment of the bank and ditches was recognised from aerial photography. Such characteristics were more similar to Neolithic monuments, and between 1993-97, a programme of survey and excavation of the monument was carried out by Gordon Barclay and Gordon Maxwell. This included two seasons of excavation in 1993 and 1995 and a complete detailed contour survey carried out along the length of the Cleaven Dyke between 1994-7.
The Dyke appeared to have been built from NW to SE and contained four clear deliberate breaks (likely original), which separated the monument into five sections of different lengths. Within each section (excluding the fifth section which is represented only by a cropmark), clear segments were identifiable. There were 28 of these across the upstanding section of the monument, which varied in structure and scale, being marked by: variations in the height of the central bank; slight changes in the alignments of the bank and ditches; changes in the width of the ditches and platforms between the central bank and ditches; and changes in the shape of the bank. Generally, the NW portion of the monument (comprising sections A and B) was more regular and straight in construction, whereas to the SE, section of the monument were less constant and more irregular.
Several barrows also appeared to be incorporated within the Dyke. The monument was at its tallest and broadest at the NW terminal, and here, it appeared to be formed by an oval mound on an E-W axis, measuring 28m wide by 22m long. Attached to the east end of this, a long barrow runs SE for 80m. The flanking ditches of the cursus monument accompany neither this oval mound or long barrow, starting only around 90m down from the NW terminal of the monument, and it is here that the cursus monument begins ‘proper’. A third possible barrow appears to have been incorporated into Section C of the Dyke, which terminates at its SE end with a long mound 88m long, and oval swelling 14m wide by 23m long, very much mirroring the NW terminal of the monument.
The purpose and constructional variations seen within the Cleaven Dyke can only be guessed at. Cursus monuments are generally thought to have a processional function relating to the surrounding landscape, while the segmentation of the monument suggests that its construction was progressive over time, although it is hard to say how much time elapsed between the construction of each distinct section and segments. If each segment was annual, then it could have been completed within a lifetime, but each segment may also have been constructed for certain events or purposes, such as births or deaths of individuals. The variation seen in the shape of each of the segments may be a deliberate way of emphasising these different constructional events, while the difference between the more consistent NW sections of the monument and more irregular SE sections may reflect a more fundamental change in design or intent. However, it is essential to consider that whatever the reasons involved in the construction of the individual parts of the monument, it is, overall, a single monument, and continuity was clearly intended and an integral part of its function and meaning.
The Cleaven Dyke is a remarkable and unique monument. It is well preserved, and one of only a handful of upstanding cursus and bank barrow monuments in Scotland, making it of regional, national and international importance. Rig and furrow cultivation remains were observed by RCAHMS surveyors between the bank and southern ditch indicating that the upstanding monument was respected during the Medieval and later periods, and the woodland plantation the Cleaven Dyke is situated within (first depicted on Stobie’s 1783 map and changing to its modern line by the 2nd edition OS Map) is likely to have protected from later cultivation, as attested to by the ploughed out section of the monument at the SE end.
However, although protecting it, forestry also has the potential to threaten the monument. Large sections of the monument were cleared of trees by the estate, at the request of Historic Scotland, over a decade from around 2000. There has been failure to manage these cleared areas, however, and woodland regeneration is an ongoing concern. Careful and sensitive woodland management, as part of a wider management plan and to consider the impact of visitors is required to protect and preserve this precious monument, and to safeguard its future.
Full discussion of the monument and the 1993-7 investigations are published in Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph 13 which is freely available to download online.
Abercromby, J, Ross, T and J 1902 ‘Account of the excavation of the Roman station at Inchtuthill, Perthshire, undertaken by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1901′, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 36, 234-6.
Barclay, GJ and Maxwell, GS 1998 The Cleaven Dyke and Littleour: monuments in the Neolithic of Tayside. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh.
Burgess, C, Barclay, GJ and Maxwell, GS 1996 ‘Cleaven Dyke (Caputh; Lethlendy parishes), cursus monument/bank barrow’, Discovery Excav Scot 1996, 82.
Marshall, T 1776 ‘Of Certain antiquities in the neighbourhood of Perth’, in Pennant, TA Tour in Scotland 1772, 451-3.
McOmie, J 1784 Plan of the Roman Wall and Camp near Mickleour. Manuscript copy in Perth Museum.
Richmond, IA 1940 ‘Excavations on the Estate of Meikleour, Perthshire, 1939‘, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 74, 40-8.
Stobie, J 1783 The Counties of Perth and Clackmannan, Surveyed and published by James Stobie; Engraved by Thomas Conder (SRO: RHP 570). London.