Dykes and Comics (i)

Today I’ve been at the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory meeting at the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton. It’s been a day-long research symposium, with a wide range of presentations given about Offa’s Dyke, its history and archaeology, as well as its conservation and preservation and the part it plays in local leisure and tourism.

I also gave a presentation – about the appearance of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in the Oswestry Heritage Comics, and the role comics can play more generally in public outreach about these (and other) earthwork monuments. The full text of my paper is here, if you’re interested, along with a .pdf of the accompanying slides. In that presentation, I showed some new comics about Offa’s Dyke – examples of how I thought comics could be used to help explain some of the research being done about earthwork monuments. I thought I’d take a little time here to talk about one of them in a bit more detail.

We often associate comics with the idea of “public” outreach – as a way to bring a particular kind of visibility to complex or unfamiliar information to a non-specialist audience. But comics can also be used as outreach when talking to highly-specialised audiences as well. Comics used to bring visibility to aspects of scholarship can do all the same things that we have seen comics do in public outreach: they can add visual context to explanation, introduce and de-complicate subjects, locate specific information within broader frameworks, make connections and links with other research – even invite participation. Narrative can be used to ground and humanise both research and interpretation – something which becomes important if one wishes to present models of past social practice as dynamic, and landscapes as inhabited. For example: within discussions about the past meaning of Offa’s Dyke authors often consider its implications as a social frontier, as a materialisation of a borderlands between cultures, of a space between Mercia and Powys, between ‘Englishness’ and ‘Welshness”, and as a meeting point shaped by the rivalries of power and kinship:

Recent re-appraisal of the nature of Mercian power under Penda has referred to it in terms of ‘hegemony’, although this can be a mercurial term. … he epitomised traits of kingship that both looked back to the heroic age of warbands held together by gift-giving and loosely organised polities bonded by kinship, and forward to the age of inter-kingdom relations managed through diplomacy, hostage exchange, and ever more strategic use of marriage-based alliances. This transition continued well into the era in which Offa’s Dyke was built.

Bapty, Ian & Ray, Keith, Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain, p. 103.

Conflict between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the various Welsh kingdoms could be inclined to break out at various intervals although they could also be allies. […] Then, as now, the actual border between Englishness and Welshness was doubtless somewhat blurred in the borderlands, and inter-marriage normal.

Hill, David & Worthington, Margaret, Offa’s Dyke, p. 108.

Larger boundary dykes, though unrecorded historically, are often assumed … to mark the territorial edges of different ethnic or national groups. … But the survival of the ethnic identity of villages divided by Offa’s Dyke proves that it was not the absolute ethnic boundary that early scholars believed.

Zaluckyj, Sarah, Mercia, p. 187.

But such interpretative discussions lose their impact in text alone. After all, when we talk about marriage or hostage-taking, even wealth or trade, we are talking about events and situations that impact individual lives at the level of emotion: of love, jealousy, ambition, greed and pride. Academic text is somewhat unsuited for this kind of discussion – it renders it dispassionate, objective and remote. If such interpretations are to have meaning in scholarship, if we want to understand how intermarriage or mercantile rivalry might drive Mercian foreign policy, early mediaeval economics or Anglo-Welsh culture, and thus how they might be reflected in historical and archaeological data – then we must try and render such interpretations passionate, subjective and intimate.

Marriage, violence, ethnicity and greed along C.8th Offa’s Dyke

The comic I created to help demonstrate this (left), shows how, in combining text and image, we can bring to such interpretations historical and cultural grounding, a narrative flow, and a sense of emotional depth – all things which are actually meaningful in the contexts of such discussion. Such works need be no more than a single page; they need not end up veering away from data towards drama. It is not necessary to go all “Game of Thrones” in order to make good use of comics in this context – what is needed, however, is that we recognise that leaving statements like these as academic text renders significant aspects of our interpretations invisible and thus un-examinable; comics, however, can contribute an important kind of visibility. Archaeologists and historians sometimes use terms such as “hostage exchange” or “inter-marriage” a little loosely, assuming that their audiences know and understand exactly what those phrases mean – or, perhaps more accurately, exactly what the authors mean by those phrases. But these are mercurial terms, and their meanings can easily shift. Granted, one might not want to try and provide an exhaustive definition of the possible Mercian social and cultural context of “hostage exchange” in a book primarily about the construction of an earthwork monument, but not attempting at least some kind of definition is somewhat disingenuous, as it effectively limits an audience’s ability to examine and critique the use of that term. This is where narrative visualisation could become important: as a way to suggest a context without necessarily pinning down an absolute definition. In the comic to the left, “inter-marriage” is framed (literally, in terms of the laying-out of the accompanying images) by notions of power, wealth and greed, ethnicity and ethnic rivalry, inter-generational conflict and even literacy and romantic love. It is also – again, literally – situated within the physical landscape of Offa’s Dyke, and a grounded, inhabited picture of the past. The result is something which uses the narrative and visual potential of comics to go beyond a strictly “literal” presentation of information to instead present a context for interpretation; a basis for which assumptions made in text alone (“inter-marriage”) can be interrogated and – if necessary – challenged. More, the scholarly exercise of constructing such a comic – even a single-page one like this – engages a different kind of critique than the one academia is used to, sparking of interesting examinations of one’s own research. Pr. Stephen Hodkinson, who worked as historical advisor on the graphic novel Three, about Sparta – makes similar points in his discussions with the graphic novel writer Kieron Gillen. Indeed, Stephen has found the process of thinking through research in comic-format so valuable that he has been actively looking at presenting his own research as a comic.

Such interpretative presentations can be rendered as easily for academic publication as for popular, and can usefully stimulate parallel discussions at various levels. Such works become windows into our data and the interpretative assumptions of scholarship – and access points for interdisciplinary collaboration, moments at which – for example – economic data, osteological data and survey data might come together with anthropology, ethnography and psychology. As I work more with comics in this way, I see increasing evidence of a new kind of visibility brought to such interdisciplinary discourse, allowing scholars to reach new kinds of audiences in new ways – both within and outside their particular area of speciality, both within and outside the otherwise sometimes narrow confines of the academy. I think that it is comics such as these – less so comics like the Oswestry Heritage ones – which offer the greatest potential to archaeological scholarship: unlocking not just a new way to visualise research – but to see research. I know from my experience of working with comics over the past ten years that once you start to see archaeological information in comic format, you begin to see archaeological information differently. 

Thanks very much to Pr. Howard Williams, the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory, the Offa’s Dyke Association and the Offa’s Dyke Centre for organising today’s meeting. Very much looking forward to the next one!

Researching Offa’s Dyke – Week 41 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Offa’s Dyke is a long earthwork monument that winds its way down the English-Welsh border. Most people know it as a long-distance footpath – but it’s actually a frontier marker that was the boundary between the Kingdom of Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys in the AD 700’s. It was said to have been built by Offa, the King of Mercia. During his reign (AD 757 – 796), there were frequent military skirmishes and battles between Mercia and Powys. But there was also rich trade in cattle between the two kingdoms. The Dyke was probably as much a way to control this trade and extract taxes from drovers and merchants as it was a military frontier designed to keep invaders.

The Dyke itself is a long ditch dug along the border, with a high earth bank on the English side. There may have been a walkway or even, in some places, a wooden wall or “palisade” along the top. The Dyke was not continuous – there were gaps in it, sometimes as long as several miles. It seems from this that the Dyke may have been built only in those places where it was really “needed”. Part of its purpose may not have been to act as a physical barrier so much as a psychological one: the Dyke was a monumental construction, which took years of organisation, planning and effort to carry out. It is the longest and largest such structure built in Europe since the Romans built the Antonine Wall in Scotland almost six hundred years earlier. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne acknowledged Offa’s remarkable achievement.

But despite its significance and importance, Offa’s Dyke – and Wat’s Dyke, a slightly later, shorter earthwork – is still not well understood. There are many questions still surrounding the role that the Dyke played in Mercian foreign policy, the impact it had on local economics and trade, and the part it played in both keeping “English” and “Welsh” peoples apart – and, interestingly, bringing them together. In addition to its archaeological and historical significance, the Dyke is also an important local heritage and leisure asset for present-day Borderlands communities – the Offa’s Dyke long-distance trail, for example, attracts hundreds of walkers every year. The Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory has been set up as a research network to bring together people who are interested in all aspects of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke (and other late-mediaeval earthworks across Britain). The Collaboratory involves archaeologists and historians, but also ecologists and council planning officers as well as teachers and walkers. These people are looking at Offa’s Dyke and other earthwork monuments in a broad and connected way: history and education, tourism and planning. The result is a really dynamic research community that is bringing both new scholarship and new engagement to these monuments. It’s a great example of the way in which a research group can bring together not just scholars and scientists, but community groups and local residents to share ideas and concerns – and explore solutions.

The Collaboratory is having its next meeting this week: this Friday, March 23rd at 10:30am, in the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton. Everyone is very welcome to attend. There’s a full day of presentations planned – including one by myself, all about the role comics can play in outreach for such monuments, drawing on the example of the Oswestry Heritage Comics. There will be plenty of time for questions and conversation, plus you’ll have an opportunity to take a tour of the excellent displays about the Dyke at the Centre. The full day’s schedule is below:

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Great to see via Facebook that my Radiocarbon Dating comic that I did for the Center for Applied Isotope Studies (University of Georgia) has been donated to the group Archaeologists for Autism. They give the comic a double thumbs-up:

“It is a struggle each year to find archaeology materials for the AFA goodie bags besides posters. This [comic] is exactly the type of thing needed to educated and promote archaeology for everyone – it’s inclusive, bilingual [in English and Spanish], well done and fun. We need more materials like this…”

Very proud to get such a positive review. And the best news is that there IS more material like this on its way: the next comic in the series – about lead isotope analysis – is finished and should hit the shelves soon!

You can order copies of the comics via the CAIS website.

The Life-Saving Stove

The Life Saving Stove – Week 40 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

One of the great pleasures of doing the Oswestry Heritage Comics has been getting to meet local history and heritage researchers in Oswestry – and discover the fascinating work that they have been doing, often on very specific subjects. Simon Jarman MBE is a local historian and former army chef who has done extensive research into the heritage and history of military food. As the old saying goes, an army marches on its stomach – and that was perhaps never more so than during the Crimean War (1853-1856). At that time, food preparation and provision for British troops was pretty ad-hoc. Each regiment, each division had their own method of supplying and cooking rations. There was no formal training on how to cook for large numbers of men in the field, and no special equipment. The result was that food was prepared inefficiently and inconsistently. Large fires were lit with whatever fuel was available, pots of various sizes were filled with water and brought to boil, and lumps of salt meat were put in them to heat through. Fuel was wasted and food took a long time to cook – such a long time, in fact, that meat was often eaten only partially cooked. Malnutrition and food poisoning were common, and illness began to take as high a toll as injury.

Alexis Soyer was a Frenchman who was working in Oswestry. He was a clever, resourceful man with an inventive mind and a reforming, progressive outlook. During the Irish famine, he came up with a way to cook cheap, plentiful soup, and was commissioned by the British government to set up “soup kitchens” to help alleviate the famine. He designed a table-top stove that could be used to cook even in rented accommodation where there was no proper stove. He wrote “shilling cookbooks” to educate people how to prepare nutritious meals on a strict budget with basic pans and utensils. He set up an art gallery and wrote other cookbooks and gave the profits to charities that fed the poor. At the start of the Crimean War, there was a public outcry about the poor state of health and hygiene in the British Army – the same outcry that lead to the reforms of Florence Nightingale. Soyer approached the British Army with a newly-designed field stove that could cook for large numbers of men efficiently and safely. He also worked with Florence Nightingale and others to reform supply and provision of food to ensure good nutrition. The “Soyer Stove” was such an effective piece of kit that it was still being used by the army in the field during the First Gulf War, and Soyer’s principles of good nutrition and good training eventually lead to the development of regimental cooks and eventually the founding of the Army Catering Corps. Even today, the Royal Logistics Corps has its headquarters in a building known as Soyer House.

Simon Jarman’s research into the life and work of Alexis Soyer is fascinating. He has even put together a reprint of one of Soyer’s army cookbooks, full of recipes dating back to 1856! And when I went to see Simon, he let me taste some bread rolls he had just baked, cooked according to one of Soyer’s recipes. It’s research like this that helps bring forgotten – but important – parts of history back to life. And it’s research like this that helps keep fascinating local heritage connections fresh in people’s minds.

More Than Trains

More Than Trains – Week 39 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Railways connect. In the nineteenth century, railways linked first cities to towns, then towns to the countryside in an ever-expanding network of steam and iron. The first railways were built in the industrial northwest in 1812; by the 1830s, railways hauling trains of both freight and passengers were being built all across the country. The railway changed the way goods, material and people moved around Britain – with significant impacts on local economies. Along the borderlands, the quarries and the mines in the Welsh hills, and the fields and the farms in the English countryside were transformed by the arrival of the railway.

The early history of borderlands railways is both complex and convoluted. A dozen or more small railway companies connected Oswestry with the rest of England and Wales, among them: the Oswestry and Newtown Railway, the Llanidloes and Newtown Railway, the Newtown and Machynlleth Railway, the Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway, the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway, the Mid-Wales Railway, the Wrexham and Ellesmere Railway, the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway, the Tanat Valley Light Railway. A majority of these railways were less than 20 miles long, and by the early 1860s they (and a few others) had amalgamated to form the Cambrian Railways – a name which survives in Oswestry in the Cambrian Heritage Railways – who run the Museum in Oswestry, as well as the restored lines at Oswestry and Llnclys.

But there’s a lot more to the Cambrian Railway than just trains. From 1864 to 1923 – when the Cambrian became part of the Great Western Railway – the Cambrian Railway was at the heart of Oswestry. Railway trade and railway business turned the town from a primarily agricultural market community to a flourishing, mercantile town. Even the Oswestry Advertizer – where the Oswestry Heritage Comics appear weekly – began as a railway newspaper for advertising local timetables. As a result, the Cambrian connects Oswestry to more than just other places. The story of the Cambrian Railway is the story of Oswestry’s commercial, industrial, military and social history from the end of the Crimean War, through the reign of Queen Victoria, the Boer War, the invention of the motor car, the Russian Revolution to the aftermath of the First World War.

As a result, the Cambrian Railway is linked to just about every aspect of Oswestry’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century heritage. You don’t have to be interested in locomotives and rolling stock to appreciate the importance of the railway and its impact on the town. This level of interconnection is unique – and something to be actively celebrated. The late Andrew Tullo understood this. He understood that the Cambrian was more than its tracks, locomotives and rolling stock, and he encouraged the Cambrian Heritage Railway to explore the links to Oswestry’s green heritage, military heritage, and ancient heritage.

Local heritage is a network of interconnected interests and specialisations that can bring different kinds of organisations together. Those of us who are passionate about our shared past should take time to explore how our particular interests connect and overlap with those of others.

The Monty

The Monty – Week 38 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Oswestry sits at the junction of a number of canals that lead to Llangollen, up to Ellesmere and down to Welshpool. Today, they are scenic havens for wildlife and places to go for relaxing afternoon walks. But back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, canals were Shropshire’s industrial transport network, and linked rural parts of the county to the growing urban centres of the Midlands and the Northwest. Canals linked small market towns like Ellesmere and Welshpool to cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, making new kinds of trade possible. But this trade was secondary to the main purpose of the canals, which was to distribute agricultural lime from the quarries at Llanymynech Rocks. When added to fields, lime does four important things: (1) it increases the pH of the soil, making it less acidic, (2) it adds calcium and magnesium, (3) it allows oxygen to penetrate deeper into the soil, and (4) it increases the uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in plants. All these things make soil much more fertile by improving the growth of plants and increasing the diversity of soil bacteria – meaning fields will become much more productive. Powdered lime straight from the quarry is effective, but lime that has been first burned to create “slake-lime” (calcium hydroxide) will produce much faster results in soils that have never been ploughed or planted before. Limestone was cut out of the quarries at Llanymynech and then burned in lime-kilns to produce slake-lime. This was then transported by canal to farmers up and down the Borderlands. The resulting boom in agriculture meant the growth of communities and market towns, and an ever-increasing need for efficient transport links. Lime-burning requires six tonnes of limestone and one tonne of coal to create three tonnes of slake-lime – canals were used to bring coal to the lime-kilns as well as take agricultural lime away.

The Montgomeryshire Canal was dug in stages between 1794 and 1821, and when completed, ran from Llanymynech down to Newtown, and connected at Llanymynech via the Ellesmere Canal to Ellesmere. But by the 1840s, a new form of transport – the railway – had appeared. Profits on the canal were squeezed, and there were suggestions that it be closed as early as 1847. But it was amalgamated into the larger Shropshire Union Canal Company and continued to make a small profit through the end of the 1900s. By the 1920s, however, almost all the trade that used to be carried by the canal was now taken by road and rail. The Shropshire Union Canal company was eventually purchased by the London Midland and Scottish railway, and by 1944 the canal was closed. But the history of the canal was not over. When the construction of the new bypass around Welshpool threatened the remains of the canal in 1969, a local volunteer group got together and – recognising that the canal was an important part of their local heritage – campaigned for changes to the planned road, and began work to restore the abandoned canal. Despite continued – and acrimonious – opposition by the town council – there was huge local support for the canal restoration, and eventually the bypass route was changed.

Since then, progress to help restore the canal has been slow and steady. Through the 1980s and 1990s, new sections of the canal were slowly cleared, repaired and made navigable. SSSI-designated nature reserve areas were created, new locks built, new bridges built, and major engineering works undertaken to sections of the canal that had been altered by the modern drop in the water table. Today, the canal can be travelled by boat all the way from Ellesmere to Gronwyn Wharf, just below Maesbury Marsh. The canal has been restored beyond Gronwyn to Redwith Bridge (where the road from Llynclys to Knockin – the B4396 – crosses), but the plants established along the banks need to bed-in. The section from Redwith Bridge to Crickheath is currently being restored. When complete, this will see the Monty restored for navigation as far down as Penarth Weir, not far from Newtown. The restoration work has been a major undertaking – but more still needs to be done. If you can help, the Shropshire Union Canal Society would love to hear from you! Restoration Work Party dates for 2018 have already been scheduled – the March dates are this coming weekend. Restoring the Monty has breathed new life into this important part of our industrial, rural and cultural heritage – and it’s great to see it finding new meaning as a leisure, tourism and green resource. But it couldn’t have happened without a lot of people donning gloves and boots and getting stuck in. They deserve a big thank-you – as do you if you head down to Llynclys this weekend to help out!

If you are interested in joining the restoration work parties, please contact David Carter on dcartersucs@gmail.com or 01244 661440. New volunteers with any level of experience are welcome, our work parties are an opportunity to learn new skills under the guidance of experienced people. Something resembling tea is provided three times per day, just bring your own lunch. And maybe a cake!

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A Different Wartime Story

A Different Wartime Story – Week 37 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The heritage that runs through families is often very complicated. It mixes together the personal and the individual with national and the international; family history often intersects with global events in unexpected ways. Sometimes, stories only come together later on in life, when suddenly events and people “click” into place.

When the Oswestry Heritage Roadshow was running during Heritage Open Days last summer, we met a lot of people with really interesting family history stories. One in particular stood out: Diana Baur’s story about her grandfather’s experiences during World War I. Her grandfather was German, and lived and worked in Britain as a UK citizen. But during the dark days of WWI, it was thought that anyone who had any kind of foreign connections might be in some way dangerous. So hundreds of British citizens were rounded up and transported to huge camps across the country. Families were separated – men and women herded into different camps. These camps were often isolated, in rural and outlying parts of the country. Shropshire had its share: Park Hall and Prees Heath were at various times used as internment camps, often directing internees on to other camps further away. One such distant camp was Knockaloe, on the Isle of Man, and this was where Diana’s grandfather was sent. It was a terrible time, and Diana’s grandfather suffered like all the rest of the inmates – separated from their families, crowded together, treated like prisoners. Eventually, as the war came to an end, the camps were disbanded – and Diana’s grandfather returned home with his family, including to his son – Henry: Diana’s father.

Years later, when Diana was working as a school-teacher in Oswestry and living near Llanrhaeadr, Henry moved up to be closer to her. He became a well-known and popular figure in the villages around – as much for his accordion playing as for his stories and German drinking songs! He used to go to various Day Centres during the week – to meet people, to sing, to play his accordion. On one visit, he fell into conversation with a man called Martin Appledorn, who also had a German background – and before long, they began to exchange stories about their childhoods, and the experience of growing up during World War I. “My father spent the war on the Isle of Man,” Henry said. Martin, surprised, said: “That’s funny – so did my father!” Henry shook his head sadly, “He was in Knockaloe Camp – as an internee.” “Oh,” Martin said. “So did my father – but as a guard…”

Both Henry and Martin’s families were German, both had Fathers who had brought their families to the UK to become British citizens – yet while Henry’s German father was locked up in Knockaloe Camp, Martin’s German father was his guard. Henry might have been forgiven for becoming bitter about how unfair and arbitrary his Father’s detention had been – but instead, he and Martin became firm friends, grateful that they had this chance to bring their two family stories together – and far more interested in the things they had in common than the things which made their families different: something perhaps the British authorities in WWI should have paid more attention to!

The Oswestry Heritage Roadshow will be continuing to tour around the region, interested in hearing about your family history stories and looking for innovative ways to record and memorialise them. Our next scheduled event is May 21st at the meeting of the Llanymynech History Society, at the Presbyterian Church Hall, 7:30pm. I’ll be giving a talk about the Oswestry Heritage Comics, and we’ll have interview sheets and questionnaires for anyone who has a heritage story to tell. See you then!

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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