Archive for the ‘Heritage’ Category

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 47

Living the Middle Ages – Week 47 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

There are many re-enactment groups up and down the Borderlands, with enthusiasts participating in living history from a range of different periods. Cwmwd Iâl bring to life an important period of our history: the years between 850 to 1199: the “Anglo-Saxon” period – the time of the Kingdom of Mercia.

During this early part of the middle ages, the frontier between England and Wales was a dangerous place. There were constant skirmishes between the English Kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh Kingdom of Powys. Cattle were an important part of trade between the two kingdoms, and so cattle-raiding became a profitable criminal enterprise. To control the trade – and to control the cattle-raiding – the Kings of Mercia decided to strengthen the frontier between the two Kingdoms. The earthwork known as “Offa’s Dyke” was built in the late 700s by the Mercian King Offa to mark out that frontier, and help control both trade and raiding. But the frontier did more than create a border – it created a “Borderlands”: a place where the two sides could meet, not just on the battlefield.

So the 350 years covered by the Cwmwd Iâl group represents a really interesting and complicated period of history: a time when Mercia and Powys were both fighting and trading, each side trying to grow stronger through both war and commerce. For the ordinary people caught up in this Borderlands rivalry, this 350-year period was a time of both danger – and opportunity. Plenty of small towns and settlements in the Borderlands – like Oswestry – both prospered and suffered during that time. Fortune, power and prestige could be made through both war and trade – and lost in the same way.

Cwmwd Iâl brings this period to life through a great mix of historical research, experimental archaeology and re-enactment. Through their research, they uncover details about the life of ordinary men, women and children in that period; through experimental archaeology they test theories about how these mediaeval inhabitants of the Borderlands lived and worked; and through re-enactment they bring that all to life for the rest of us.

Last year was a busy year for the group, so during 2018 they’re taking it a bit easy. However, they’ll be taking part in events throughout Wales during the summer – and you can check out their schedule on their Facebook page. And they’ll be coming together as a group for their annual re-enactment of the Battle of Crogen (which took place in the Ceiriog Valley, just near the railway viaduct and the canal aqueduct at Chirk) at Chirk Castle on the 1st and 2nd of September. Put that date in your diary: it’s always a great event, and a great way to see what life in the time of King Offa would have been like.

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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A Comics Exhibition – Week 44 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost ten months since the Oswestry Heritage Comics project started. To celebrate, Qube: Owestry Community Arts is hosting a month-long exhibition about the comics and the project in their main gallery space. There will be a selection of our favourite comics on display, as well as panels talking about what the comics project hoped to achieve, and a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the making of the comics. There will also be some of the historical and archaeological objects featured in the comics, kindly lent by the people who helped tell their stories: Huw Davies is lending us some of his Napoleonic re-enactment kit; the Shrewsbury Museum is lending us the Neolithic axe that’s usually on show in Oswestry Library, as well as the Rhynchosaur fossils from Grinshill; Rachel Scotland is lending us the mysterious piece of Victorian carved stone she and Mark dug up in her garden; and Roger Cooper is lending us a lead Civil War cannonball and several musket balls from the excavations he’s directing up at Oswestry Castle. Plus I’ll be giving a gallery talk and doing workshops for both kids and adults on making your own comics!

If you’re interested in comics, then Qube is the place to head to this month. I look forward to seeing you all there!

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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Our Ancient Roots – Week 2 of the Grenada Heritage Comics

Places like Grenada have a difficult time when it comes to heritage. The modern history of the Caribbean means that such islands have an extremely mixed population, with a variety of backgrounds – and not all of them came to the island willingly (to put it mildly). So their collective and individual links with the past can be highly divergent, and sometimes its difficult to find much of the past in common. This makes it hard for some people to feel connected to an ancient and archaeological past that doesn’t appear to be part of their ethnic heritage.

But regardless of our differences – whether we’re white or black, residents or visitors, African, European, Asian or South American in origin, the great-grandchildren of slaves, the great-grandchildren of slave owners or the great-grandchildren of dispossessed indigenous people, there is one thing that we have in common: the island. The physical and material remains of the past – ancient or historical, ecological or geological, dim-and-distant or within living memory – are shared by us all. We see these remains at work and play, near our schools and hotels. They are a reminder that, no matter how different our journeys and the journeys of our ancestors may have been, we all ended up in the same place. Our future depends on coming to terms with the differences in our past: if Grenada is to forge a meaningful and shared future, we need to build it on a shared and valued heritage drawn from all our pasts.

The Grenada Heritage Comics are a ten-week series of comic strips about the history, archaeology and heritage of the Caribbean island of Grenada, produced in association with the Heritage Research Group Caribbean, published weekly on the Grenada Heritage Comics page on Facebook, and by NOWGrenada.

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Friends Of Oswestry Lake – Week 43 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

April Fool!

Well, I just couldn’t let the date pass without doing something! Hopefully next week’s Advertizer isn’t going to be full of irate letters from worried residents of Oswestry wondering if they should move to higher ground. The clue’s in the name, of course: Friends Of Oswestry Lake. The comic was good fun to draw – particularly the Lion Fish-like Plesiosaur and the Kingfisher-coloured Rhamphorhynchus– both inspired by the work of C.M. Koseman, and his innovative dinosaur reconstructions from his book All Yesterdays.

So don’t worry – no one’s going to flood Oswestry. Although it would be a pretty cool tourist attraction…!

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Grenada Heritage Comics – Week 1

A new series of my heritage comics begins today – The Grenada Heritage Comics. It’s a ten-part series about the history, archaeology and heritage of the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, published by the Heritage Research Group Caribbean (HRGC) as part of Heritage Month on Grenada. The comics are being published on Facebook and in island newspapers every week for ten weeks. It’s been a great series to write and draw, and the hope is that it will encourage people to find out more about Grenada’s rich and distinctive heritage, as well as look for ways to get involved. Heritage on Grenada is both deeply loved and under threat. Some aspects of its traditional culture have been successfully revived and renewed – while other aspects have been overlooked and are in danger of disappearing. Environmental change, development and economic pressures have taken their toll on Grenada’s heritage – but positive community working and engagement has done much good, too. One only has to visit places like Belmont Estate to see how understanding the past can mean real and meaningful change in the present. And youth community groups like MYCEDO are carrying that message forward – forging links between environmental action, heritage stewardship, local education and tourism.

The comics take the view that “heritage” is what the past has left us in the present – which covers everything from geology to ecology, oral history to archaeology. It also includes both the good and the bad. Grenada has had its share of dark times – from slavery to civil conflict – but making the true and full story of its past visible is an important part of educating future generations so that they can make informed choices about what sort of future their island is going to have. Grenada faces a host of climate, economic and population challenges in the decades ahead – and every one of these issues relates back to the island’s history. All of us who know Grenada – whether we live there, work there or just visit there – need to be aware of what has gone before so that we can contribute positively to the island’s present and future. Heritage isn’t just about what’s been and gone – it’s about what lies in front of us.

So visit the Facebook page, read the comics, and find out more about one of the most fascinating islands in the Caribbean. It’s been a real privilege to get to know Grenada and Carriacou over the past decade, and these comics are my way of inviting you to do the same!

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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!

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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.

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