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Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 50Grab your sonic screwdriver and look out for Morlocks – this week the Oswestry Heritage Comics heads to history’s final frontier: the Future!

We always think of heritage as being about looking back – looking to the past, to the things from yesterday that have survived until today. But heritage is also about the future – because one day “today” will be “yesterday”. We’ve looked back hundreds, thousands – sometimes millions – of years into the past in these comics, and looked at things that have survived from those distant times to our present day, and what they now mean to us. But things which we now think of as “heritage” – as old and even ancient, like stone tools or hill forts – were once new. Once upon a time, stone axes were revolutionary technology, and changed the lives of people who used them even more profoundly than the internet has for us today. Once upon a time, hill forts were ordinary places as central to people’s lives as supermarkets, banks or football stadiums are for us today.

So part of thinking about heritage is thinking about what things from today might become the heritage of tomorrow; things we regard as revolutionary or commonplace today that will become mysterious and ancient to the people of tomorrow. This kind of heritage thought-experiment can be great fun – will our descendants have any idea what money, cars or mobile phones really meant to us? But it’s also a very serious way to try and understand what things like stone axes, hill forts or even railways meant to people when those things were new or commonplace. Thinking about the way our lives and our material culture might be understood (or misunderstood) in the future can show us how we might better understand (or be in danger of misunderstanding) the lives and material culture of the past. If only half of the things in your house survived into the future, would people really understand the way you lived in 2018? What if only one thing survived?

Next time you’re in a museum, have a look around you – not at the exhibits, but at the ordinary things which we all take for granted today: mobile phones, prams, sunglasses… What might those things look like in the Museum of Tomorrow?

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Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 48You don’t have to be an expert or a heritage professional to help take care of local heritage. Often it’s common-sense “do-s and don’t-s” that have the biggest impact. While everyone wants to be able to enjoy heritage places, it’s easy to forget that these sites and monuments can often be fragile, vulnerable environments – particularly if you consider the heritage to include not just the archaeology or the historical significance, but the wildlife and the setting as well.

This has been an issue up on Old Oswestry Hillfort, for example. While everyone is delighted that the hillfort features so prominently in many people’s daily routine – going for a walk, taking the dogs out, heading up there with friends and visitors – the impact of a few thoughtless people on such a place can be significant. Don’t Litter and Pick Up Your Dog Mess are common-sense courtesies everywhere – but it’s surprising how many people seem to think that somehow places that are green and open are exempt. They’re not. The dog waste on the hillfort stops kids from exploring and playing on the mound, leaches into the ponds and alters the soil chemistry, threatening the native plants and newts; litter makes the place look distinctly uninviting. Not so many years ago, when the hillfort was less-loved than it is now, I remember seeing bags of rubbish fly-tipped by the entrance.

Erosion is another issue. Walking, running, taking the dog out, playing on the ramparts – none of this does much damage to the ancient earthwork. But bike-riding in particular loosens the topsoil, kills off the plant-covering, and precipitates extremely damaging erosion to both the paths and the monument itself.

Oswestry and the Borderlands are lucky to have a number of really important earthwork monuments: Old Oswestry Hillfort, Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. They are great places to enjoy – whether as a visitor or a local; a walker or a bird-spotter; a picnicker or an artist. The privilege to enjoy the natural and historic beauty of these sites comes with responsibilities: to be aware of ones impact on the site and mitigate it where possible. Clearing up dog mess, taking away litter and not using bikes on the mound are all common-sense courtesies that will help safeguard the monument for another thousand years.

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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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The Llwyd Eagle – Week Fifteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Llwyd Mansion is one of Oswestry’s oldest buildings, and pretty difficult to miss as you walk through the centre of town. It stands on the corner at the bottom of Bailey Street, and is a fine seventeenth-century timber-framed building with some Victorian and later amendments. It’s had a hard life, I think – for a building to have survived that long in the centre of a market town means a lot of chopping and changing, not all of it sympathetic. One of the first things even a casual visitor to Oswestry will notice about the house is the large, double-headed eagle on the side of the building – with the words “Llwyd Mansion, 1604” around it. Why?

The story (as related by John Pryce-Jones, in his various histories of Oswestry – the original source I suspect being the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd) is that an ancestor of the Llwyd family – Meurig Llwyd – “distinguished himself” at the Siege of Acre in Jerusalem (1190), and was awarded the right to use the double-headed eagle by the Duke of Austria, Leopold V of the Babenburg dynasty (Given Leopold’s later enmity with King Richard, stemming from his humiliation by the English King at the end of the siege, Llwyd’s decision to use this on his coat-of-arms is an interestingly anti-English one – but that’s another story!). But why a double-headed eagle? The double-headed eagle is an old symbol of the Byzantine empire. It appears in Europe in the 10th century as a religious symbol and possibly as a heraldic insignia associated with the Byzantine title of basileus. The Greek historian N. Zapheiriou (The Greek Flag from Antiquity to present, 1947) has suggested that the symbol may have been the family arms of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059). Certainly the symbol can be found in the Byzantine empire and in Europe (on several carvings in Bulgaria and France, for example) as far back as the 10th century. Duke Leopold’s mother was the Byzantine princess Theodora, a daughter of Andronikos Komnenos, the second eldest son of the Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos. So the double-headed eagle may have been part of the family or personal insignia of Leopold either through his relationship with the Komnenos family, or through various undocumented Babenburg heraldic relationships to the Holy Roman Empire possibly dating back into the previous century.

However, the only problem with this is that the eagle on Leopold V’s Ducal seal is not double-headed, but single-headed. And there is no reference in all of later Babenburg heraldry to double-headed eagles, only single-headed ones. The double-headed eagle does not become associated with Austria until it’s common adoption as the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, some three hundred years after the siege of Acre. It’s almost certain that the banner of Leopold V – in keeping with the shield displayed on his seal – had on it a single-headed eagle, not a double one; and that  Llwyd was granted the use of this single-headed eagle by the grateful Duke. If this is the case, how did the head of the eagle become doubled? It’s worth noting that the round plaque on the side of Llwyd Mansion is not original – that is, it does not date from 1604. In old photographs of Oswestry you can clearly see that it (or another double-headed eagle) used to be painted or mounted directly into the render of the wall itself. What we see today is almost certainly a late-Victorian plaque, put on at the time the building received its nineteenth-century additions (as noted in the building’s scheduling). By the 1870s at least, the double-headed eagle was firmly set as the coat of arms of Meurig Llwyd:  (Nicholas, Thomas, Annals and antiquities of the counties and county families of Wales; Section V (Old and Extinct Families of Merionethshire, published 1872). What might have happened is that nineteenth-century antiquarians, on hearing that Meurig Llwyd received grant of the emblem of an eagle during the Crusades, confused that with the double-headed eagle associated with the Byzantine Empire (and/or the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc.).

And so the double-headed eagle on the side of Llwyd Mansion has become part of Oswestry’s heritage – perhaps less as a reminder of Crusader heritage and more as a fragment of nineteenth-century antiquarian imagination?


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

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Panel from “Radiocarbon Dating” comic for CAIS

Thank you to everyone who organised this year’s “Carbon Meets Silicon” symposium at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham. It was a fascinating event, full of extraordinary ideas and some really interesting projects. The symposium was all about the intersection of art and science, and I gave a paper in the morning about the comics I’ve been doing on archaeological science for the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. Pages from these comics are up on display in an exhibition at Oriel Sycharth at Glyndŵr University.

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Oswestry Castle Excavations – Week Fourteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

At the centre of Oswestry – literally and figuratively – stands Oswestry Castle. The lynchpin of the original Norman foundation of the town, the Bailey quickly became the hub around which the market and civic life of the town revolved. And still does revolve – the town’s guildhall, its Powys Market, library and town offices still all cluster at the foot of the castle. The original Norman castle and bailey were timber, quickly replaced with stone – but that stone keep was badly damaged during the Parliamentarian siege of the town during the Civil War, and the remains were torn down sometime in the 1650s. So most people only know the castle from the C.19th redesign of the mound as a public garden. A circuit of footpaths now wind around a pleasant arboretum of Victorian specimen trees – and the only sign of the ancient castle is a stump of masonry poking up at the summit of the mound (along with another lump which is actually a relocated bit of the old mediaeval town wall).

So it has been something of a surprise over the past few years to see how much of the castle’s original foundations, plan and detail the Oswestry Castle Research Project has managed to reveal. This year, once again, the project’s team of volunteer local archaeologists is back atop the mound, opening new trenches along the remaining lines of the keep’s foundations. The excavation is well worth a visit if you’re in town – the Director, Roger Cooper, is always keen to explain the site to visitors and show off the latest finds (which, this year, include munitions dating from the Civil War siege). And later in the year, Roger will be giving presentations about the excavations locally – so it’s worth checking the schedule of talks for the Corwen and Dee Valley Archaeology Society and the Oswestry and Border History and Archaeology Group.

Oswestry’s castle is something of an overlooked gem. Perhaps not as visually spectacular as Old Oswestry hillfort, it nevertheless is – literally – central to the town’s story, and the current excavation project is long overdue and very, very welcome indeed.


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

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Heritage Open Days – Week Thirteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Every year, the whole of England gets a chance to celebrate our shared history, archaeology and heritage in this weekend-long festival. This year, dozens of venues all around Oswestry are holding special events for visitors. There’s tons to see and do – if you’re interested in history or archaeology, like museums or excavations, are curious about re-enactment or living history, then this weekend is for you! All around the region, from Whitchurch to Chirk, historic houses and heritage sites are throwing open their doors and doing something special – showing off what makes heritage important and interesting. Places like Park Hall, Whittington Castle and Chirk Castle are hosting re-enactment events, there are steam trains running at the Cambrian Railway, and special exhibitions at the Oswestry Town Museum. It’s a weekend full of things to do for the whole family.

And around Oswestry, there are some particularly exciting special and one-off events taking place this year: a chance to get behind the scenes of some of Oswestry’s most iconic and important heritage places.

You can:

And much, much more. The Oswestry Heritage Roadshow will also be up and running, on the Bailey all weekend, right next to a display all about the Oswestry Heritage Comics – so drop in and say hello! For a complete listing of all Heritage Open Day events taking place around Oswestry – and beyond! – check out their website.


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

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