Casal’s Necklace – Frank Netter (via printmag.com)

I’ve been teaching archaeological illustration at a field school for the past three weeks, and it’s always interesting watching students coming to grips with technical visualisation. As ever with students, one is confronted sometimes with questions and observations that one hasn’t anticipated. In between discussion of pen-nib sizes, conventions and stippling, we talked a bit about context, and whether or not archaeological illustration pays enough attention to the need for artefacts to be presented within some kind of meaningful contextual framework.

Recently, I was given a copy of an anatomy book illustrated by Frank Netter. Netter was a medical illustrator who worked between the fifties and the nineties, producing hundreds of medical visualisations of anatomy and pathology. His beautifully-rendered paintings were notable for a point of view that deliberately evoked the wider bodily – and sometimes, psychological – context for the anatomical or pathological focus of the image. Tumours, rashes, burns, breaks and ruptures were always shown in great detail – but often as not, so too was the rest of the arm, leg or torso, showing where and how that injury or illness affected the area around it. It was not uncommon for Netter to show not just the limb or body portion that was the main focus for the illustration, but the head and face of his imaginary subject as well – showing their expression, and often their discomfort, pain or even embarrassment. In this way, Netter managed to give his precise scientific visualisations a sense of context; a sense of empathy.

Netter’s paintings demonstrate how choices made during the process of creating an illustration, painting or other rendering can greatly impact the way in which visualised data is understood by its audience. His deliberate decisions with regard to framing pathology within a human-scale context makes it almost impossible to ignore the human-scale impact and consequences of that pathology.

Such an approach is often lacking in archaeological illustration. Despite the wider acceptance of theoretical positions advocating a stronger and more human contextual framework for reconstructions of past lifeways, etc., our technical illustration – our artefact and finds drawing – still resists efforts towards contextualisation. Most illustrators, myself included, have, at one time or another, tried to provide such a framework – but by and large these visualisations remain novelties, and not part of standard practice – largely, I suspect, because the aesthetic used in providing such context contradicts the conventional aesthetics of artefact illustration.

But conversations with the students over the past three weeks have made me think again about the value of providing context to artefacts – and Netter’s work suggests a way in which the aesthetics of both might be brought together. It’s something I’m going to be thinking about a bit more in the future.


Prees Heath Common

Prees Heath Common – Week Nine of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Over the past month, I have been fortunate enough to get to know the site of Prees Heath Common, just on the outskirts of Whitchurch. It’s a piece of common land whose history and archaeology goes back through its use as a World War II airfield, a World War I internment camp, a Civil War and mediaeval muster ground, all the way back to the Bronze Age. It’s also now a butterfly reserve, and provides some of the last remaining habitat for the Silver Studded Blue butterfly in Shropshire. But, even more importantly, it’s valued by the commoners and the local community as an important part of their local heritage.

But lots of people don’t know the story of Prees Heath Common – a lot of people outside of Whitchurch have never heard of the place. So I was asked to come along and demonstrate in a workshop how comics could be used to help raise awareness of the archaeology, history and ecology of the common. So I came along to see the archaeological test-pits being dug on a new portion of the site by the Prees Heath volunteers, and then a week or so later, ran the workshop.

What was really interesting about the workshop was that, yes, people wanted to talk about the archaeology, history and ecology of the site – but they also wanted to talk about things that weren’t part of the “official” narrative of the site: the social history of the common, the archaeology and the butterfly reserve, as told through individual recollections and biographies. I had not anticipated these oral histories to be quite so rich, quite so detailed, nor quite so diverse.

I did also not anticipate these histories to be quite so “alternative” to the official, mainstream narrative of the common, the reserve or the archaeology. It seemed as if there was a slightly different local perspective on almost every important or significant element of the common’s story – not contradictory, but complementary; not conflicting, but certainly competing. These oral histories definitely brought an extra layer to the site’s narrative, making it more detailed, richer, more diverse – and, as far as the Prees Heath volunteers were concerned – more meaningful.

The volunteers are now using the experience of the workshop to design their own comics about the common – comics which tell the story of their interactions with the land and those who have used and occupied it over the years; comics which tell the story of families, individuals and communities who have called the common “home” for over sixty years; comics which link their present with the archaeology, history and ecology of the site and make them part and parcel of their community heritage. We’ll also be using comics to raise awareness of the site in a more general sense, and these comics will be featured during this year’s Shropshire Wildlife Trust/Meres & Mosses Merefest celebrations this September.

It would be nice to see this model of comics-focused community engagement repeated with other groups during the course of the Oswestry Heritage Comics project – I’ve already done similar workshops with the Corwen and Dee Valley Archaeology Group (CADVAS). I feel like these workshops open the door to a what could be really interesting ways of connecting different kinds of place-based heritage narratives.

Week Eight: Oswestry’s Other Border

Wat’s Dyke plays second fiddle to it’s better known cousin, Offa’s Dyke. But I think Wat’s Dyke may be more interesting. The Wansdyke Project produced a great deal of the most current research about Wat’s Dyke, examining in particular the assumptions made about what it was for, when it was made, and who – or what (pun intended?) – “Wat” was. Keith Matthews ably sums up the evidence in a paper on the Wansdyke Project site, and it’s this research that I’ve referenced in the comic.

Matthews’ suggestion that the Mercian King Coenwulf was responsible for the dyke is certainly open to challenge, depending on how one reads the evidence. But regardless, the interpretation of the dyke as being both a customs/trade border and a military one would certainly fit with the general relationship between Mercia and Powys through most of the Early Welsh/Anglo Saxon period. When people ask “What is Wat’s Dyke for?”, I have a feeling we should look at other borders that are both physical as well as symbolic for a clue as to how people in the past regarded it. The red line at Passport Control, behind which you have to stand before being called forward to the desk, for example. It’s not a defensive wall, but it is certainly a border in both legal and psychological terms. Step over that line, behave badly, run across it – and you may well be tackled to the ground, arrested, charged and even denied entry. Both Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke fall into this kind of category – borders that people respected because of the consequences: both in terms of trade and tax, and in terms of military retribution.

And what of “Wat”? Matthews’ suggestion that the name references the old English hero Wade (also written Wadda or Wat) is new to me. But it makes sense: Coenwulf was certainly not as well-known as Offa, so it’s possible that his legacy was a bit more transient. Myth, legend and folklore are often more solid and lasting that history! Wade was a hero connected with water, so perhaps the fact that Wat’s Dyke starts right at the water’s edge in Holywell has something to do with this identification. And Wade himself would make a great hero to identify with such a curious construction as the Dyke, snaking its way down the Welsh border. Who but a hero with his magic boat, descended from Wayland the Smith, would make such a thing? I think of Wade – with his semi-divine ancestry, his Germanic origins, and his magic travelling machine – as sort of halfway between Thor and Doctor Who. Now there’s a comic just waiting to be made!

Week Seven: Bringing Heritage to Life

I really enjoyed my visit to the re-enactment day at Whittington Castle put on by the 5th/60th Regiment and other Napoleonic War era groups. Huw invited me along to meet his group and have a look at the research that had gone into their uniforms and equipment. I don’t know a great deal about the Napoleonic Wars. So it was a great opportunity to really get immersed in all the history, and see the connection between the facts and the dates of who fought what battle when, where and how – and what that all meant for the men and women caught up in the actual, day-to-day experience of the war.

Historians and archaeologists often study these violent and world-changing periods through somewhat abstract evidence: musket balls, earthworks, maps, regimental records, etc. It’s all too easy to forget that all of these things had a real and lasting impact on the lives of real people, essentially not much different to ourselves. Each musket ball we see in a museum could be a life lived blinded and disabled, or even a life cut short; every campaign map speaks of days of marching and hardship for troops in all sorts of conditions. Every cooking pot, every button-shining kit, every writing desk or pair of shoes contains stories of the people who used them. Sometimes we concentrate on the object and forget about the people behind them.

We shouldn’t overlook these human stories – and re-enactment groups do a fantastic job of reminding us that’s what history and heritage is really all about. Getting a close look at the way ordinary people lived and survived in extraordinary circumstances can be a unique window into our past.

We’re lucky around Oswestry to have so many visit Whittington Castle. So next time Huw and the 5th/60th are at Whittington Castle, I definitely recommend you visit!

Week Six: Oswestry’s Missing Hospital

Many of the jobs we do today were being done hundreds of years ago, but in different ways and in different places. Hospitals in the middle ages were usually connected to churches or abbeys, run by monks, nuns or priests. It was often considered very prestigious to have a hospital in a mediaeval town. Historical records that us Oswestry’s hospital was founded by the Archbishop of St. Asaph, and generously endowed. There was a priest in charge of the daily running of the hospital, including conducting services and providing accommodation for visiting priests from Haughmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury. William FitzAlan (who featured in a previous comic), gave the hospital permission to use a field near Cynynion (along the racecourse road towards Rhydycroesau), and instructed that the burgesses of Oswestry give “a handful of corn, flour, and salt from every horseload sold in the market, a gallon of ale from every brewing, and a loaf from every baking” to the hospital. Just like today, communities would help support their local hospital.

After Archbishop Renier’s death, the supervision of the hospital passed to the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller or Hospitallers. This was an order of knights founded during the crusades to help sick, injured and poor pilgrims in Jerusalem. They maintained a famous hospital in Jerusalem itself, and often ran hospitals elsewhere in Europe. They were an important knightly order until the late 1600s – they even founded colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Because of the association with the Hospitallers – whose patron saint was St. John the Baptist – the hospital is often referred to as St. John’s Hospital.

But where is Oswestry’s hospital now? Historians have debated the actual location, but most agree that it was somewhere just south of Oswestry’s old mediaeval town wall (which used to be about where Gilhams and Booka are), either near the Church, or a bit further out towards Roft Street and Black Gate. Finding it archaeologically might be a bit difficult, since most open areas around there are paved. But some geophys in back gardens might be a way to start. Anyone fancy doing an Oswestry “Time Team”?

Week Five: Oswestry and the Roman Army

Oswestry’s spectacular Roman marching camp is yet another piece of local heritage we don’t celebrate enough. The excavations in 1977 unearthed the remains of a spectacularly well-preserved Roman military site, with evidence that the camp was used and reused throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. Features such as the ovens built into the early phases of one ditch, and the large wooden gateway – one side of which was blocked off – make the Rhyn Park marching camp both notable and worth making something of. There is some material from the excavation in the Oswestry Town Museum, and the excavation report is available online – but the original excitement of those 1977 excavations has long passed, and Rhyn Park’s archaeological past seems in danger of being forgotten.

There’s no pressing need to do more excavation at the site, so more archaeology perhaps isn’t the answer. But what about more heritage? What about a timber gateway (rather like the one at The Lunt Roman Fort) down at Park Hall? A Rhyn Park reconstruction there would make the connection between Oswestry’s ancient military heritage and its historical military heritage. It could become the focus for a whole range of educational and economic opportunities that would connect Oswestry with the rest of Roman Britain, tapping into the visitors that at the moment bypass Oswestry in favour of Wroxeter or Chester. A Rhyn Park replica could even become the home of a re-enactment Legio Oswestria!

Roman Britain is an important part of our history and archaeology, and it’s a shame that Oswestry doesn’t benefit more from its links with this period. There are few market towns in the country with such a wealth and diversity of heritage monuments and science; it’s one of the things that makes Oswestry unique. Their contribution to the educational, economic and cultural life of the town could be immense – but it’s local interest and enthusiasm that is the catalyst.

What would it take to bring Rhyn Park back into the limelight?

What’s In A Name?

Week Four: What’s in a Name?

Not much of Norman Oswestry survives as bricks and mortar – but you can still find traces of it in unexpected places around the town. The FitzAlans were Oswestry’s “First Family” – generations of ambitious, clever survivors, determined at first to make the most of their post-Conquest manorial holdings; determined as the decades passed to hang on to that power. Even choosing the wrong side during the Anarchy of the twelfth century, and backing the Empress Matilda over her rival Stephen, didn’t dent their ambition.

Like all powerful families, however, their power did eventually fade – lack of male rivals ended the Fitzalan line in favour of the Howard, and more profitable estates elsewhere removed the family from Oswestry to Shrawardine, Holt, Clun and (eventually) Arundel – much to the benefit of the town. As local Oswestry historian, John Pryce-Jones puts it: “… reduced levels of manorial supervision provided the leading citizens of Oswestry to extend their own influence over the running of the town, and to develop the independent spirit which has characterised local civic affairs down the centuries…”. In other words, although they built the original Oswestry Castle, and gave it it’s original charters, perhaps the best things the FitzAlans ever did for Oswestry was leave it alone!

However, the FitzAlan name survives in the name of FitzAlan Road – a tiny reminder of the determined, canny (and quite possibly, ruthless) family that gave Oswestry its head start. There are lots of roads in Oswestry with historical stories behind them – you could do a whole series of heritage comics just on road names!

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