the-devasComics are a powerful communication medium – one that can dramatically affect the way in which an audience understands and interprets a subject. This is just as much the case with a subject like heritage as with any other, as Shaan Amin in a recent article in The Atlantic points out.

The article argues that the conservative, authoritarian and racist paradigm within Amar Chitra Katha – comics about Hindu myth and legend – published in India during the 1970s and 1980s created a particular kind of ideological context for Indian culture for its many readers, a context which has proven to be both long-lasting and difficult to change. This context reinforces a regressive view of Indian history that marginalises minority religions and fosters a sense of ethnic exceptionalism. As the article suggests, this created a popular mythology which all-too-easily “reinforced many of the most problematic tenets of Hindu nationalism”. The author does not, of course, suggest that comics can directly shape politics, but shows through example how this popular and vernacular medium has the ability to distort history and heritage into something with a very particular ideological intent – and communicate that to a large audience over a long period of time.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics take a particularly inclusive and progressive view of the history and heritage of the Shropshire/Wales borderlands; not all narratives of this borderlands region take such an open approach. Local history can sometimes be closed, exclusive, “us-and-them” in nature, using the past to create (or justify) narrowly-defined identities that divide and separate communities, reinforcing tribalism and denying the shared nature and origin of local heritage. We see this all too often in “histori-tainment”, where such reductionalist tropes are given priority by writers in order to build conflict, create dramatic tension and drive plot. All good fun until those fictional tropes eclipse the history on which they are based.

This, argues Shaan Amin, is what happened with Amar Chitra Katha, in which the subtlety, nuance and multi-vocality of real Indian history has been displaced by a highly restricted, reactionary, dramatic simplification. Amin suggests this gave –

impressionable generations of middle-class children a vision of “immortal” Indian identity wedded to prejudiced norms. […] Consequently, Amar Chitra Katha reinforced … tenets that partially drive the platform of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, currently under fire domestically and internationally for policies and rhetoric targeting religious minorities and lower castes.

This is indeed the dark side of heritage comics – but this is why it is so important that the potential of this medium to shape an understanding of the past rooted not in fiction, but in fact – not in ideology, but in understanding.

Storytelling – not just in comics – can be both an engaging and accessible way to talk about the past; a powerful way to infuse the past with meaning and detail. It helps bring the past to life by emphasising its everyday and ordinary context. Such an approach can be – as Amin points out – highly successful: Amar Chitra Katha has sold over 100 million copies in over 20 languages; for nearly fifty years, the series has remained a “hallowed institution in India for providing millions of children a path to their heritage” – but a heritage framed by regressive social politics.

A past revealed through storytelling is vernacular and quotidian – real and relevant, yes – but also personal and interpretative, and thus potentially subject to ignorant or problematic bias. As new “histori-tainment” narratives promising “captivating, anarchic drama” which will “delve further back into history than bonnets and corsets“, perhaps we should be reminding ourselves that storytelling holds up a mirror to the storyteller: so who do we want telling the story of our past – who do we want creating our heritage comics?


Neolithic Oswestry

Neolithic Oswestry – Week 30 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

New Year – new tools!

Neolithic is often translated by archaeologists as “New Stone Age”. But this phrase misses out the important idea that what is significant here is that archaeologists are talking about new stone tools – one of the things that made the neolithic way of life possible was the neolithic stone axe. This new tool enabled neolithic people to fell the old forests of Europe, and till the newly-cleared soil. The settlements and fields – as well as the culture and society – of neolithic Britain were shaped by this new stone technology.

We shouldn’t think of the axe on display in Oswestry Library as just a tool – we should also think of it as a key: a key to an entirely new way of living for our stone-age ancestors. The neolithic is the time in human history when we stopped living just by hunting and gathering – following herds with the seasons – and started to live year-round in the same place: planting crops and raising flocks of domesticated sheep, goats and cattle. As well as new stone tools, the neolithic was about new ideas – agriculture, domestication and permanent settlements.

Direct evidence for these neolithic settlements in and around Oswestry tends to be on higher ground; it is thought that much of lowland Shropshire was still heavily-wooded and marshy. Archaeologists have found fragments of neolithic pottery at Grinshill and the Roveries, and even on the top of Old Oswestry. The Long Mynd and other Shropshire ridges may have been used as routeways – as people began to live in more permanent settlements, so roads and routes between them became more important. But this evidence is scant.

That’s why finds like the axe in Oswestry Library are so important: we can learn a lot from every stone tool, no matter how small or broken. Imagine how much more we could know about the past if more people were helping add to our knowledge of the past by identifying neolithic stone tools while out watching birds or ploughing fields: farmers, ramblers, dog-walkers, bird-spotters – in fact, people like you.


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.

In With The New

In With The New – Week 29 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

2017 is drawing to a close – it’s a time for reflection and resolutions; a time for looking back and looking forward. History, archaeology and heritage are all about looking at the past while also looking to the future. It’s impossible read about the Romans, help excavate a mediaeval site or put together a family history without in some way thinking about how our world and the way we live might look to people in years to come. And it’s impossible to visit an old castle, walk an ancient footpath or look at old family photographs without wondering whether these things will be around tomorrow. Reflecting on the past shines a particular kind of light on things we take for granted today.

It’s not a perfect light, of course – you can’t use the past to “predict” the future: history doesn’t repeat itself in quite that way. But understanding how our grandparents and great-grandparents lived through the experiences of two World Wars, understanding the way the border between England and Wales has changed and developed over the centuries, understanding the way in which conflict, commerce, culture and religion have shaped the history of Oswestry – as local researchers like Dr. Rachel Pope have pointed out: all this helps build up an idea of how similar things might affect us today, and might affect the world we will be living in tomorrow.

This is why heritage is important, and this is why we need to think carefully about the place we make for our past both now – and tomorrow. The Oswestry we’re building for ourselves today is based on the Oswestry of yesterday: the Oswestry that our grandparents, great-grandparents and generations of our ancestors before them built. In the same way, the Oswestry of tomorrow will be built on what we do today – and this will be the world in which our children and grand-children will live in. What kind of place will we leave them? What kind of Oswestry will they live in?

Planning for the future – like thinking about 2018, in this week between Christmas and New Year – needs to be done with one eye on the past. As we think about what kind of Oswestry we want – what we want in terms of housing, roads, schools, social services, hospitals, jobs and training – we need to bring together reflection and resolution: we need to look back as well as forward, and learn some lessons from the past.

Happy New Year!

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.

Christmas Heritage

Christmas Heritage – Week 28 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Everywhere is a melting pot – and everywhere has always been a melting pot. The heritage of Oswestry, of the Borderlands, of Shropshire, of England, of Britain, of Europe is the result of the bringing together of customs, history and traditions from thousands of different peoples across thousands of years. Take something as “traditional” as a Shropshire Christmas, and you will find within it echoes of Celtic, Roman, mediaeval and eastern European winter festivals and celebrations. How does this happen? How do we end up with bits of Saturnalia embedded into Christmas, despite the fact that the Romans and their religions haven’t been seen in Britain for almost two thousand years?

I think we have to look to “heritage” rather than “history” or “archaeology” to help explain this one – and to the way in which ordinary people – like us – relate to the past. When it comes to Christmas, just about everyone has something “old” associated with what they do or how they decorate their house. Maybe it’s a figurine left by a great-grandparent, maybe it’s just the tradition of going to visit the Aunts in Dorset on Boxing Day; maybe it’s a certain set of German Christmas carols that always get sung, or a particular American recipe for egg-nog that you always mix; maybe you always buy tins of Celebrations, not Roses – maybe you always have Christmas dinner, not Christmas lunch; maybe you only put red ribbons and fairy lights on the tree, not tinsel and baubles. Whatever these little family traditions and customs might be, they are echoes of different kinds of Christmases – Christmas in America, Christmas in Germany, Christmas in 1969, Christmas during the war – and when we repeat them, and make them part of the way we “do” Christmas, we are preserving bits of other cultures and other times.

Repeat that for every family in Oswestry, for every family in Shropshire, for every family in Britain, with relatives and family connections across the globe, from Hong Kong to Oman, Patagonia to Orkney, Birmingham to Bombay – and you end up with a Christmas that’s a patchwork quilt of influences, customs, traditions and inheritances, from Yule to St. Lucia’s Day, Borodin to Día de las Velitas, from Kiahk to sochelnik. We all contribute to making our Shropshire Christmases the diverse celebration of culture that they really are. And through them, we have an opportunity to explore the rich and varied heritage of Christmases past.

Happy Christmas from the Oswestry Heritage Comics!

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.

In Praise of Oswestry!

In Praise of Oswestry! Week 27 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Some people, it seems, just can’t say enough good things about Oswestry! During the 1400’s, someone with a particularly long list of good things to say about Oswestry was the Welsh poet, raconteur, drover and soldier, Gruffudd ap Siancyn – known by his pen name “Guto’r Glyn” – “Guto” being short for Gruffudd, and “-r’ Glyn” meaning from Glyn. The “Glyn” in his name might mean either Glyn Ceiriog, in the Ceiriog valley, or Glyndyfrdwy between Corwen and Llangollen. It might also refer to Valle Crucis Abbey.

Unusually, we have a very good physical description of Guto via the mocking of other poets: he was big, strong, with a black beard, a nose “like a billhook”, and balding – “tonsured almost like a monk”. One poet even said Guto alarmingly resembled a big bear. He was known as a joker and wrote humorous and satirical verse, often gently mocking local figures. However, he was best known as a master of “Praise Poetry” – a form of poetry common in the 1400s which was addressed to a noble patron. These were not simply fawningly sycophantic verses – these were nuanced and sophisticated works. Praise Poems adhered to complex rules that governed both content and structure, and served an important social and political function. Guto’s clients included gentry – both men and women, as well as abbots and bishops, local government and military officials between Llangollen and Shrewsbury. Sometimes these poems were clearly part of an ongoing conversation between Guto, the client, and other poets. But Guto’s prowess with words gained him nationally-important clients, too: John Talbot, second Earl of Shrewsbury and even King Edward IV.

But Guto was no Chatterton – no starving aesthete shivering in a garret. Although he was clearly well-educated (possibly at either the abbey of Strata Florida or Valle Crucis) he was not a member of the nobility or the gentry. His father might have been a smith – and, indeed, he may have followed him into that profession as a young man. He worked as a drover, kept flocks of sheep, travelled widely, and was renowned as a horse rider, a sportsman (particularly known for weight-lifting), and an archer. He had a career as a soldier – fighting in France in the Hundred Years War, and then later for the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses. He was a complex man, too – a Welsh poet working in England; a Yorkist who fought for Richard III and yet praised his killing on the battlefield; a writer of feisty, satirical verse who also penned haunted elegies in his final years.

Poet, archer, weight-lifter, soldier – and Oswestrian! Guto lived for many years in the town, ran several businesses there (as did his wife, Dyddgu), knew many of the top people in town, worked for them – and was one, too: a Burgess. When he wrote his poem “In Praise of Oswestry” in about 1460, Guto was an old man (probably in his sixties), and he freely admitted to giving up the wandering and carousing of his youth in favour of the comforts and security of town living. His description of the town’s delights, fame and wealth is no exaggeration: at that time, Oswestry – an important and significant border town – could indeed be favourably compared to London. His poem also shows a genuine and deeply-rooted affection for the town (and, despite old age, an eye for the ladies!).

Guto’r Glyn ended a long, eventful life as a kind of “poet-in-residence” at Valle Crucis Abbey, thanks to one of his patrons. Here, his last poems look back on life’s experiences from the vantage point of old age:

Woe to the weak man, two lifetimes old, who doesn’t look, – who doesn’t laugh,

Who doesn’t walk further than the furrow’s width…

Could we call this couplet “In Praise of Curiosity?”

Guto’s life, world and poetry is all worth discovering – and fortunately, that’s easy to do: the University of Wales and the Arts and Humanities Council have recently completed – under the directorship of Pr. Ann Parry Owen – a complete online database of Guto’s works, including an excellent biography and fully-annotated texts and English and modern Welsh translations. Thanks to Pr. Owen’s project, the work of Guto’r Glyn – “one of the foremost poets of fifteenth-century Wales” – will be able to reach the larger audience it deserves.

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.

Corwen and Oswestry

Corwen & Oswestry – Week 26 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Heritage binds together places as well as people. Oswestry does not sit in a little historical bubble – it is linked through people and events to places near and far. Corwen, sitting on the other side of the Berwyns, down the River Dee, seems a long way away from Oswestry – and yet, the heritage of the two towns is linked.

I’ve been working with the Corwen & Dee Valley Archaeology Society (CADVAS) as part of the public outreach we’re doing as part of the Oswestry Heritage Comics project. The Society – an active and enthusiastic group – is keen to raise awareness about the heritage of their town, and undertake new archaeological work that could shed further light on its prehistoric and historic past.

Most of us around Oswestry will know Corwen as a town you pass through on your way out of Llangollen if you’re heading towards Bala or Betws-y-Coed. Indeed, Corwen was a well-known stop on Telford’s London-Holyhead road during the eighteenth century, and luminaries such as the artist Turner are known to have stopped in the town – Turner in 1808 to sketch and eventually paint the view across the Dee at Corwen. The Romans, too, may well have passed through Corwen, en route perhaps to Anglesey, where in AD 60 or AD 77. If so, they may well have marched from a temporary staging post at the Rhyn Park camp, just outside Oswestry (excavated by the Oswestry and Borders History and Archaeology Group in 1977, and featured in the Oswestry Heritage Comics earlier this summer). A roman roof tile of the XXth legion – based at what is now Chester – was found in the town in 1977, and the remains of a building uncovered in the centre of town in 1909 were said to be Roman (although this identification is by no means certain, and this is something CADVAS may try and investigate further).

But Corwen’s most dramatic connection with Oswestry comes during the English-Welsh wars of the 1400s. Owain Glyndwr proclaimed himself King of the Welsh in 1400 at Corwen, and gathered his troops together under the ancient fortifications of Caer Drwyn, the iron age hillfort just outside the town. Meanwhile, the English King Henry II gathered his troops together at Oswestry. For the next fourteen years, Oswestry and Corwen sat on opposite sides of a bitter border war. But that border may not always have meant conflict. Back in prehistory, in the iron age, the communities at Corwen and Oswestry built great hillforts. These were centres for festivals and trade, where ideas and crafts were traded, and people made alliances and marriages – linking Corwen and Oswestry together as neighbours, rather than as enemies. In the Christian era, the worship of early saints – St. Oswald in Oswestry, and St. Mael and St. Sulien at the church in Corwen – would have brought pilgrim travellers to both places.

Canals and railways, warfare and roads, invasion and rebellion, tourism and trade, heritage and religion – all these things link Oswestry to Corwen. Corwen is one of those places – like Prees Heath, which has also featured in the comics – whose local history fills in the gaps of the story of Oswestry. It’s a great reminder that the past binds us all together – that sometimes we share more than we realise, and are connected in ways that we might have forgotten.

Intrigued by Corwen’s history and heritage? Want to know more about the anarchist welsh poet, John Cowper Powys, who lived there in the 1930s and ’40s? Or the drovers who travelled through the town? Or it’s workhouse? Or the old 1919 Eisteddfod pavillion – sadly torn down only recently? Or Corwen’s role in bringing Welsh-language rock music to public attention? Then get in touch with CADVAS – they run a full series of guest lecture, talks and presentations on Corwen’s history, archaeology and heritage. They’re always looking for new members and volunteers to participate in their annual archaeological excavations and ongoing research: CADVAS on Facebook.

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.

Saints, Wells and Superstitions – Week 25 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Traditions and superstitions can often have very ancient roots indeed. How many of us have thrown a penny into a fountain, stream or wishing well without really knowing why we do it?

In Britain, the worship of springs and water dates back to prehistory. Before the Roman invasion, the native Britons revered springs and rivers as the personifications of deities and spirits, and regarded pools, ponds and lakes as entrances to the other world. Bronze and Iron Age people would make offerings of metal objects – weapons, tools, armour and jewellery – by throwing them into water at sites such as Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey. After the arrival of the Romans, pools, springs and rivers continued to be worshipped. The names of the associated deities and spirits were often “Romanised”, and there are plenty of examples of this around Britain: the British river “Dee” became the Roman goddess “Deva”, the British spirit Sulis, worshipped at the springs at Bath, became the Roman goddess Sulis Minerva, etc.

So by the time Christianity was becoming established in Britain, there was a virtually unbroken tradition of reverence for springs, wells and rivers stretching back right into the depths of prehistory. Very sensibly, early Christian traditions followed the example of the Romans and “Christianised” the earlier pagan traditions, associating the wells and springs not with gods and spirits, but Christian saints. It’s highly probable that St. Oswald’s well already had a religious association with a pre-Christian spirit or deity (perhaps with Brân, who was already associated in mythology with nearby Dinas Brân, at Llangollen). If so, then the re-naming of the spring at the edge of the Maserfield battlefield was following established Christian practice.

Despite the renaming of the well, the pre-Christian – perhaps even, pre-Roman – traditions clearly continued; something the church frowned on. Various edicts by both monks and kings* forbid the worshipping at (or even, of) wells and springs, and speak out against various magic practices associated with such places – including predicting the future, granting wishes and bestowing supernatural powers:

Si quis ad arbores, vel ad fontes, vel ad angulos, vel ubicunque, nisi ad Ecclesiam Dei vota voverit, aut solverit, tres annos poenitiat.” (“If any man makes offerings to trees, wells or crossroads**, or any other thing, other than at God’s church, he must fast for three years.”)

“Poenitentiale of St. Cummin” (c. AD669)

“if any man vow or bring his offering to any well, if any keep wake at any wells, or at any other created things except at God’s church, let him fast three years.”

“Poenitentiale of King Egbert” (Mercia; AD 802-839)

But despite these exhortations, the ancient traditions associated with springs and wells, derived from pagan Roman and British worship, survived. They may have lost their association with spirits like Sulis, Abandinus or Condatis, but the traditions themselves have certainly not died out: according to some recent estimates, British people throw over £3 million into wishing wells, streams and fountains every year.

Tossing a penny into water and making a wish may seem like “just one of the things we do”: a quaint tradition, a trivial and inconsequential part of our heritage. But it’s an echo of a much older time and links us to a way of understanding our world that is thousands and thousands of years old: pre-Christian, pre-Roman and prehistoric.

* Both King Egbert and Bishop Egbert are candidates for the authorship of the quoted Poenitentiale; it may have been a collaborative work. In any event, it is clear that it was a standard proscription equally worthy of attribution to Bishop, Saint or King. The attribution to “King” Egbert is from Burne, Charlotte & Hope, Robert Charles; Shropshire Folklore, Vol. 2: The Legendary Lore of The Holy Wells of Shropshire; Burne, Trubner & Co., 1883).
** The exact meaning is a little bit unclear: “angulos” may refer to tree-branches or wall-corners where spirits were thought to lurk (see: Lecouteux, Claude; The Tradition of Household Spirits), or crossroads, remote places, tree limbs, boundaries and borders (see: Lecouteux, Claude; Demons and Sprits of the Land, Simon & Schuster, 2013); corners of fields, rooms or forests, (see: Hen, Yitzhak; Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: A.D. 481-751; Brill, 1995); or crossroads; F.Evans, pers.comm.

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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