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Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 2

Oswestry Heritage Comics – Week 2. Click on image for larger view.

The idea of doing a comic about the heritage, history and archaeology of Oswestry first came to me a few years ago, when the potential of nearby development lead to a renewal of local interest in Old Oswestry iron age hillfort. At that point, I had been working with comics and archaeology for a couple of years, and had become increasingly convinced that they were a really useful way of talking about archaeology with a public audience. Why?

Well, two reasons. The first is that, because they integrate both image and narrative – words and pictures – they could be used to condense and simplify complex archaeological information without dumbing it down. The visuals could be used to provide visual context and visual explanations of things that were difficult to get from text alone – how a place looks, or how layers within a trench relate to each other. The fact that the text was presented as narrative meant that it was easy to present information in a way that didn’t rely on (but could still use, if necessary) technical language or jargon.

But telling the whole story of any one site is a tricky proposition, no matter what the medium. When I was asked by Rachel Pope if I would be interested in producing some short comics last summer about her excavations at Penycloddiau iron age hillfort, I realised that – with only four, four-panel comics – I would only be able to tell part of the story. But which part?

In many of my archaeological comics, chronology or interpretation has provided the structure. In other words, the narrative has been based either on saying what happened first, what happened next, and so on (chronology), or on saying what a piece of archaeological evidence means, what that means something else means, and so on (interpretation, or argument, if you like). But these kinds of exposition require a certain amount of space – space I wasn’t going to have in these four-panel comics for Penycloddiau. So instead, I decided to approach the information about the site thematically: “Student training”, “Connections”, “Context” and “Day of Archaeology”. What this allowed me to do was to snapshot a lot of quick facts and information about different aspects of the site and its archaeology into each comic, and in doing so, build up an overall picture out of those individual elements. Each comic worked kind of like a page in a photograph album.

It’s this thematic approach which I’ve taken with the Oswestry Heritage Comics. Each comic is a series of snapshots of lots of different aspects of history, archaeology and heritage, building up an overall picture out of many individual elements: an album out of individual photographs, if you like. The theme of this week’s episode – “Getting Here” – is obviously transport heritage: toll roads, railways, canals, bronze age trackways, footpaths, and Roman roads. But combining this thematic approach with visual context and a narrative text has allowed me to bring other things into the story: engineering, ancient history, heritage preservation and tourism. I feel like this approach enables me to have “a lot going on” in each four-panel strip.

 

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