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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?

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 8. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 8. Click for larger image.

As Indiana Jones once memorably said: archeology is the search for facts, not truth. We quickly forget the everyday details of yesterday in favour of concentrating on what’s going on today. This is no less true for the 1960s or 1970s than it is for the distant, historical past. As, collectively, we forget the facts of our history, the past becomes a blank slate on which people write all kinds of “truths” – many of which are unsubstantiated.

Archaeological and historical research is all about recovering those lost facts, and through them, reconstructing those lost details of the past. This is why our local history archives and our local museums are so important – this is where information about the past ends up: census records, newspaper archives, court records, photographs as well as all the seemingly insignificant bits of stone, bone, ceramic and metal from local archaeological digs. Individually, each one of these things is a fact about the past. Through research, surveys, excavation we can gather more facts about the past – and build up a real picture of the events and circumstances that shaped our present.

Oswestry has had its fair share of people claiming to have found the truth behind local historical “mysteries” over the years. History is not full of “mysteries” – it is simply full of things that we have forgotten. If there are ever historical puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel, they usually serve to show us what facts are missing from our understanding of the past. Using archaeological science and good historical research, we can re-discover facts about the past and build up a better sense of what made our town, our county and our region the way it is today. Every new investigation of the past adds new facts to our understanding – and changes what we know. That’s why – for Oswestry as much as anywhere else – it’s so important to keep looking. So we must all make sure our local archives continue to be maintained, new archaeological and historical research is supported, and new people continue to become interested and involved in protecting and investigating local heritage.

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It’s the end of September, we’ve only a few weeks to go until Heritage Open Days, and the Oswestry Advertiser has now published half of the twelve-week run of Oswestry Heritage Comics – and so I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on some aspects of the project.

When I first proposed the idea of “a comic about Oswestry heritage”, my aim was to try and create something which would help introduce the subject to an audience which maybe didn’t know a great deal about it. What I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how broad that subject was.

I’ve always been interested in the history and heritage of Oswestry and its outlying regions – after all, it’s on my doorstep – but I’d never really delved into it to any great degree. I knew, of course, that local history of any kind is fractal in nature – the more you investigate it, the more detail reveals itself to you, and the more you discover there is to learn. I originally assumed that I could accommodate this infinite level of detail by confining the comics to a brief overview of any given aspect of heritage. That, I feel, I’ve been able to do fairly successfully. Each of the comic strips has a very definite “theme” – military heritage, transport heritage, business heritage, etc. – which has provided me with ample material to fill each comic. What I had not anticipated, though, was the extent to which each of these “themes” would be connected.

I now understand much better that it’s the restricted nature of the overall subject – the history, archaeology and heritage of a small market town – that makes these connections so much more important. It simply isn’t possible to talk about the Cambrian Railway without mentioning its role in WWI, connections between transport and agriculture, the role of Oswestry’s markets, and Oswestry’s position and character as a settlement on the border between England and Wales. As such, even a brief visitation of a topic such as “Business and Heritage” becomes an act of picking a single thread from a very, very tangled web of historical and heritage interactions. At times, I’ve felt like the process of simplification – so much a part of writing a short, four-panel comic – has tipped over into “over-simplification”: there just isn’t enough time or space to explore all the connections between themes that give the individual historical facts and figures their real interest.

But, herein also lies the great strength of the comics medium – and of the use of a local newspaper as a means of publication. Each comic is not an independent informational entity – each comic is simply an element in a twelve-part informational entity. The fact that the comic has a regular weekly slot has made it possible – over the course of multiple episodes – to continually reference multiple elements of the “Oswestry story”. By re-visiting those elements, it has been possible to build up a sense of connection. The “whole” story emerges “interactively” out of all the shorter stories I have simplified for the individual strips.

However, given the multiplicity of topics, elements and themes, some have, inevitably, received greater focus than others. For example, there’s nothing specifically on the heritage of churches and chapels – although St. Oswald’s parish church does feature, as does the man himself and his well. There’s plenty more on transport that hasn’t had much of a mention – not just the Cambrian Railway, but all the early industrial horse and tramways in the area. And there’s a lot of industrial heritage that hasn’t been covered in any detail, either – although the Llanymynech limekilns do feature a bit. Something else that I haven’t been able to cover is the surprising number of re-enactment and “living history” groups which operate in and around Oswestry: the House of the Blackstar at Whittington Castle, and the World War I trenches at Park Hall farm, for example, make appearances in individual panels, but it would be great to cover them in a bit more depth.

So much heritage – so few panels! I think the title of the first strip, “Small Town – Big Heritage” says it all. What I think I’ve enjoyed most about this project is being able to make a start at getting at least some of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Oswestry’s history down in comic format. What would be nice now is to get the chance to continue. There’s so much history, archaeology, built and natural heritage in and around the town, it seems a shame not to try and do it justice.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 6

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 6. Click image for larger view.

Local heritage is never entirely local. The history and archaeology of even the smallest market town is inextricably part of a much bigger picture. We’re very used to thinking of “our” hillfort, “our” railway, “our” industrial archaeology – but “our” heritage is also the county’s heritage, the region’s heritage, the country’s heritage – the world’s heritage.

The iron age hillfort at Old Oswestry, for example, is important not just to the prehistory of northwest Shropshire – but to the prehistory of Wales, of Britain, and of Europe. The Hoffman kiln at Llanymynech, the Cambrian Railway, and the canals that run from Llangollen past Oswestry into the Midlands tell a crucial part of the global story of the industrial revolution. These connections link Oswestry to the rest of the country, to Europe and to the rest of the world.

And these past connections pay Oswestry a dividend in the present: heritage tourism continues to be an important part of Oswestry’s economy, contributing millions in revenue and investment. It’s the history and culture of this part of the country – it’s heritage – that makes it unique, and gives visitors a reason to come here. We might think of Old Oswestry hillfort as “just” a hillfort – but it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and that’s reason enough for 11.6 million visitors to consider putting it on their itineraries. And if you’re still looking for ways to make money out of heritage, there are other kinds of connections to exploit.

But more importantly, though, these connections continue to link Oswestry to the county, the region, the country – and the rest of the world.  “Our” heritage – unique and singular to Oswestry it may be – is also part of the rich and complex tapestry of global heritage. And through those heritage connections, we become part of that tapestry, too.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 5

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 5. Click for larger image.

Oswestry’s medical heritage goes hand-in-hand with its military heritage. The orthopaedic hospital in Gobowen began life as a small cottage hospital in Baschurch, but quickly grew as it treated soldiers returning from the First World War. Some of the pioneering surgical and post-operative care treatments devised at the hospital by Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt were adopted by the army, and are still used today. It is only one example of the way in which two aspects of local heritage can become intertwined. Health is woven in many aspects of Oswestry’s history and heritage. The new health centre opposite Morrisons was once the main works for the Cambrian Railway. It demonstrates how as the needs of the town change, so people and places adapt – leaving behind evidence that becomes part of our history and heritage. Although the need for a railway works in Oswestry has been and gone, the building itself survives to house a new enterprise. Sometimes the physical evidence of history vanishes, however. There is no trace of the mediaeval hospital on English Walls, for instance. Place names and mentions in accounts are really all the evidence we have. Perhaps the hospital’s foundation in Oswestry owed some of its origins to another place of healing in the town: Oswald’s well, said to have sprung up from where a Raven (or an Eagle) dropped Oswald’s severed arm following his death at the battle of Maserfield. The spring was once noted as a place of healing and pilgrimage, and one can still see the occasional visitor there, looking for the water. It’s a shame that the well isn’t better known around town – because this is what happens to these places: people forget what once made the important, and they “fall off the radar”. But local interest and enthusiasm go a long way to preserving and maintaining these overlooked places – places that show how layered, complex and connected local heritage really is.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 4

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 3. Click on image for larger view.

War is – unhappily – an inevitable part of the human experience. Just as we have them raging around us today, impacting our country, our friends, our families and our daily lives, so people in the past were rocked and buffeted by the same forces of violence and conflict. We celebrate these conflicts as important part of our heritage not for their violence and their destruction, but because they have profoundly shaped who we are and the place where we live. If it wasn’t for the carnage of the battle of Maserfield, Oswestry might have a different name; if it hadn’t been for the parliamentary siege of 1644, the town might still have its walls.

But military heritage isn’t just about the history of battles and the archaeology of battlefields. Much of it is about the histories of families and individuals, and the way big, world-scale upheavals can have significant influence on local events. The “Men on the Gates” project shows how conflicts such as the first World War leaves a very particular kind of footprint in Oswestry’s history by shaping the fortunes and fates of the people who lived here.

Interestingly, while the impact of wars can be enormous, their physical traces are often pretty slight. The battlefield on which King Oswald was killed is hard to identify; apart from the much-restored remains of the walls on Oswestry Castle, very little trace of the destruction wrought by the Civil War siege remains. What does remain is fragile and easily erased – and so worth investigating and preserving all the more.

It is often memory that best preserves the true impact of wars. Memories that are written down in the form of letters and cards tell us a lot about older conflicts such as the First World War – and memories in the form of oral histories told by grandparents tell us a lot about the impact of more recent conflicts, such as WWII. Of course, memory can be captured by monuments – and the war memorial that is Cae Glas park gates is a good example of this – but it is through stories and story-telling that memories can be made to live again.

We have wars going on around us all the time – the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the wars in Libya and Syria. Sometimes we encounter the physical traces of those wars – veterans with missing limbs, poppies worn on Armistice Day, photographs in the newspapers of refugees. But behind each of these physical traces is a story, a story which is part of the ongoing military heritage of Oswestry – and we should be collecting, preserving and celebrating these stories as well.

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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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