Posts Tagged ‘Old Oswestry Hillfort’

Ice Age Oswestry – Week Sixteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The Ice Age was, perhaps, not the most exciting period in Oswestry’s history. Like most of North Shropshire, the town was buried underneath 300 metres of glacier – compacted snow and ice that had accumulated slowly over centuries. Just to give you some idea of how thick that ice was, 300 metres is the height of the Eiffel Tower – or twice the height of the Great Pyramid. The surface of the ice was a bleak place. Even the great herds of wooly mammoth we think of when we think of the ice age wouldn’t have spent much time on the top of the ice – there would have been nothing to eat. They would have stayed further south, down in central Europe, where the ice hadn’t built up, and where there was still tundra grass for them to feed on.

But there would have been a few spots in Shropshire where the hills would have poked up higher than the glaciers – a few frozen “islands” in the ice. One of these would have been the Stiperstones, the dramatic ridge of rocks just south of Shrewsbury. And although the glaciers and all that ice has long since vanished from Shropshire – it all melted away about 10,000 years ago – you can still see evidence of the Ice Age right across the county:

  • deep ridges and valleys along the Stiperstones cut by the glaciers
  • sand and gravel deposited by the water from the melting ice
  • big boulders that had been caught up in the ice and dumped when it melted
  • lakes like the Mere at Ellesmere, formed by the melting ice

The Ice Age may be invisible in many ways, but it has left a lasting impression on our history. The hills that form Old Oswestry Hillfort and the Coppie are both made out of sand and gravel left behind by the glaciers. And the warming climate and melting glaciers left behind lush grasslands quickly populated by mammoths and other animals – and our early hunting ancestors – moving north from southern Europe.

And so the Ice Age sets the scene for the whole of the human history of Oswestry – something to think about as you look at the hills and valleys of Shropshire!

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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Week Three: Hillforts, Herbs and Heritage

Timing didn’t quite work out to have this comic in the ‘Tizer two weeks ago (blame the election for disrupting the launch of the Oswestry Heritage Comics!). A fortnight ago Saturday, Natalie Morris lead a herb walk around the Hillfort, organised by the Oswestry Heritage Gateway group, pointing out all the native species up there and talking about their traditional uses as foods and medicines. Last summer, I was quite surprised to discover how much strong interest there way locally about the connection between “green heritage” and built heritage: the idea that sites, monuments and historic places can also provide much-needed ecological niches for endangered, rare or threatened species. The late Andrew Tullo, of the Cambrian Heritage Railway, was a keen advocate of this, and did a lot to ensure that the Cambrian Railway regeneration programme included provision for native species along the track right-of-way. He was also involved in projects like the Oswestry Community Orchard – again, demonstrating the close links that can exist between green and built heritage.

Natalie’s herb walk shows how that connection has historical and archaeological echoes, through the use of native plants as food and medical resources. Some wild flowers such as plantain, were known to the Romans, who wrote about their use in healing wounds. Medicine in the middle ages made extensive use of native herbs and wild plants – among other things! Some of these uses lasted into the Victorian period, particularly in remedies for coughs, aches and pains. Understanding these traditional uses for native plants gives us a glimpse into folk ways and traditions that rarely make it into the history books, but which were well-known to most people. Some of these traditions appear to have a very long pedigree across Europe and the Mediterranean: yarrow, which Natalie pointed out as a healing herb, has long been identified as the healing herb used by Achilles in the story of the Trojan War – a long way away from Old Oswestry hillfort!

Please don’t pick the wild plants on the Hillfort.

And please don’t eat or use wild plants unless you know what you’re doing.

Contact Natalie for more information about using native and wild plants for food or medicine.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 11. Click for larger image.

The past is only given meaning by the present. Throughout history, history itself has been used, misused and reused according to the needs of the time. But history is resilient – as every archaeologist knows, it’s very difficult to bury the past. But more often than not, history is more likely to be misrepresented than destroyed; we are more likely to be told that our heritage is unimportant or irrelevant. The truth is that the more irrelevant history seems, the more important it is likely to be. Our heritage is who we are – it is about how we lived then, how we live now, and how we want to live in the future. It is no coincidence that destruction of heritage – ancient and historical sites, monuments and buildings – is a key technique of terror.

Of course, the toll cottage on Salop Road is not Palmyra, but every piece of lost heritage is lost forever. When we lose a piece of our heritage, we lose a piece of ourselves; for a small market town, every fragment of lost heritage is a whittling away of civic independence and unique community identity. We imagine that the heritage which makes a place like Oswestry unique is indestructible, that it’s only the small, insignificant things that get lost. After all, a toll cottage is just a toll cottage, right? But remember what happened to Offa’s Dyke – even being big and significant is no guarantor of immunity or protection. This is what the campaign to protect Old Oswestry hillfort is all about.

We will be remembered in the future for how we treat the past. The heritage of our shared past has to be transmitted through the present. And if we allow it to be misrepresented, ignored, whittled away and destroyed, we diminish not just ourselves, but our children and grandchildren – we make their world, their Oswestry a smaller, lesser place, and we condemn them to living with a smaller, lesser sense of who they are and who they can be.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 10. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 10. Click for larger image.

There’s more to heritage than archaeology and history. Places like Oswestry have all sorts of other heritage that aren’t simply about buildings and monuments. There’s cultural heritage, social heritage, artistic and creative heritage – and there’s also green heritage. Oswestry’s historical buildings and monuments are as much natural places as built places – or, at least, they are now. Places like the Llanymynech limekilns and quarries were – while they were running as industries – environmental disaster zones. Now, of course, they are wild places – home to rare insects and plants, providing habitat which has disappeared elsewhere. In the nineteenth century, places like railway lines, quarries and limeworks were inimical to wildlife. Songbirds, insects and rare plants were sheltered in farm and pastureland. Now, the situation is reversed, and places like the limekilns or the Cambrian Railway lines provide rural landscapes with vital, biodiverse havens and corridors.

The realisation that historic and archaeological places can play a role in conservation seems to have come slowly. But having taken hold, the idea has (if you’ll pardon the pun) grown. Many historic properties and archaeological sites take active steps to create habitat and preserve plants, insects and wildlife which have found, in these places, a new home. The Cambrian Railway Trust is one local heritage organisation that takes its conservation role very seriously indeed – and their approach provides a great model. Old Oswestry hillfort, too, has now been recognised as an important habitat for rare and threatened species, and care of the monument now also involves care of its environment and ecology. I have to admit, this is all a bit new to me – but it’s something that’s happening globally. In South America, management programmes at some Precolumbian sites involve local farmers working part of the archaeological zone with traditional methods. Here, it seems, archaeological heritage, green heritage and cultural heritage were all partners. The Oswestry Community Orchard project is an echo of this, bringing together transport heritage, green heritage and cultural heritage.

In a world where all aspects of heritage are equally under threat, such partnership approaches offer “heritage” in its widest sense a truly sustainable model for the future.

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A Serpent in Paradise! Or: a Gillray-styled cartoon in support of the "Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort" campaign.

A Serpent in Paradise! Or: a Gillray-styled cartoon in support of the “Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort” campaign.

I’ll be heading to Comics Forum 2015 in November, where the theme of the conference this year is comics and politics. I’ll be presenting a paper about politics in my archaeological comics – specifically about how the use of comics as a medium to present archaeological information reflects both “big” and “small” political decisions.

I’ve only recently come to appreciate the fact that using comics to present information about the past isn’t just a cultural, intellectual or creative decision – it’s a political one, too. And I’ve also come to appreciate that exploring and embracing this political context might result in new kinds of archaeological comics – ones that can function as more than just simple informational tools.

Anyway, I’m still writing my paper, so I’m still thinking through some of these ideas. In the meantime, here’s another kind of political archaeology comic: one in a series of political cartoons about Old Oswestry hillfort in the style of James Gillray, inspired by a trip to the British Museum’s Bonaparte and the British exhibition – and, of course, the venality, hypocrisy and ignorance of some of our local politicians.

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Poster I did for tomorrow's hillfort hug event. Be there: 1pm to show Old Oswestry you care!

Poster I did for tomorrow’s hillfort hug event. Be there: 1pm to show Old Oswestry you care!

Old Oswestry iron age hillfort is still under threat from developers, and so tomorrow there’s an event at the hillfort to show how much the site means locally – and nationally. It’s “Hug The Hillfort” day at Old Oswestry from 1pm, and it’s being coordinated with a national “Hug Your Heritage” event across the country. There will be tons of pictures on Twitter tomorrow of Old Oswestry and all sorts of threatened and neglected heritage sites across the country being shown the love they deserve.

If you’re around the Welsh marches tomorrow, stop off at the hillfort and give it a hug to show you care about what happens to it!

⇒ Find the event on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort! Say No To Houses On Our Heritage!

Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort! Say No To Houses On Our Heritage!

Dark forces in Shropshire are conspiring to ruin one of the UK’s greatest hillforts. Plans are afoot to encroach on Old Oswestry ironage hillfort with acres of new housing. It’s shocking that plans should be this far advanced, but unhappily only the latest evidence of the destruction being unleashed on urban and rural heritage alike through the weaselly connivance of unscrupulous developers and breath-takingly ineffectual local politicians.

Fortunately, the imminent threat of damage to this unique site has galvanised local opposition determined to preserve what is left of one of Oswestry’s few remaining heritage assets. I’m encouraging anyone interested in history, culture, heritage or archaeology who reads this blog to sign the petition and help stop the proposed development. I’ve helped design the campaign’s logo (left) for Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort, and others are out there spreading the word. Let’s hope Shropshire Council listens.

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