Posts Tagged ‘Prees Heath Common’

Shropshire’s Mammoth – Week 31 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The story of the discovery of the Condover Mammoth is interesting for many reasons – not least of which because it sheds important light on the way local heritage discoveries happen.

The first is the unexpected nature of the discovery itself. The mammoth bones were discovered in 1986, during the excavation of a sand and gravel quarry at Condover, just south of Shrewsbury. It’s a fair distance from Oswestry, but – like the Stiperstones and Prees Heath – shares our Ice Age landscape and geology. As the climate changed and the glaciers (like the ones which shaped the Stiperstones) melted, rivers of melt water ran away from the disappearing ice sheets. These laid down huge areas of sand, gravel and mud across much of lowland Shropshire. These muddy plains were great environments for grasses, wild flowers and small shrubs (not unlike the plants now growing at Prees Heath, for example) and attracted large herds of animals moving back up into the newly thawed north of Britain. One of the animals attracted by this rich, new grazing land was the mammoth. But these fertile grazing lands held hidden dangers. Large lumps of ice, breaking off from the glacier, became buried in the sand, mud and gravel, and slowly melted – leaving a hole buried under the ground. When something as large as a mammoth stepped on top of where that hole was, the top collapsed, creating a steep-sided pit of wet earth, sand and gravel – an impossible trap for a large animal to get out of. Trapped, these animals died, and their bodies were buried with more mud and sand as the pit was filled in. At Condover, an adult and two young mammoths died this way. Quarrying in the Shropshire plain for sand and gravel was possibly started by the Romans (getting material for their roads), but became big business in the 19th and 20th century, as sand and aggregate were needed in large quantities for building construction. The quarry at Condover is one of several in the area making profitable use of this Ice Age geology! But the point here is that this discovery shows how local industry, geology and history all work together to make discoveries like the Condover mammoth possible. Once again, it demonstrates how local heritage is a network of different influences, events and synchonicities, meaning we get a much better and more complete picture of our local heritage if we try to understand as many aspects of it as possible – including things like economics, soil formation and social history.

The second is the way in which the discovery unfolded. The bones were actually uncovered by the workers at the ARC Western Ltd. quarry: Maurice Baddeley, Gary Ryan and Michael Ryan (all working for R.J. Weaver (Contracts) Ltd. of Burton-on-Trent). Maurice Baddeley put the big bones aside, but thought they were the remains of a large farm animal – a big bull or something – that had died in the quarry. Eve Roberts and her husband Glyn – local Condover residents – were walking their dogs nearby and saw the bones sitting at the edge of the quarry. Talking to Baddeley, Eve didn’t think as he did that the bones were of a farm animal: to her, they looked much bigger. When Eve got home later that morning, she phoned Geoff McCabe, the Shropshire County Museums and Arts officer. He came down within the hour, and identified the remains as probably being those of a prehistoric mammoth. He then made arrangements with ARC Western Ltd, and put in an urgent call to the British Museum for advice. The following week Russell Coope of the University of Birmingham’s Department of Geological Sciences came and positively identified the remains as an Ice Age mammoth. Local television and radio stations then put out a call for local people to help with the excavation. Even Blue Peter came and recorded a programme on-site to help raise public awareness of the importance of the discovery. For the next four days, thirty volunteers – including Eve Roberts – helped Geoff McCabe and the Museum Services staff excavate the remains of the three mammoths. Additional specialists came to help, too: Dr. Adrian Lister of Cambridge University quickly realised that the mammoth skeletons were some of the best preserved in Europe, and a team of twenty students from the University of Birmingham came to identify, clean and preserve the bones in a makeshift laboratory shed donated by the Highways Department. The bones were then sent out to thirteen research laboratories in Britain, plus labs in the USA and even the Soviet Union, for further detailed analysis by experts. They eventually determined that the mammoth remains were about 12,000 years old, making them the “youngest” in Britain – an important piece of information that has significantly changed our understanding of the Ice Age in northern Europe.

What does this tell us? It tells us that local heritage is, truly, a team effort. From the quarry workers who uncovered the mammoth, to Eve Roberts who recognised them as important, to Geoff McCabe who responded so quickly and put the expert wheels in motion, to the Soviet scientists who contributed their specialist knowledge – local heritage is a collaborative effort, bringing in engagement, experience and expertise from a wide range of people. There are no “lone wolves” in local heritage research – no one who can know everything or do everything. Local heritage discoveries are made possible when a community of like-minded people work cooperatively. And this means that we are all capable of contributing to heritage discoveries big and small, regardless of whether we’re working in a lab in Siberia or walking our dog through a field in Shropshire. The important thing is to be interested and get involved.

Who knows? Maybe the next time you’re taking the dog for a walk around Old Oswestry you’ll stumble across something as magnificent as the Condover Mammoth!

Don’t forget: you can actually see the mammoth skeleton on display at the Shropshire Hills Discover Centre near Craven Arms!

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.

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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.

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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The Silver Studded Blue, resident of Prees Heath Common (photo: butterfly-conservation.org)

I was invited over to Prees Heath Common, near Whitchurch in North Shropshire, by Meres and Mosses/Shropshire Wildlife Trust to run a heritage comics workshop with some of their community archaeology volunteers. Prees Heath Common was an airfield during World War II, and a military muster site before that. Now it’s – in part – a butterfly reserve, managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The site has a team of volunteers who look after both the ecology and the archaeology. A few weeks ago they dug a series of test-pits across a small corner of the site, at the edge of  one of the WWII airfield turning circles. Last week I got together with the group to run a workshop about making comics – hopefully showing them how comics could bring the story of their small local heritage site to a wider audience.

We held the workshop in the fantastic Raven Cafe – an old-skool biker and transport greasy spoon (that served proper strong tea – thank you, Lynne). There, at one side of the main dining room, next to a collection of old bikes, and overseen – appropriately enough – by a poster featuring the cartoon biker Ogri, the group and I spent from ten until one talking comics, WWII archaeology, common law, butterflies – and more! So much more.

I was astonished not only with how much history and heritage there was associated with the site – but the range and diversity of it. Yes, there was tons of military history and archaeology – from the middle ages through the Civil War to both World Wars; yes, there was transport history – Roman roads, mediaeval tracks, railways, Australian flying corps, bombers; yes, there was ecological heritage – the silver studded blue butterfly, peacocks, brimstones and cinnabar moths; regrown heathland with ling and bell heather; lizards, frogs and lapwings. We talked about all this heritage – and I showed the group how these stories could become educational and informational comics for schools, site interpretation boards and visitors centres.

These were the heritage stories I was expecting to hear – but I also heard other stores: stories about the social history of the common, about the injustices it has seen, about how it came to be transformed into arable fields, about how it affected and changed the lives of the local inhabitants down the generations – and about how those changed lives have in turn changed the future history of the common. These individual, family and social stories are the other side of the coin to the historical, archaeological, geological or ecological information that make up “heritage”. They give the bare bones of heritage facts and figures a human, grounded dimension – reminding us that the past is personal, not abstract; that our shared past both shapes and is shaped by, the people who live it.

From tales of mass trespasses and gypsy weddings, to biker memorabilia (and comics!) in roadside transport cafes – the past is made meaningful and human. When I talk with community groups about telling stories about the past, I am increasingly convinced that these are the stories that count – because these are the stories people want to hear.

I had a fantastic time with the Prees Heath group, and really hope that they take some of their surprising stories and great ideas and make some excellent comics!

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