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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

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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Comics can be an extraordinarily powerful medium for communication. The best comics create a surprising and sometimes serendipitous alchemy of text and image that force readers to look again at a subject they thought they knew. Maus still leads the way, as do Joe Sacco’s comics journalism and other forms of comics reportage. Comics about history, however, have suffered from a very mainstream approach. The Cartoon History of the Universe – and its follow-on volumes – are great, but don’t particularly challenge the status quo interpretation of historical events.

TEAW

To End All Wars seems to be quite different. At least as reported in The Independent, the objective of this graphic novel is:

is intended as a corrective to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s insistence that the conflict should be taught as a “just war” fought to halt German expansionism.

Pat Mills is quoted taking this much further:

Currently, we are fed the spin-doctors’ version of legalized mass murder, legitimized as ‘heroic sacrifice’ with challenging, embarrassing or difficult facts whitewashed from the record. … Michael Gove and his ilk dutifully talk about a noble sacrifice and a just war. I hope this collection will help to counteract their lies and commemorate the centenary as an opportunity for reconciliation and a search for the truth.

It’s a powerful statement of intent. The choice of comics as a medium is a timely reminder that – from political cartoons to caricature – comics have a deeply-rooted background outside the status quo. While there has been a steady stream of fictional graphic stories about WWI, this factual one is a welcome appearance. Perhaps it should also serve as a timely reminder to those of us working in similar areas like archaeology of the potential outside role that comics can play.

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