The formidable and striking hillfort of Old Oswestry is located near the historic Shropshire market town of Oswestry, close to the Welsh border and a centre of significance for the history of the Welsh border and the long-term interactions between England and Wales long before ‘England’ and ‘Wales’ even existed.
Old Oswestry hillfort is an important ancient monument. It is currently the focus of a campaign against housing development in the fields to the hillfort’s south-east in which archaeologists are expressing passionate and powerful statements about what this might herald for the future of archaeology and the planning process. This comes at a time when archaeological heritage is under threat from many directions, including massive cuts to local authority planning guidance.
How to learn about Old Oswestry hillfort? English Heritage have a textually spartan but image-rich website dedicated to the monument here. The website for the HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) campaign defines the site as, quoting English Heritage’…one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation”. I guess the nation here is ‘England’, but of course and as mentioned above, this is very much a border location that has great significant for the history of Wales and the Welsh past and present. In any case, the hillfort is striking in its setting and in its surviving earthworks.
What better place to take first-year heritage students for a field trip and debate the many challenges of conserving, managing and presenting archaeological heritage in the early 21st century? A few weeks ago I did just that. More recently I revisited with family. In this post, I want to:
- introduce the hillfort
- discuss the hillfort’s management and presentation
- identify some of the key issues and criticisms of the monument’s heritage interpretation that emerged on site and through discussion with my students,
- identifying the differences between my experience of visiting with students and visiting with family.
I defer to others for expert appraisals of this monument, and to the websites cited above, although the Pastscape entry is perhaps most helpful for details, here, providing details of the 1939-40 excavations by Varley, subsequently published only in 1994.
In brief, the hillfort has not been subject to modern excavation, but it is thought that there was Neolithic activity on the hilltop, preceding its Late Bronze Age origins as a settlement and/or seasonal gathering place around 3,000 years ago. English Heritage’s ‘Iron Age hillfort’ has four phases discernible in its earthworks – three full circuits of bank and ditch and a complex of earthworks between the second and third (lowest) defensive enclosure. The cutting of pits into the counterscarp of the western side of the hillfort might relate to later occupation.
It is clear it is a complex multi-phase monument with origins preceding the Iron Age. The fortifications are apparently of Iron Age date, however, beginning in the 6th century BC. Based on the morphology of the earthworks, four phases of development are proposed, although I imagine the precise chronology of this through into the Early Iron Age remains unconfirmed. There are two principal entrances and the western side has received the most elaborate fortifications.
In 2008, a stone was found near the western entrance with the profile shape of a horse sculpted upon it which George Nash has evocatively called ‘The Pegasus Stone’. See his report on it here.
Until the mid-20th century the hillfort was wooded. Now cleared of dense vegetation, it is managed through sheep-grazing. The site is popular with local people as well as visitors. There is no entrance fee: the site is open to the public all year round.
Entering from the lane, walkers who can follow a principal consolidated path up the western entrance and around the uppermost circuit of defences. There is also a location where you can traverse by steps past the many different ramparts to the top of the highest bank. Also, there are unmanaged paths which run within the ditches and around the base of the hillfort.
There are heritage boards by the entrance, up the slope along the western entrance, and around the perimeter of the uppermost defences. These afford the visitor with up-t0-date and clear basic information about the monument. The boards are profitably enhanced with artist’s rconstructions of the defences and the roundhouses and other features that were likely to have existed within.
There are also warning signs regarding the sheep, prominently encouraging walkers not to leave gates open. Sheep and rabbit poo are everywhere; there are no signs to warn you about that!
The presentation of the hillfort is straightforward, relatively modern, visual and informative. Some attention is given to the prehistoric origins of the site but most of the information relates to the primary Iron Age phases of the site. However, through discussion with students, I discussed some serious lacuna which restrict visitor appreciation of the monument, including:
- The challenge of looking in: the hillfort’s interior is now empty of features; simply a field. Yet through the duration of its later prehistoric use, we have to anticipate both temporary and more permanent buildings and structures within it and not just roundhouses and granaries. See my post on Castell Henllys for further discussion on these points here. We addressed to what extent the heritage interpretation fosters the visitor’s ability to see in and imagine the possible functions, seasonalities and performances which might have taken place within the hillfort. Is the heritage interpretation primarily a celebration of the surviving monumental ramparts? Can the visitor see beyond the visible to the intangible artefacts and structures revealed by archaeological excavations on this and other hillfort sites?
- The challenge of looking out: the hillfort has amazing views over its surrounding landscape including views over local countryside north, west and south, and longer-distance vistas eastwards to the Mid Cheshire Ridge, Wrekin and Wenlock Edge. Despite the hyperbole of the campaign against the new development, this long distance views will not be affected by future housing. Likewise there is already plenty of modern human habitation on view in the near-distance, from farms and housing estates, industrial estates to the historic core of the market town of Oswestry. However, from a heritage perspective, we discussed how the heritage boards are orientated to foster the visitor to look out in passive terms, not to point out possible visual relationships with other hillforts and prehistoric monuments or imagine the woods, fields, routes and settlements that were situated in between these fortifications. The hillfort remains somewhat landlocked in heritage terms.
- The challenge of looking through time: as mentioned above, the heritage interpretation addresses the pre-hillfort origins of occupation on the site, but there is no discussion of the longer-term biography of the monument nor its wider landscape. This site is largely presented as a one-period site, albeit with multi-phases within that period. Attempts to situate the monument in relation to its wider biography remain obscure.
- So the relationship with ancient routes of movement through the landscape and the wider landscape of settlement and routes in the prehistoric and Roman periods are not addressed.
- For the early medieval period, the connection has repeatedly been made between this locale and the battle of Maserfeld in AD 641 or 642 where King Oswald of Northumbria met his doom against his Mercian rival, Penda. The complete absence of this key historical moment, for both the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, gets no mention.
- The early medieval linear earthworks of the region, Offa’s Dyke to the west, and Wat’s Dyke that runs into and out of the hillfort on its northern and southern sides, also receive limited recognition. Yet it is quite possible that Old Oswestry had a military, and perhaps also a symbolic, role in the emergence, definition and functioning of the dykes.
- Whether Oswestry was the site of Oswald’s death or not, the cult of saint Oswald linked to the church and holy well, and the border town of Oswestry with its castle, are a key dimension to the landscape around the hillfort from the Middle Ages to the present day.
There were other critical issues we discussed, including the importance and potential of enhanced internet support for heritage on sites like this, rather than filling in the gaps with more and more heritage boards on site. Still, it is evident that many dimensions to the fascinating and long-term history of the hillfort and its hinterland are simply not being communicated in the information presented to the public. What is presented is good, but it is restricted and period-specific.
Visiting with students presented challenges. I told them they were free to roam but I would guide them. So we had fun exploring. However, because I had afforded them with freedom, half the class disappeared counter-clockwise around the path on the summit while the rest of us were heading clockwise. I also went down to where Wat’s Dyke joins the hillfort ramparts on the northern side, but some students were reluctant to follow me down the steep muddy ramparts. A fun and interested group of students, but it is always a challenging herding students around ancient monuments!
The visit with offspring was surprisingly straightforward and easy, although I would have struggled with more than 3 kids in tow. We walked, herded sheep, looked at a few heritage boards and ran about. A fun trip. I still, however, have memories of foolishly trying to navigate up the hillfort with a stroller with my eldest pre-walking urchin and how hard that was. I would recommend Old Oswestry for all ages and those able to walk by themselves, but there is next to no disabled and pushchair access.
Old Oswestry hillfort is a striking monument that should be protected at all cost. Still, one has to wonder why bother protecting something that has received no modern excavation and only the Iron Age fragment of its history is valorised to the relatively modest attention afforded to its earlier history and the disregard for the monument’s ongoing ‘biography’ to the present day.
I applaud the HOOOH campaign for mobilising support and interest in the hillfort. Still, I must confess I don’t perceive the development as the threat they portray. I would though agree that a better understanding and appreciation of the hillfort’s location, setting and broader landscape interactions are essential and I feel we might be being doing a disservice to ignore the interior, environs and biography of this ancient monument. Let’s not be seduced by the panoramic view and the hillfort ramparts alone: they are only part of the picture. Visit the site yourself and see if you can see in, out and through time via the heritage experience.