Unfinished panel from "Archaeology of the Caribbean" Pt. 3 - People still to be added. Sort of a metaphor for what I'm talking about with comics & archaeology, I suppose...
The New York Times has just today published an article about the Comics and Medicine conference under the title “A New Therapeutic Tool in the Doctor’s Bag”, highlighting the diverse nature of the genre and the eclectic nature of the conference.
The article not only calls attention to the variety of uses of comics, graphic novels and cartoon-illustrated texts are being put to in medicine, but also the variety of subject matters talked about. Shelly Wall, Sarah Leavitt, MK and Ian get particular mentions, as do Stuart Copans and Mark Dworkin – citations which serve to illustrate the range of topics comics, graphic narratives and cartoons are being used to address. From Alzheimers to Parkinsons, AIDS to alcoholism, the experiences of doctors to the experience of caregivers – all these are flagged up as being not just addressed, but crucially, better addressed by comics than ordinary text.
And this is the important point – and one that forms the central thesis of the argument I’ve been trying to make in the context of archaeology: that the use of comics and graphic narratives should serve a critical function, not just a stylistic one. This is something that graphic medicine has addressed almost naturally – people are using comics not because they look good, but because they allow them to tell stories which otherwise might not be told.
In medicine, these untold, hidden stories abound in every context – witness how much graphic medicine revolves around the experiences of doctors and caregivers alike. The desire to tell these stories and address the issues they bring up has pushed people into looking for a new medium in which to express themselves.
In archaeology, these stories also exist, but there is a lack of willingness at professional levels to tell them. But archaeology, like medicine, needs to recognise that these stories are a valid and true narrative not only of archaeological experience, but of archaeological practice and process. An artist friend of mine described these stories as “the oral histories” of archaeology. They are: they are the vernacular narratives which are (despite the post-processual work of people like Ian Hodder, for example) still excluded from formal documentation. But these vernacular narratives – these everyday stories of how we do our work, why and how – are not incidental to the formal documentation of archaeology: they inform every aspect of our archaeological lives. From why we chose to do archaeology in the first place, to how various professors and lecturers influenced us, to the experiences of our first excavations and our first research projects, to the multiplicity of professional dilemmas and choices we make on a daily basis – these are the stories that really matter in archaeology, and they are not being communicated effectively and meaningfully. As well-intentioned as the Çatalhöyük excavators’ journals are, for example, they hide at the bottom of a vast database, and are quoted only in the context of expensive, specialist publications. This is not the way to show how archaeology is really done. It frustrating to see how little guidance there is for students and post-graduates entering the field in dealing with these issues.
Archaeology remains very much a “closed-shop”, and it does itself no favours as a result. In failing to bring these narratives to light, we are failing some of the best in the field. I have seen too many good archaeologists abandon their careers, frustrated and isolated, unable to unravel complex ethical, inter-personal or professional issues, unable to find a way of discussing the difficulties – and, indeed, triumphs – of working as an archaeologist. Comics and graphic narratives may be one of the ways in which we can open the experience of the discipline up and make it much more clear what we do and why we do it.
Archaeology needs illustrators like Ian Williams to address the complexities and limitations of our profession; it needs writers like Sarah Leavitt, David Small and Brian Fies to take difficult narratives about the impact of archaeology and make those meaningful to a wider audience; and it needs a forum like Comics & Medicine to bring people interested in telling those stories together.
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