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Drawing on the Past

Related imageI’m heading to the “Drawing on the Past” comic at UCL tomorrow – a conference about comics and the pre-modern world. There are some excellent papers lined up from people like Glynnis Fawkes and Sonya Nevin. I’ll be doing a poster presentation on depicting the “other-ness” of prehistory in community heritage comics, looking at examples from the Oswestry Heritage Comics, comics about Offa’s Dyke and my recent comics work on Yap. And on Monday afternoon, Hannah Sackett and I will also be leading a short workshop on making archaeological comics.

It looks to be a really interesting conference for anyone interested in the way in which our shared past is, can or could be represented in comics – and some of the potentials and pitfalls involved in the use of the medium.

UCL Senate House, London 10-11th September 2018, room G22/26

Registration via Eventbrite

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Heritage Comics… IN SPACE!

Image result for Vanguard 1 satellite

Vanguard 1, launched 1958 and the oldest satellite still in orbit. A genuine piece of space archaeology.

Those of you who are regular listeners to AstroRadio will already know that I appeared on their “Live from Oswestry Heritage Fest” show earlier today, talking about science outreach, heritage and comics.

What do you mean: you’re not a regular listener to AstroRadio?

AstroRadio is an astonomically-focused radio station that broadcasts out of Whittington, just a few miles from Oswestry (where Whittington Castle is – our local Napoleonic Re-enactment group runs events there, for example). They are doing an astronomical heritage event up at the Racecourse for Heritage Open Days, and were broadcasting from Oswestry Town Museum all today, interviewing lots of people involved in events on the Bailey Head. The radio station is broadcast via satellite to FM stations around the globe, and a world-wide audience of 120,000 people listened to people from Oswestry talk about the heritage events taking place in and around town today – and to me talking about archaeology, heritage and comics! I was interviewed by the very enthusiastic Pete Williamson FRAS. Not sure what archaeologists in Brazil and Australia made of it, but maybe it’ll encourage them to make comics about astronomical heritage and space archaeology.*

I’ll be making another appearance on AstroRadio next Saturday during the second Heritage Open Days weekend, so you can listen live via AstroRadio online – or, programmes are repeated one week later on the AstroRadio Mixcloud page. I went to Heritage Open Days today expecting to discover all sorts of new things about the history and archaeology of Oswestry – but what I didn’t expect to discover was that we have a astronomical radio station in the area!

* Actually, I’d be really interested in making a comic about space archaeology. Get in touch if you have any ideas…

Heritage Open Days 2018

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 13

Heritage Open Days – Week Thirteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

It’s Heritage Open Days this weekend, and the Oswestry Heritage Comics will be at the Oswestry Town Museum’s stall on the Bailey Head all day. I’ve created a special “Oswestry Heritage Comics” town trail for Heritage Open Days this year. The map is printed in this week’s Advertizer as a big double-page spread, and also as separate leaflets and booklets. The trail guides you around Oswestry to twenty of the places and sites mentioned in the comics – which are all reproduced in the special booklet. It’s a great way to get to know Oswestry’s history and heritage – perfect for people who’ve never had a chance to look around the town before. Along the way you’ll be taken down Oswestry’s main shopping streets, and past loads of other Heritage Open Day attractions – including the Oswestry Castle excavations, the Cambrian Railway and the Oswestry Town Museum.

I’ve also produced two new illustrations for the Oswestry Castle Community Research Project, and they’re up as sign-boards at this season’s excavations. One of the illustrations is a big aerial view showing the construction of the stone castle in the 1200s – fun to draw, but also a good way to show how Oswestry began. You can even see how the Bailey Head market, the Horsemarket carpark and Bailey Street all began.

I’ll be at the Museum stall all day today, handing out free copies of the walk leaflet and booklet, and I’ve got some colouring pages if anyone wants to have a go making their own comics! Plus, I’ll be drawing some new Oswestry Heritage Comics LIVE! These are going into the collected edition which will be published just before Christmas.

So join us today at the Bailey Head, and take a tour around the fantastic history and heritage of Oswestry!

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Taro Plant – artwork for the Yap comic.

I’m on Yap – a small island in the Western Pacific, about 1,200 km north of Papua. It’s remote, although by no means the most remote of Pacific islands, and it has some really interesting archaeology. I’m here with a National Geographic-funded project, headed by Matt Napolitano from the University of Oregon. Matt and I have worked together previously several times on Palau (another Pacific island, not far away), on fieldschools and survey projects.

The Yap project is part of Matt’s PhD research – an investigation into the earliest settlements of Yap, sometime around 2,400 BP (maybe earlier). And I’m here to contribute to the public outreach for the project in the form of a comic.

The Yap comic will be slightly different from the other informational archaeology comics I’ve worked on in the past. For starters, it’s being done as a piece of reportage – that is: while I’m out in the field helping with the survey, I’m also documenting the daily process of the project and the results as they come in. I’ve done comics like this on a smaller scale in both Carriacou and Palau in previous years (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015). Those comics were published on a regular schedule throughout the season, but the Yap comic will be published in its entirety as a 20-odd page comic book. So while there will be no daily installments as there were on Palau and Carriacou, the whole progress of the four-week season will still frame and structure the narrative.

As a result, the drawing of the comic is to be done “live” – that is, out in public: on site, etc. The idea is to have both the recording and the presentation of the project take place within a working environment in which people can see the process now, as well as the product (ie: the comic) a bit later on. This presents something of a challenge on Yap, as there are few public venues where I can work – so I will have to try and find alternate ways to find visible working space.

And by “people”, of course, I mean not just the public audience here on Yap, but also the archaeologists taking part in the project. Their experiences in the field, their evolving interpretations, the way in which they adapt the daily progress of the project to new circumstances (weather, geology, etc.) is captured and included in the comic “in real time”, not as a post-facto report after the project is completed. While such engagement from the team will almost certainly not be “visible” in the reading of the completed comic per se, it certainly has already had an effect on how the team regard the whole enterprise of public outreach: as “present”, as ongoing, as the story of the shifting tides of archaeological process and interpretation – not simpy as something left to the end of the project and focusing on a sanctioned set of “results”.

This is an exciting project for me, as it starts to bring together several important strands that have emerged through my use of comics over the past ten years: not simply the use of the medium as a way to communicate information, but the potential of the creative process itself to add an additional layer of visibility and depth to that information.

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Panel from “Box 19008”, by Ulf Jansson (Epix, 1986-1992)

I’ve just spent a very enjoyable ten days working on heritage comics with a team from Malmö University and Malmö Museum, hosted by the Ystad Konstmuseum and the Klostrets i Ystad Museum. The project was organised by Gunnar Krantz and Jakob Dittmar at Malmö University, as part of an overarching series on different kinds of storytelling in comics. The programme brought gave me a chance to talk with museum curators and exhibition designers, specialists in visual communication, comics researchers and even Swedish cartoonists and comics creators about the Oswestry Heritage Comics project. The objective was to demonstrate how comics about local heritage can be used to talk about the past in a different kind of way – a way that combines facts and information about the past with discussion of things like identity, memory, and the meaning and importance of place. Malmö has a particularly active and vibrant comics community, so it was a great privilege to meet comics artists like Karolina Bång and Gunnar and work with them on a whole range of heritage and comics ideas. It’s extremely exciting to see the Oswestry Heritage Comics inspiring both comics artists and museum/heritage organisations to look more seriously at the use of comics as a tool for interpreting and presenting the past.

That’s a Wrap

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 52Well, the Oswestry Heritage Comics have finished – at least, for the moment. The final comic was printed in the paper a fortnight ago, thanking everyone who helped make the project a success – those who helped administrate it, those who contributed research and information to the comics, and, no least, those who read and enjoyed the series.

But, as I say, the project is not quite over. In September, for Heritage Open Days, the Advertizer will feature a pull-out map of Oswestry, with a town trail based on the comics. We will also be putting out a guidebook to the town trail, which we will be giving out at a stall on the Bailey during the Heritage Open Days weekend. In December, the collected book of the Oswestry Heritage Comics will be published – and we’ll have a special launch event at Qube (and maybe also at the Town Museum). Also in December, I’ll be putting on a session at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Chester on comics and community, hopefully drawing together (yeah, pun intended…) a wide range of artists, archaeologists, comics-creators and illustrators who have all used comics and narrative graphics in a range of community-based projects to do with archaeology, anthropology, heritage and memory.

And, of course, the stories in the comics continue. Simon Jarman will be showing his Soyer stoves at the Wilfred Owen festival in November; Mark and Rachel are continuing to excavate their garden – in order to build a patio and rockery, but also in the hopes of finding more clues about the stone they found there last summer; Diana is continuing to investigate the full story behind her Grandfather’s WWI internment; and I’m meeting Barbara Molesworth later this month to find out more about the work of Rev. William Walsham How, and his documentation of Whittington’s wild heritage.

Some of these follow-on stories will be turned into new comics, which will be included in the collected book published in December. I’ll also use the book as an opportunity to include some stories that didn’t make it into the newspaper series: about the Oswestry antiquarian and suspected spy Edward Llywd, about Old Oswestry’s mythological connections to Queen Guinevere and Arthurian legend, and the way Oswestry writers and artists are continuing to find inspiration in the town’s history, archaeology and heritage.

So, although this summer I’ll be embarking on new and different archaeology and comics projects, the Oswestry Heritage Comics project will continue in the background!


The Oswestry Heritage Comics have been 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 were published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 50Grab your sonic screwdriver and look out for Morlocks – this week the Oswestry Heritage Comics heads to history’s final frontier: the Future!

We always think of heritage as being about looking back – looking to the past, to the things from yesterday that have survived until today. But heritage is also about the future – because one day “today” will be “yesterday”. We’ve looked back hundreds, thousands – sometimes millions – of years into the past in these comics, and looked at things that have survived from those distant times to our present day, and what they now mean to us. But things which we now think of as “heritage” – as old and even ancient, like stone tools or hill forts – were once new. Once upon a time, stone axes were revolutionary technology, and changed the lives of people who used them even more profoundly than the internet has for us today. Once upon a time, hill forts were ordinary places as central to people’s lives as supermarkets, banks or football stadiums are for us today.

So part of thinking about heritage is thinking about what things from today might become the heritage of tomorrow; things we regard as revolutionary or commonplace today that will become mysterious and ancient to the people of tomorrow. This kind of heritage thought-experiment can be great fun – will our descendants have any idea what money, cars or mobile phones really meant to us? But it’s also a very serious way to try and understand what things like stone axes, hill forts or even railways meant to people when those things were new or commonplace. Thinking about the way our lives and our material culture might be understood (or misunderstood) in the future can show us how we might better understand (or be in danger of misunderstanding) the lives and material culture of the past. If only half of the things in your house survived into the future, would people really understand the way you lived in 2018? What if only one thing survived?

Next time you’re in a museum, have a look around you – not at the exhibits, but at the ordinary things which we all take for granted today: mobile phones, prams, sunglasses… What might those things look like in the Museum of Tomorrow?

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