Feeds:
Posts
Comments

What Is Heritage?

Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

Week One: 340 Million Years of Heritage

The first of the new, year-long Oswestry Heritage Comics is in this week’s Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer. I think it takes the prize for the longest time-interval I’ve ever covered in a single comic. This one does, indeed, cover 340 million years – from the Carboniferous period, when the limestone and coal around Oswestry were laid down – the present day, where we are surrounded by evidence of how that distant time impacted Oswestry’s archaeology, history and heritage. This part of the country has been shaped by its geology, and it’s that I wanted to try and capture in this comic. There’s more to this story, of course: the local geology affected the fertility of the soils, the patterns of water-drainage, even the shape and form of the hills which became the border between England and Wales. If you want to see more ways the geology affected Oswestry’s history, check out the Oswestry Town Museum, which has some interesting information on local geology and geography, and definitely pay a visit to the Hoffman Kiln and Llanymynech Rocks quarry in Llanymynech.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics begin – again! Every week from now until June 2018 in the Advertizer and online.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are back – this time, for a whole year! With help from Qube – Oswestry Community Action, the comics are being supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. That means a complete year of new comics: 52 weeks, from next week until June 2018.

For those of you who followed the 13-week series last summer, you’ll know what to expect: a look at the archaeology, history and heritage of the Border market town of Oswestry and its environs. There will be comics about the region’s geology and ecology, its military history and its medical history, the Normans, Romans and Victorians who called it home, and their marching camps, castles and railways. There will be comics about some unexpected inhabitants of Old Oswestry Hillfort, about the violent history behind Oswestry’s own white horse, about a missing hospital and about a hidden burial ground.

And this time, I’ll be getting a lot of help from the people who make Oswestry’s heritage possible: the local archaeologists and historians, the metal detectors and the genealogists, the re-enactors and the researchers – those who preserve, protect and present what we know about the past.

The project will also feature plenty of school and community workshops, talks and exhibitions; there will be an anthology collecting all the comics at the end of the project, and even a conference about using comics to talk about community heritage – so stay tuned for a very full year!

Comics online weekly at Oswestry Heritage Comics on Facebook.
For more information about comics workshops, contact Qube: Oswestry Community Action.

Watching History

The 5th/60th Rifles at Whittington Castle.

Britain at war with Europeans over the future of a continent-sized polity? No, not the slow-motion car-crash of Brexit – but a Napoleonic re-enactment at Whittington Castle at the weekend. British and French armies met below the battlements, giving firing demonstrations, showing off their kit and uniforms, doing parade drills and – to wrap the whole thing up – re-enacting part of the siege of Almeida. It was a spectacular display: big enough to make the volley fire really echo around the village, but with groups small enough so that you could walk around and talk to everyone who was taking part.

Re-enactments like this are part of the whole idea that history can be “brought to life” – that past lifeways and behaviours can be reconstructed in the present. Archaeology is often a lot more interested in the material remains themselves than this phenomenological engagement, but the process of archaeological interpretation now owes a fair amount to such ideas. Experimental archaeology validated the logic of re-enactment by demonstrating that archaeological features and artefacts are understood differently when the life-histories of structures or items of daily use are replicated and studied. Construction, use, re-use, discard and deposition take on new meanings when observed first-hand.

Watching history “come to life” – whether a Napoleonic siege or a neolithic flint-knapper – is part and parcel of public interaction with “the past”. Most non-archaeologists engage with the past much more readily when seen as a series of lived moments and used objects. Allowing artefacts, features, sites and monuments to tell their stories by making their life-histories visible is key to successful engagement with public and non-specialist audiences. Even when those narrative life-histories are incomplete or compromised, they importantly still communicate the past as real and lived – more present and more relevant.

For more on Whittington Castle events, check out their Facebook page.
For more on the 5th/60th Rifles, check out their website, and find photos from the Whittington siege at their Facebook page.

Bio-Energy: The Comic

Swogger - Visions of the Future - final 6

A Vision of the Future? Page from my section of Supergen’s bioenergy comic.

This week sees the launch of another project I’ve been working on since Christmas – an informational comic about bioenergy, sponsored by Supergen Bioenergy, an industry research consortium.

The project is the brainchild of James McKay – engineer and 2000 AD comics artist (not often those two descriptors feature in the same biography). He’s probably best known in the comics world for his work on the 2000 AD series Flesh, but he’s also the creator of the bande-desinée La Cité des Secrets (Mosquito, 2007). James is also the man behind the Dreams of a Low Carbon Future (I & II) project – a two-part illustrated and comic book exploring the technologies and social changes necessary to create a sustainable, low-carbon way of life in the twenty-first century. I drew several large illustrations for the second volume, and through that was invited by James to contribute to the bioenergy comic.

The Bio-Energy comic is a similar project – but focused primarily on providing good, solid background information about bioenergy – What is it? How is it used? What does it cost? etc. – and combining that with some future scenarios to show how different ways of adopting and using bioenergy technology might shape the next 60-80 years.

Five comics people were involved: myself, James, comics illustrators Corban Wilkin and Emma Chinnery, and comics writer Ben Dickson; I found myself in the company of some very talented people! The project has been extremely interesting – not least for the complexity of the subject matter, and the long, workshop-based back-and-forth that was required to turn that into something more accessible and engaging; but also the process of working with four other creative minds all of whom have very different backgrounds in comics to myself, and consequently approach both the drawing and the writing of them very differently. It has been a hugely rewarding experience, and if anyone out there making a start in the world of comics has an opportunity to work on a collaborative project – don’t let it slip away! You’ll learn far more than you ever imagined. Making comics can be a very solitary enterprise, and seeing how other people do it is invaluable.

The Bio-energy comic is being launched this week in Manchester at a special Supergen event, and will be generally available soon.

NAGPRA & Comics

NAGPRA Page 12

Page from “Journeys To Complete The Work” – a comic about NAGPRA.

Later today, my most recent archaeological comics project – a comic about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – will be the subject of a presentation at the Indigenous Storytelling and the Law symposium being held at the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This project is a collaboration between myself, Sonya Atalay (U.Mass Amherst) and Jen Shannon (U. Colorado), and focuses on explaining NAGPRA law through the experiences of tribes, museum workers and scholars who have been involved in repatriations – both successful and less so. The comic is a demonstration of the way in which a visual narrative approach can not only make the complex legality of NAGPRA comprehensible, but provide a meaningful context for some of the preconceptions, public perceptions and prejudices that further complicate the issue of repatriation.

The comic that’s being presented by Jen and Sonya at the conference is ten pages which cover some introductory explanation about what NAGPRA is and how it works, and tells the story of a repatriation of material back to Anishiaabek tribes from museum collections held by the University of Michigan.

It’s something of a departure for me in terms of the focus of the story – less about explaining the process of excavation and research, and much more about how material is treated once it becomes part of a collection. But it focuses very much on things which I think comics can do exceptionally well in archaeology – issues which are difficult to explain without visual storytelling; issues which mix science, professional conduct and public response; issues which are shaped by – and shape – personal experience. I have long argued that these are exactly the kinds of stories which can be told in a particularly effective way through comics.

I’m sorry I can’t be at the conference myself, but I will be interested to hear the response to our project. We’ve got lots of ideas about how this comic could be used, etc. – and we’ve even got an interesting launch venue possibly lined up! I’ll be discussing all that and much more about the project in more detail as it evolves over the coming months.

“Journeys To Complete The Work” – A Comic about NAGPRA. Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, & John Swogger will be published this autumn.
“Indigenous Storytelling and the Law” symposium – Friday, March 17th, 1pm-5pm at UMC 235, Saturday, March 18th, 9am-6pm at Wolf Law; March 18 Special Session 4-5:30pm, reception to follow: Indian Country and the Trump Administration: Law, Policy, and Activism 
Page from my forthcoming "Comics in Archaeology" - to be published by Berghahn Books sometime in 2018.

Page from my forthcoming “Comics in Archaeology” – to be published by Berghahn Books sometime in 2018.

The start of a new year is the perfect time for big announcements – so here’s mine:

I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Berghahn Books to write a book – a comic book! – about comics and archaeology. I’ll be working on it through the course of 2017, and – all being well – it should come out sometime in the first half of 2018. The book will be titled: Comics in Archaeology: How to use them and how to make them. It will be it two parts: the first about what comics can bring to archaeology, and what they can do for publication and presentation; the second will be more practical tips on how to approach writing and drawing archaeological comics. The idea is to make the two sections complementary, so that the book is useful both to people who are interested in commissioning and using comics in museums, visitors centres, publications, etc., as well as comics creators interested in making comics about archaeological subjects. The focus will be primarily on informational comics – in all their aspects and permutations – and draw heavily from my own experience over the past ten years.

It’s a big project, but I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. It’s a chance to really bring together the published comics I’ve done over the past decade with the ideas that I’ve been working through in published papers, conference posters, lectures, etc. Hopefully it will both summarise what I’ve found comics can already do for archaeology, as well as suggest ways in which the medium might open new and exciting doors for the visualisation and communication of archaeology. As ever, I’ll post updates here through the year.

%d bloggers like this: