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Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

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.

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"Digging Drunk" - Not very funny tales of alcohol, anarchy and archaeology.

“Digging Drunk” – Not very funny tales of alcohol, anarchy and archaeology.

You often hear it said that archaeologists work hard and play hard. When archaeologists say this, what they usually mean is that they work hard and then drink a lot. There’s no denying it: archaeology has a fairly – shall we say – “robust” drinking culture. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem – but what happens when it is?

Where do we go in archaeology to talk about things like this? Where do we have a chance to tell those stories which, perhaps, don’t show us in the best of lights? Where can we talk honestly about things about our profession which can become seriously damaging to ourselves and the work that we do? I’m not sure if comics is the only place we can do this, but it is one possible place. Over the past sixty years in particular, comics have evolved into a medium where it’s possible to tell these kinds of stories. Traditions of graphic memoir and reportage that have grown out of the “underground” comics of the 1960s give today’s comics writers and artists tools with which to tackle difficult and sometimes highly personal issues.

One of the projects I’d like to find time for this year is a series of stories about archaeology and booze. I’m not entirely sure how best to approach the idea – I don’t want this to end up like one of those weird, quasi-public service comics. I’m genuinely interested in how the medium can serve as a way to articulate experiences that don’t get an airing elsewhere.

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Not on our doorstep! New cartoon in support of the campaign to keep Old Oswestry Hillfort the way it is, thank you very much.

Not on our doorstep! New cartoon in support of the campaign to keep Old Oswestry Hillfort the way it is, thank you very much. John G. Swogger, 2015.

It’s Comics Forum this week, one of the best conferences on comics in the UK. The theme of the conference this year is Politics, and I’m going to be giving a paper on the role of politics in archaeology comics.

This is something I’ve become both increasingly aware of and increasingly involved in recent years. As I produce more and more archaeological comics, so I’ve come to understand that these comics have a political dimension beyond the simple communication of information about the past. In some cases, it’s the information which is outright political – in some cases, more intriguingly, it’s the medium itself. Sometimes the very act of communicating accurate information about the past can be a political act – sometimes the use of comics as a form of science communication it itself a form of political statement.

Sometimes, aspects of the study of the past collide with personal politics. The illustration above is one of a series of cartoons I’ve done, very much after the work of the 18th-century political cartoonist Gillray, and all about the current heritage-politics surrounding Old Oswestry iron age hillfort in Shropshire.

Personal, professional, practical: there’s a lot of politics in archaeological comics, and as far as I’m concerned – – well, if you want to know what I think, you’ll just have to come to my session. See you at Comics Forum!

“Digging Deeper: Applied comics and political discourse in archaeology”, Panel 2A – Constructing History with the Community. 11:15-12:15, Thursday, Nov. 12th, Leeds Central Library.

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