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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.

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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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What if Grace Huxtable had drawn comics about Catalhoyuk.

What if Grace Huxtable had drawn comics about Çatalhöyük? (John Swogger, 2016)

Thank you to everyone who made this year’s TAG an extremely interesting conference. Thank you to all the people I got to talk to about comics and archaeology, thanks to all the people who visited the Sightations exhibition, who came to the workshop Hannah and I lead, and thanks to everyone who came to one of the last sessions of the conference to hear my paper on authorship in archaeological comics.

Comics and other forms of narrative visualisation are gaining traction in archaeology, if only because the needs and requirements of archaeology are changing. Twenty-five years ago, when I first became an archaeological illustrator, the biggest concern in the field was what size Rotring pen to use on what sort of illustration. Nowadays, we’re being asked to provide front-line support as archaeology fights an increasingly fierce battle for survival. Comics has a role to play in that battle: not just in communicating discoveries made in labs and fields – but in communicating the underlying and fundamental reasons why the study of the material past matters. Comics has a role to play in humanising our disciplinary practice by articulating both its triumphs and its problems. Comics has a role to play in connecting us with non-specialist and public audiences who may be able to contribute skills and perspectives we lack. And comics has a role to play in helping us articulate the things we, as practitioners, feel are important about our work and our experiences.

I’d like to think that I can put some of this into the book I’m currently producing for Berghahn Books on comics in archaeology. It’s going to be a graphic work about how to use and how to make archaeological comics – a how-to guide for those commissioning and those creating comics for museums, excavation projects, outreach and peer-to-peer communication. I’ll be working on this over the course of the coming year, and – all being well – it should see print sometime in 2017. It’ll be a chance for me to pull together some of the thoughts I’ve been putting into the various papers, lectures, workshops and presentations I’ve been doing over the past few years; doubtless some of the material I talked about at TAG this year will be included as well. If anyone’s interested in reading that paper on authorship and comics, I’ve posted it here.

 

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tag-2016I’m heading to TAG next week – the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference. It’s in Southampton this year, where, in 2011 at the VIA conference, I first proposed a theoretical framework for the use of comics in archaeology.

Five years later, and a lot of practical water has flowed under the bridge. I’m returning to Southampton to give a paper on different approaches to authorship in comics. In particular, my paper looks at ways in which comics treats authorial visibility – and how that can change the nature of the archaeological visualisations we can produce. In addition to giving my paper, I’m also exhibiting some of the Oswestry Heritage Comics at TAG’s Sightations exhibition, and talking about them during the Sightations Cafe session. I’ll also be helping Hannah Sackett – of Prehistories – to run a workshop on making archaeological comics.

Given the theme of the conference, this is an ideal opportunity for those of us interested in comics and archaeology to talk about all the projects we’ve been working on over the past few years. Hope to see you there!

Monday, Dec. 19th, 2pm, S20 – Sightations Cafe: Archaeology, Comics and Community
Wednesday, Dec. 21st, 11am, S35 – Comics and Archaeology Workshop
Wednesday, Dec. 21st, 2pm, S10 – Archaeologists Assemble: Authorship as praxis in archaeological comics

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 12. Click on image for larger view.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 12. Click on image for larger view.

The fact that we know so much about Oswestry’s past is evidence of the commitment of hundreds of local heritage volunteers. These people help curate and study the past in a variety of ways. Research, monitoring, campaigning, preservation, conservation, re-enactment – all these help ensure that the history and archaeology of Oswestry and its environs is neither forgotten nor destroyed. Projects like Qube’s Men on the Gates, or the Oswestry Castle Research Project, the work of the Oswestry Family and Local History Group, the Oswestry and Borders History and Archaeology Group, Cambrian Heritage Railways and many other local groups make up a network of enthusiasts and experts, amateurs and professionals, who contribute their time and skills to help ensure that Oswestry’s past survives into its future.

If reading the Oswestry Heritage Comics has sparked an interest in the town’s history or archaeology, then perhaps your next step should be to get in touch with one of these groups and get involved. Regardless of time, skills or experience, there’s always something that everyone can do to help protect and preserve their local heritage.

For a start, you can help me by saying what you thought of the Oswestry Heritage Comics in this very quick online survey! It’ll only take you a few minutes, and it will really help decide what happens next.

And if you’d like to learn more about the use of comics in talking about archaeology, history and heritage, I’m going to be giving a “Learning at Lunchtime” talk on the Oswestry Heritage Comics project at Oswestry Library on Thursday, October 6th, between 12-1pm.

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It’s the end of September, we’ve only a few weeks to go until Heritage Open Days, and the Oswestry Advertiser has now published half of the twelve-week run of Oswestry Heritage Comics – and so I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on some aspects of the project.

When I first proposed the idea of “a comic about Oswestry heritage”, my aim was to try and create something which would help introduce the subject to an audience which maybe didn’t know a great deal about it. What I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how broad that subject was.

I’ve always been interested in the history and heritage of Oswestry and its outlying regions – after all, it’s on my doorstep – but I’d never really delved into it to any great degree. I knew, of course, that local history of any kind is fractal in nature – the more you investigate it, the more detail reveals itself to you, and the more you discover there is to learn. I originally assumed that I could accommodate this infinite level of detail by confining the comics to a brief overview of any given aspect of heritage. That, I feel, I’ve been able to do fairly successfully. Each of the comic strips has a very definite “theme” – military heritage, transport heritage, business heritage, etc. – which has provided me with ample material to fill each comic. What I had not anticipated, though, was the extent to which each of these “themes” would be connected.

I now understand much better that it’s the restricted nature of the overall subject – the history, archaeology and heritage of a small market town – that makes these connections so much more important. It simply isn’t possible to talk about the Cambrian Railway without mentioning its role in WWI, connections between transport and agriculture, the role of Oswestry’s markets, and Oswestry’s position and character as a settlement on the border between England and Wales. As such, even a brief visitation of a topic such as “Business and Heritage” becomes an act of picking a single thread from a very, very tangled web of historical and heritage interactions. At times, I’ve felt like the process of simplification – so much a part of writing a short, four-panel comic – has tipped over into “over-simplification”: there just isn’t enough time or space to explore all the connections between themes that give the individual historical facts and figures their real interest.

But, herein also lies the great strength of the comics medium – and of the use of a local newspaper as a means of publication. Each comic is not an independent informational entity – each comic is simply an element in a twelve-part informational entity. The fact that the comic has a regular weekly slot has made it possible – over the course of multiple episodes – to continually reference multiple elements of the “Oswestry story”. By re-visiting those elements, it has been possible to build up a sense of connection. The “whole” story emerges “interactively” out of all the shorter stories I have simplified for the individual strips.

However, given the multiplicity of topics, elements and themes, some have, inevitably, received greater focus than others. For example, there’s nothing specifically on the heritage of churches and chapels – although St. Oswald’s parish church does feature, as does the man himself and his well. There’s plenty more on transport that hasn’t had much of a mention – not just the Cambrian Railway, but all the early industrial horse and tramways in the area. And there’s a lot of industrial heritage that hasn’t been covered in any detail, either – although the Llanymynech limekilns do feature a bit. Something else that I haven’t been able to cover is the surprising number of re-enactment and “living history” groups which operate in and around Oswestry: the House of the Blackstar at Whittington Castle, and the World War I trenches at Park Hall farm, for example, make appearances in individual panels, but it would be great to cover them in a bit more depth.

So much heritage – so few panels! I think the title of the first strip, “Small Town – Big Heritage” says it all. What I think I’ve enjoyed most about this project is being able to make a start at getting at least some of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Oswestry’s history down in comic format. What would be nice now is to get the chance to continue. There’s so much history, archaeology, built and natural heritage in and around the town, it seems a shame not to try and do it justice.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 5

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 5. Click for larger image.

Oswestry’s medical heritage goes hand-in-hand with its military heritage. The orthopaedic hospital in Gobowen began life as a small cottage hospital in Baschurch, but quickly grew as it treated soldiers returning from the First World War. Some of the pioneering surgical and post-operative care treatments devised at the hospital by Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt were adopted by the army, and are still used today. It is only one example of the way in which two aspects of local heritage can become intertwined. Health is woven in many aspects of Oswestry’s history and heritage. The new health centre opposite Morrisons was once the main works for the Cambrian Railway. It demonstrates how as the needs of the town change, so people and places adapt – leaving behind evidence that becomes part of our history and heritage. Although the need for a railway works in Oswestry has been and gone, the building itself survives to house a new enterprise. Sometimes the physical evidence of history vanishes, however. There is no trace of the mediaeval hospital on English Walls, for instance. Place names and mentions in accounts are really all the evidence we have. Perhaps the hospital’s foundation in Oswestry owed some of its origins to another place of healing in the town: Oswald’s well, said to have sprung up from where a Raven (or an Eagle) dropped Oswald’s severed arm following his death at the battle of Maserfield. The spring was once noted as a place of healing and pilgrimage, and one can still see the occasional visitor there, looking for the water. It’s a shame that the well isn’t better known around town – because this is what happens to these places: people forget what once made the important, and they “fall off the radar”. But local interest and enthusiasm go a long way to preserving and maintaining these overlooked places – places that show how layered, complex and connected local heritage really is.

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