Posts Tagged ‘comics and archaeology’

Today I’ve been at the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory meeting at the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton. It’s been a day-long research symposium, with a wide range of presentations given about Offa’s Dyke, its history and archaeology, as well as its conservation and preservation and the part it plays in local leisure and tourism.

I also gave a presentation – about the appearance of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in the Oswestry Heritage Comics, and the role comics can play more generally in public outreach about these (and other) earthwork monuments. The full text of my paper is here, if you’re interested, along with a .pdf of the accompanying slides. In that presentation, I showed some new comics about Offa’s Dyke – examples of how I thought comics could be used to help explain some of the research being done about earthwork monuments. I thought I’d take a little time here to talk about one of them in a bit more detail.

We often associate comics with the idea of “public” outreach – as a way to bring a particular kind of visibility to complex or unfamiliar information to a non-specialist audience. But comics can also be used as outreach when talking to highly-specialised audiences as well. Comics used to bring visibility to aspects of scholarship can do all the same things that we have seen comics do in public outreach: they can add visual context to explanation, introduce and de-complicate subjects, locate specific information within broader frameworks, make connections and links with other research – even invite participation. Narrative can be used to ground and humanise both research and interpretation – something which becomes important if one wishes to present models of past social practice as dynamic, and landscapes as inhabited. For example: within discussions about the past meaning of Offa’s Dyke authors often consider its implications as a social frontier, as a materialisation of a borderlands between cultures, of a space between Mercia and Powys, between ‘Englishness’ and ‘Welshness”, and as a meeting point shaped by the rivalries of power and kinship:

Recent re-appraisal of the nature of Mercian power under Penda has referred to it in terms of ‘hegemony’, although this can be a mercurial term. … he epitomised traits of kingship that both looked back to the heroic age of warbands held together by gift-giving and loosely organised polities bonded by kinship, and forward to the age of inter-kingdom relations managed through diplomacy, hostage exchange, and ever more strategic use of marriage-based alliances. This transition continued well into the era in which Offa’s Dyke was built.

Bapty, Ian & Ray, Keith, Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain, p. 103.

Conflict between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the various Welsh kingdoms could be inclined to break out at various intervals although they could also be allies. […] Then, as now, the actual border between Englishness and Welshness was doubtless somewhat blurred in the borderlands, and inter-marriage normal.

Hill, David & Worthington, Margaret, Offa’s Dyke, p. 108.

Larger boundary dykes, though unrecorded historically, are often assumed … to mark the territorial edges of different ethnic or national groups. … But the survival of the ethnic identity of villages divided by Offa’s Dyke proves that it was not the absolute ethnic boundary that early scholars believed.

Zaluckyj, Sarah, Mercia, p. 187.

But such interpretative discussions lose their impact in text alone. After all, when we talk about marriage or hostage-taking, even wealth or trade, we are talking about events and situations that impact individual lives at the level of emotion: of love, jealousy, ambition, greed and pride. Academic text is somewhat unsuited for this kind of discussion – it renders it dispassionate, objective and remote. If such interpretations are to have meaning in scholarship, if we want to understand how intermarriage or mercantile rivalry might drive Mercian foreign policy, early mediaeval economics or Anglo-Welsh culture, and thus how they might be reflected in historical and archaeological data – then we must try and render such interpretations passionate, subjective and intimate.

Marriage, violence, ethnicity and greed along C.8th Offa’s Dyke

The comic I created to help demonstrate this (left), shows how, in combining text and image, we can bring to such interpretations historical and cultural grounding, a narrative flow, and a sense of emotional depth – all things which are actually meaningful in the contexts of such discussion. Such works need be no more than a single page; they need not end up veering away from data towards drama. It is not necessary to go all “Game of Thrones” in order to make good use of comics in this context – what is needed, however, is that we recognise that leaving statements like these as academic text renders significant aspects of our interpretations invisible and thus un-examinable; comics, however, can contribute an important kind of visibility. Archaeologists and historians sometimes use terms such as “hostage exchange” or “inter-marriage” a little loosely, assuming that their audiences know and understand exactly what those phrases mean – or, perhaps more accurately, exactly what the authors mean by those phrases. But these are mercurial terms, and their meanings can easily shift. Granted, one might not want to try and provide an exhaustive definition of the possible Mercian social and cultural context of “hostage exchange” in a book primarily about the construction of an earthwork monument, but not attempting at least some kind of definition is somewhat disingenuous, as it effectively limits an audience’s ability to examine and critique the use of that term. This is where narrative visualisation could become important: as a way to suggest a context without necessarily pinning down an absolute definition. In the comic to the left, “inter-marriage” is framed (literally, in terms of the laying-out of the accompanying images) by notions of power, wealth and greed, ethnicity and ethnic rivalry, inter-generational conflict and even literacy and romantic love. It is also – again, literally – situated within the physical landscape of Offa’s Dyke, and a grounded, inhabited picture of the past. The result is something which uses the narrative and visual potential of comics to go beyond a strictly “literal” presentation of information to instead present a context for interpretation; a basis for which assumptions made in text alone (“inter-marriage”) can be interrogated and – if necessary – challenged. More, the scholarly exercise of constructing such a comic – even a single-page one like this – engages a different kind of critique than the one academia is used to, sparking of interesting examinations of one’s own research. Pr. Stephen Hodkinson, who worked as historical advisor on the graphic novel Three, about Sparta – makes similar points in his discussions with the graphic novel writer Kieron Gillen. Indeed, Stephen has found the process of thinking through research in comic-format so valuable that he has been actively looking at presenting his own research as a comic.

Such interpretative presentations can be rendered as easily for academic publication as for popular, and can usefully stimulate parallel discussions at various levels. Such works become windows into our data and the interpretative assumptions of scholarship – and access points for interdisciplinary collaboration, moments at which – for example – economic data, osteological data and survey data might come together with anthropology, ethnography and psychology. As I work more with comics in this way, I see increasing evidence of a new kind of visibility brought to such interdisciplinary discourse, allowing scholars to reach new kinds of audiences in new ways – both within and outside their particular area of speciality, both within and outside the otherwise sometimes narrow confines of the academy. I think that it is comics such as these – less so comics like the Oswestry Heritage ones – which offer the greatest potential to archaeological scholarship: unlocking not just a new way to visualise research – but to see research. I know from my experience of working with comics over the past ten years that once you start to see archaeological information in comic format, you begin to see archaeological information differently. 

Thanks very much to Pr. Howard Williams, the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory, the Offa’s Dyke Association and the Offa’s Dyke Centre for organising today’s meeting. Very much looking forward to the next one!

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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.

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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 

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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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Panel from "Disarticulated" - an archaeological comic about sexual harassment in the field.

Panel from “Disarticulated” – an archaeological comic about sexual harassment in the field.

In my TAG paper, I talked a little about how the authorial visibility that comics permits can allow the medium to approach subjects which have traditionally been very much beyond the remit of archaeological visualisation. The SAFE study into sexual harassment in the academic fieldwork, published in 2014, is part of a growing openness about the prevalence of sexual harassment, intimidation and discrimination within disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology. One of the notable features of studies such as this is a lack of awareness about methods of reporting such incidents.

Memoir and reportage-based comics, particularly those evolving out of the “underground” tradition, have long been used as a way of “starting a conversation” about difficult topics. The medium allows writers and artists to remain very firmly identified with their story and their authorial position, while at the same time exercising choice and control over the degree to which they are identifiable. It is a unique feature of comics to be simultaneously highly individual and wholly anonymous. At TAG, I showed a panel from a comic called “Disarticulated” which I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on the experiences of a colleague, and written in collaboration with them. The comic allows us to make the truth of these particular experiences very clear, but the identity of the people, sites and places to be obscured.

How this comic will ultimately be published is not clear. But I hope it suggests ways in which comics might be used in archaeology: to give voice to situations and experiences which are important, and which deserve to be talked about.

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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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