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Posts Tagged ‘comics and archaeology’

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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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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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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