Featuring: Chloe Brown, Peter Connelly, Troy Lovata, Hannah Sackett, John Swogger and Al B. Wesolowsky
Ancient artefacts, lost archaeological expeditions and ruins long hidden in jungles and deserts have long been part of comics heritage. From the EC Comics clichés of lost pyramids and ancient curses through to the Phantom and Adele Blanc-Sec, archaeology has long served as an inspiration for comics writers and illustrators.
It is only relatively recently that archaeologists themselves, however, have begun to use comics in a professional context. The list of published examples is not long, but includes works like Archaeology: The Comic (Johannes Loubser, 2003) and the archaeological comic ‘zine Shovel Bum (Trent DeBoer, ed., 1997 – present; collected edition, 2004).
This e-panel brings together six archaeologists, all of whom are making comics about archaeology, aimed at a wide range of audiences. Their work explores new ways of using comics as a medium for science communication.
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John Swogger: I’d like to thank my five other participants in this e-panel and ask them to briefly introduce themselves.
Chloe Brown: I’m a Fine Arts graduate, currently studying for an MSc in Bioarchaeology at the University of York whilst forming an archaeological illustration business. I’m currently producing my first archaeological comics this summer based on experiences working both in the lab and the field.
Peter Connelly: I’m Director of Archaeology at York Archaeological Trust, and was Director of York’s Hungate excavations for five years and have a wide range of experience in large-scale public archaeology. I’m not a comics creator, but I’ve long been a reader of Silver Age and independent comics
Troy Lovata: I’m Associate Professor of Archaeology at University of New Mexico Honours College. I’ve been a long-time contributor of comics to the archaeological ‘zine Shovel Bum, and I produced part of my PhD defence in the form of a comic.
Hannah Sackett: I received a PhD in landscape archaeology from Leicester University, and am currently developing a project on visual narrative and the reception of museums with Pr. Stephanie Moser at the University of Southampton. I’m the creator of the Archaeological Oddities comics, and I’m collaborating with John Swogger on a graphic novel set in Neolithic Orkney.
Al B. Wesolowsky: I am the retired Managing Editor of the Journal of Field Archaeology and the current Art Editor of the same publication. I received the MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies, White River Junction, Vermont, in 2009. I have an extensive background in excavation in Texas and the Balkans and I create comics based on my experiences in the field.
John Swogger: And I have been an archaeological illustrator for almost twenty years, working for small archaeological units, museums, excavation projects as a freelance illustrator. I have produced comics for education and interpretation projects in the UK, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, and recently presented a paper to the Society for American Archaeology in the form of a comic.
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JS: I think the first thing to note is how diverse this forum is – I think it’s fair to say that we all represent very different aspects of archaeological practice, and yet have all ended up using – or wanting to use, perhaps – comics in our work. I’d like to start with that point: what is it about comics that seems to fit in with what you do as an archaeologist?
CB: I am exploring ideas about creating work that illustrates some of the scientific approaches employed after the excavation process, which I believe could further progress potential for interdisciplinary research as scientific terminology translated into a visual format could potentially overcome the divide created by academic language. I aim to create comics explaining techniques, such as isotope analysis. Used perhaps as part of a pamphlet or a poster at conferences to allow for quick viewing and facilitate a general understanding by all present of alien techniques and therefore yield greater contribution from more members of the conference.
TL: I’m an archaeologist who decided to write and draw up some of my work in comics format. It’s something I’ve been doing now for a decade and a half. Putting together the 40 plus page comic for my Ph.D. dissertation, done over a dozen years ago, was the biggest project I’ve attempted. I turned research about dog domestication on the Great Plains of North America and cultural ideas of dogs into a comic. That did and didn’t work as planned and a lot of my recent comics have been a couple pages of panels here and there. My book on archaeology hoaxes and recreations from 5 years ago had a whole chapter, on Piltdown , done as a comic. Other works have been 1 to 3 page vignettes. I’m not entirely happy with my output, but my position as a faculty member and scholar has demands that keep me from diving into a large project in the same way again. I’m not an illustrator or writer for hire, these projects are my own research and work.
HS: Archaeological Oddities had its origin in a jokey present I made for my partner Andy Jones, while he was researching the Folkton Drums  for his last book, Prehistoric Materialities. It was a Tunnocks Teacake box turned into a “Make your own Folkton Drums” set. It had picture of the three Neolithic chalk carvings on the outside, with them saying “We are Family”. This picture stuck in my head, until one day I found myself jotting down a conversation between the three drums. I messed about, working on simplifying the drums and finding a simple drawing style, and made the first Archaeological Oddities. The people I showed it to were really positive, so I kept going. I chose oddities, because I think archaeologists sometime gloss over things that don’t fit into a neat category. An archaeologist once told me that you couldn’t discuss Silbury Hill  because you couldn’t categorise it! This stayed with me.
AW: I make comics about my archaeological experiences, and they are autobiographical in nature. Not all my autobio comics are archaeological, though. I find comics to be a very engaging medium for memoirs and reflection. The archaeological ones tend to concentrate on the odder aspects of field work, the occurrences that are familiar to most archaeologists but which seldom make it into any published record or excavation report. Examples include dealing with local workmen, local governing bodies and military, accidents and injury and stays in local hospitals, and working out problems in field analysis.
JS: So there’s are several themes emerging already. One is communication – the idea that there are some aspects of archaeology which are not being communicated at all: for example, the “daily life” stories you’re referring to, Al.
AL: Personalities can loom large in these accounts, and, while the events are episodic in nature, I’m trying to develop an overall narrative about my own professional development and how my views regarding the discipline matured as I was thrust into increasingly directorial positions with administrative tasks (budgets, payroll, banking, vehicles, purchasing, etc.). I make comics because I have stories that I want to tell, and I like the visual component of comics which, I think, adds to readability and general appeal to readers.
TL: For me, archaeology is chock-full of narratives that fit very, very well into a comics format. I think they often they work better there than in other formats common to research and academia. The narratives about past peoples and places are, of course, one set of stories ripe for the showing or telling in comics. But I’m more often engaged with narratives of what archaeologists do and how research is done. Trent de Boer’s Shovel Bum has been a great outlet for my ideas because it’s a comics ‘zine and ‘zines are so focused on the context of creation and experience. My first forays into archaeology comics were sketches in field books—little cartoons alongside the other notes—that recorded and commented on what I was experiencing and how archaeology was unfolding. Things grew from there; which is no surprise considering the significance of reflexivity in the social sciences.
HS: My aim in drawing these kind of “general appeal” comics is to have fun, to entertain myself and hopefully other people, and to encourage people to learn more about archaeology – make them curious. I’ve written a lot of stories, as well as writing academic papers, but I feel that a comic strip is much more inviting than a block of text. Working on these Archaeological Oddities comics is teaching me a lot about how to work with words and images.
JS: I know that the comics I’ve done about fieldwork in the Pacific and the Caribbean have been used by university professors to show students what they can expect, working on projects in places like that. Most of these comics were originally drawn as public outreach tools – so “general appeal” can certainly cross over to archaeological audiences. But there’s also this idea that comics can be produced specifically to communicate with other archaeologists – even other scientists. Chloe’s point about comics being useful as an interdisciplinary tool is intriguing.
TL: On that point about interdisciplinary uses, the connections between archaeology comics and comics in other sciences are certainly there. There are people—the Larry Gonicks [The Cartoon History of the Universe series, 1977 – 2008], of the world or Jim Ottaviani [Two Fisted Science, 1997; Feynman, 2011, etc.] at GT Labs—who do quite well creating comics relating to a wide range of fields. Those are people who are the connections. I view the comics as akin to the research articles or chapters that I craft as part of my position. I’ve also written, presented at archaeology conferences, and used in classes I teach a fair amount about archaeology and comics. I was interested in comics before I ever became an archaeologist—from childhood on—and that hasn’t stopped just because I earned a handful of degrees in the field.
PC: On the whole I can see no reason why any aspect of archaeology that wouldn’t fit the comics medium. After all archaeology is a very ocular process and profession which would appear to fit with the graphic, sequential art and comic medium. A natural fit with comics may be the processes/“doing” of archaeology and the interpretation of archaeological data. However, if done well I can’t see why the reporting of archaeological facts and data couldn’t incorporate either elements of the comic medium or be entirely presented as a comic. What may hold the archaeological data representation back from the comics medium is the ease with how a written report can be carried out, and how that is accepted.
JS: Yes, I’d like to pick up on some of those practical questions a bit later on. There’s one other theme which Hannah has mentioned: that of education and outreach. Hannah, both you and I have used comics in this way. What is it about comics in particular that make them useful for archaeological education and outreach?
HS: I think the most obvious fit between comics and archaeology is in the areas of public outreach and education, that’s true – to explain sites and archaeology and interpretations. As I mentioned earlier, a comic draws you in better than a block of text, and it will also be more appealing to children and younger people (children love to read speech bubbles!). On a notice board, you can fit more information into a comic than you can into a block of text next to a picture, and I think people are more likely to read it (although some people do have an issue/mental block about comics).
JS: I’ve certainly noticed that when you start using comics as tools to talk about archaeology, you can let the pictures do a lot of the explaining. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to describe in text, visual and spatial relationships – say, between the different layers within a site trench, or different building phases in a structure. But with a comic, you can create panels which show all these things, freeing up your text to do other things. You can also use the panels to build explicit and complex chronological relationships: how what was built in the Neolithic relates to what was built later in the Bronze Age, or how buried objects change through time. These are all things which are often really, really difficult to make clear and concise when using text alone. Comics can be a very powerful communications tool in that regard. And what’s even more interesting is, in using panels, image and text like this, you actually end up “smarting up”, rather than “dumbing down”; I’ve found I can make my comics cover quite complex and sophisticated concepts as a result.
PC: Archaeological narrative can often be cloaked in inaccessible academic phraseology and description. This can be overcome in the comics medium, providing both outreach and wider educational appeal. However, I feel that if archaeological comics are largely produced solely for outreach and wider education then they will never be accepted as rigorous pieces of academic work. There is a danger that archaeological comics could become a handmaiden to the more traditional archaeological report and publication. Something I feel should be avoided.
AW: I think that the use of comics in archaeology for public outreach is in its infancy and is deserving of wide adoption. While archaeology as a discipline has a fundamental infrastructure (e.g., the notions of stratification and stratigraphy , the role of context, the importance of spatial documentation, the need for maps and plans and drawn sections, and so forth), expressions of antiquity are usually very localized. Hence, there are localized conventions and practices in archaeology that would be inappropriate in other areas. This localization means, I believe, that comics will need to be localized for most regions, projects, and sites. A reconnaissance in the U.S. desert Southwest would be treated, visually, quite differently from, say, the excavation of a Bronze Age barrow in Sussex or the reconstruction of a Neolithic site in Turkey. There’s not much opportunity for a “one size fits all” approach here, and localized comics for local projects will be the most effective.
JS: It’s interesting to note that I think we’re all very much agreed on one thing: no matter how comics are used in archaeology, it’s the input of the archaeologists that is key. Whether it’s, as Pete says, avoiding educational comics becoming a poor second cousin to the more formal archaeological report; or as Al points out, steering clear of a “one size fits all” approach and concentrating on a more specifically-focused approach to the visuals; or, as Troy mentioned earlier, making sure that the real experiences of archaeological process are present within the narrative.
This brings me back to something Pete raised earlier, and which I’d like to focus on in the second part of our panel discussion: the practicalities of introducing the use of comics into archaeological practice.
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Chloe Brown is a Fine Arts graduate, currently studying for an MSc in Bioarchaeology at the University of York whilst forming an archaeological illustration business. She is producing her first archaeological comics this summer based on experiences working both in the lab and the field.
Peter Connelly is Director of Archaeology at York Archaeological Trust and a Trustee of the Council of British Archaeology. He was Director of York’s Hungate excavations for five years and has a wide range of experience in large-scale public archaeology. He’s not a comic creator (yet), but has long been a reader of Silver Age and independent comics.
Troy Lovata is Associate Professor of Archaeology at University of New Mexico Honours College. He has been a long-time contributor of comics to the archaeological ‘zine Shovel Bum, and produced part of his PhD defence in the form of a comic. His book Inauthentic Archaeologies: The Public Uses and Abuses of the Past, was published by Left Coast Press in 2007.
Hannah Sackett received a PhD in landscape archaeology from Leicester University, and is is currently developing a project on visual narrative and the reception of museums with Pr. Stephanie Moser at the University of Southampton. She has published papers on the use of land in eighteenth and nineteenth century Buckinghamshire, bronze age rock carvings in Norway, and archaeology in the writings of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. She is the creator of the Archaeological Oddities comics, and is collaborating with John Swogger on a graphic novel set in Neolithic Orkney.
John Swogger has been an archaeological illustrator for almost twenty years, working for small archaeological units, museums, excavation projects and as a freelance illustrator. For ten years he was site illustrator for the Çatalhöyük Research Project in Turkey. He has produced comics for education and interpretation projects in the UK (Bryn Celli Ddu, Barclodiad y Gawres, Llyn Cerrig Bach – CADW), the Caribbean (Archaeology in the Caribbean – Carriacou Island Archaeology Project) and the Pacific Islands (Palau: An archaeological field journal), and has written comics about the use of comics in archaeology to the Society for American Archaeology.
Al B. Wesolowsky is the retired Managing Editor of the Journal of Field Archaeology and the current Art Editor of the same publication. He received the MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies, White River Junction, Vermont, in 2009. He has an extensive background in excavation in Texas and the Balkans and creates comics based on his experiences in the field.
 – Piltdown Man: an archaeological hoax perpetrated in the early twentieth century relating to a discovery of human skull fragments purporting to be evidence of a “missing link” between ape and man. The find was alleged to have been made near Piltdown, East Sussex, UK. The hoax was conclusively exposed in 1953. The identity of the forger has never been discovered.
 – Folkton Drums: a collection of highly-decorated carved chalk objects found in association with a neolithic burial site near Folkton, Yorkshire, UK. Their exact purpose is unknown.
 – Silbury Hill: a mound near Avebury, UK, dating from the Neolithic period. Its purpose has been the object of much speculation, and various claims for its prehistoric use as a spiritual or ritual centre have been made. Most archaeologists tend to reserve their judgement on the exact role it played during the Neolithic.
 – Stratification: the principle that layers within the soil are built up chronologically, thus enabling archaeologists to determine how old something is by how deep it was found in the ground.