Earthworks and… comics?

oswestry-heritage-comics-ii-week-8I am an archaeological illustrator who regularly creates drawings and paintings for various kinds of public outreach projects. Several years ago, I began using comics as a medium for visual explanation of all kinds of archaeology – monuments, research, excavation, survey, etc. What I have discovered is that comics are an extraordinarily suitable medium for communicating archaeological information, as the particular combination of image and text in comics allows one to show as well as tell, place explanation within visual context, and simplify by de-complicating the presentation rather than dumbing-down the content. These comics – even in very short form, only a few panels – can be used to introduce an audience to a big and unfamiliar subject in a way that is both engaging and accessible.

During the summer of 2016, in the run up to Heritage Open Days, I ran a series of four-panel comics in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer newspaper, about the history, archaeology and heritage of the market town of Oswestry. The series – which ran weekly for three months – proved such a successful way of talking about the subject that in 2017 I received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to do a further year – fifty two weekly strips – of similar comics. These have been published since June in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer, as well as on a dedicated Facebook page, my blog and a dedicated online archive at Qube/Oswestry Community Arts.

One of these comics was about Wat’s Dyke. The comic, even though it was only four panels long, was an attempt to introduce the dyke to a readership largely be unfamiliar with its history and meaning. In four panels, and less than 100 words, I wanted to give readers a detailed, but un-complicated introduction to the dyke: what it was, what its name might mean, how it was built, who built it and when, what its function was in the past, and how readers might visit and explore it in the present day. The result was intended to provide a compact but wide-ranging background for readers to spark their curiosity and interest, and then direct it into further engagement with the monument.

It is often difficult to engage the public with earthwork monuments. As we do not, in the 21st century, regularly build using earthwork construction, the idea of banks and ditches made of soil and grass being significant and meaningful constructions in the landscape can seem alien. At least with a ruined castle or other stone construction showing what it may have looked like in the past reconstructs identifiable architectural components – wall-faces, turrets, windows, doors, steps, etc. – which audiences can imagine or visualise being used by people in the past. Even when reconstructed, an earthwork can remain unedifying – unless we can show people in the past building, using or otherwise demonstrating how the earthwork functioned and what it might have originally meant.

Comics, with a stylised aesthetic and a narrative context, is perfect for conveying the human, everyday context of unfamiliar concepts. It’s person-centred visuals, its storytelling approach – its layered explanatory structure – are easy to understand, without the need for a specialist visual language. But the nested and inter-dependent relationship between image and text within the comic still allows for plenty of complexity within the content. In this short four-panel comic, for example, a diversity of information – myth and legend, rambling and footpaths, history and archaeology – is combined in a way that feels both complementary without being overwhelming.

The use of sequential narrative as a tool for creating better and more meaningful public outreach is something which is being explored in areas well beyond archaeology. In medicine, for example, an entire genre of “Graphic Medicine” utilises comics for everything from patient experience and education, to training and clinical research. A recent project in the UK has demonstrated how research into visualisation-based approaches can be used to analyse the effectiveness and relevance of information given to patients. This analysis can ensure that care-critical information is comprehensible, relevant, and (most importantly) used: well-informed patients avoid relapses, infections and revisions, and save healthcare providers time and money.

Archaeology can learn from this approach. As we face ever-tighter funding and ever-wider gaps between the professional and public knowledge and understanding of the past, we should be using every possible means at our disposal to stimulate good quality, meaningful engagement with our various audiences. I believe this process begins with good quality information – and the effective and accessible presentation of that information, particularly information about less-well known and less-visible sites and monuments such as earthworks. As an archaeological illustrator, I produce plenty of finds illustrations, site plans, reconstructions and cutaways of ancient and historic sites – but I have come to realise over the years that these visualisations – despite the fact that they are extensively used for outreach – still rely on their audiences being able to understand a highly specialised visual language. By contrast, sequential narrative has an immediacy, novelty and accessibility that does not rely on familiarity with a specialised visual language – and thus perfect for use in public engagement.oswestry-heritage-comics-ii-week-8

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Adverizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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