Queering Archaeological Representation – The Flintstones?

I’ve been going through old publications that were abandoned for one reason or another and found a chapter, written in 2016 for a volume that never materialised. Here’s a small section that I thought would be fun to share.

Using multiple images to demonstrate the complexity of past lives can be a powerful way to queer visual reconstructions. In particular, comics have been used in archaeology to engage with the public, teach archaeological methods, illustrate a PhD, as a mode of personal expression by developer-funded archaeologists and even to bring forth new understanding of ancient texts. As John Swogger notes, sequential art allows interpretations to incorporate multiple iterations of potential reconstructions, depict time spatially, and to juxtapose current archaeological thinking with interpretations of the past.

For example, John Swogger created a comic based on a formal academic journal article regarding ceramics at the Casas Grandes in Mexico. Swogger reinterpreted the academic argument made by the authors into a visual narrative that clearly linked the analysis of the ceramics with the phasing of the site, with portraits of the authors of the works cited within the article, stating their interpretations of the archaeology. Interestingly, this also reveals the overwhelming white-maleness of the sources cited within the original academic article. Comics can also allow creativity and experimentation that photo-realistic depictions often fail to capture. For their forthcoming comic, One Girl Goes Hunting, John Swogger and Hannah Sackett have illustrated a character named “Sea-Eagle Woman,” blending animal attributes with an ambiguous person to animate Neolithic religion.

Sea Eagle Woman, with a long black cape, long hair and a face painted like a bird.

Outside of their use as specialist heritage interpretation, the field of comics about past people is vast. These range from the deeply problematic, exemplified by Frank Miller’s racist, sexist, homophobic retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 300, to Asterix, a long-running, goofy series about Gallic resistance to Roman occupation; certainly a full account of the variety of comics about the past is outside the purview of this chapter. Of particular note to queering representations of past people are Age of Bronze and the recent revival of The Flintstones, an iconic American cartoon about the “Stone Age.” In Age of Bronze, Shanower’s intensively researched retelling of the Trojan War, Sulprizio notes the relationship between Achilles and Patroklus is a prominent storyline, “a heartfelt relationship with profound implications for AOB’s overall plot invests this lesser-known story with a new importance and works to subvert stereotypical representations of homosexuality, both ancient and modern.”

The Flintstones cartoon depicted a heternormative family with modern (1960s) housing and accessories that were made out of stone and “primativized” in various ways. The Flintstones comic book relies heavily on the iconic source material, but modernizes the characters and draws from more current social theory. Much of the comedic value plays with the perception of the past as uncomplicated and unagentive, maintaining the mixed, fantastic-chronological setting of the cartoon while addressing difficult and sometimes dark topics. Fred Flintstone is a veteran of The Paleolithic Wars and Wilma Flintstone creates handprint art to exhibit at the local museum, inspired by rock art from her youth. Wilma states, “The day I put my handprint on the wall was the day I became a human being. The day I meant something.” Intermixed with cartoonish and obviously inaccurate depictions of pygmy elephants as vacuum cleaners, these small moments in the comic book are compelling and resonate with current interpretations of the past.

A comic book panel from the Flintstones describing Adam and Steve's help in raising Fred Flintstone

In an extended treatment of religion and the controversial and unnatural introduction of marriage over ritualized polygamy, a “non-breeding” couple named Adam and Steve (a play on the conservative slur: “God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”) decide to get married. When they are met with resistance by the religious figure advocating for marriage, Fred recounts his history:

"I grew up in a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Life was a struggle. It wasn’t always possible for people to take care of their own kids. The non-breeders gave our tribe extra hands to help with the children. Having them around often meant the difference between life and death. Our tribe--maybe even our species--wouldn’t have made it without guys like Adam and Steve."

This is obviously an oversimplified evolutionary argument, but even so this very brief and simple treatment in a fantastic past normalizes non-heteronormative relationships more powerfully than any academic literature previous. The Flintstones comic book revival as a satiric and occasionally dark lens on ourselves and our perceptions of the past resonates with the previous examples of détournement, particularly as the original Flintstones cartoon series is perceived as a safe, conservative, typically American portrayal of family life. The Flintstones was widely lauded both in comic-specific and the mainstream press and was nominated for several Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Awards, widely recognized as the highest award for comic books.

(Since I wrote this, several amazing things have happened in the realm of archaeology and comics, most notably this book, Comics and Archaeology, which I really need to put hands on!)

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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