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!)

Fumetti, Sequential Art, and Visual Narrative Building in Archaeology

I just sent an abstract to Vasko Demou, the organizer of the Bristol Theoretical Archaeology Group Meeting (TAG) session, Paper pasts: archaeologies of comics, comic-strips, cartoons, and graphic novels. I’ve wanted to write up my use of fumetti for outreach for a while, and this was the perfect chance, since I was going to TAG anyway to help organize the film festival. Here is the abstract:

Fumetti, Sequential Art, and Visual Narrative Building in Archaeology

Fumetti, or photo comics, are a powerful, but little used tool for narrative building in archaeology.  Easily created by a variety of image-manipulation software and distributed online, these examples of archaeological practice as sequential art find a wide audience who are unreachable in more traditional print or image formats.  The combination of images and text as a narrative makes nuanced archaeological interpretation easy to understand and pushes the archaeologist to take better, more descriptive photographs while conducting research.  In this paper I will describe the history and utility of creating fumetti, their distinct advantages as an interpretive and educational tool, and why comics matter for archaeology in the digital age.

It’s a very TAG-a-rific year for me, as I’m also the graduate student representative for TAG 2011 at Berkeley. Expect more about that soon!

New Media and Recursivity

Anies Photo Recording

I took these photos from the Catalhoyuk Photo Database, built and maintained by Jason Quinlan, and remixed them with Comic Life to illustrate a point in a small project that I will finish soon, hopefully.

Meanwhile: Is art on the internet considered public by its very nature?  Is all art public?  Has it always been?

More Comics + New Presidio Blog + Robots

This is the semester that refuses to die! Die, semester, die!

Anyway, so I made (even more) comics about how to make mudbrick and posted them to flickr. I don’t really like the front page much (it’s rehash), so here’s the third page:


I think I’ll use this as the example comic for my short SHA article that I need to pound out.

Anyway, I also got a blog set up (with hosting from the ever helpful Noah) for the Presidio Archaeology Lab, so we’ll see if they keep using it after my research position ends there:


I really like how the map header turned out. When I tweaked the scan to make it look “older” some of the pencil marks popped out, and showed how the map had been drawn a bit differently at first–unintentional photoshop archaeology.

On a slightly different note, Katy invited us to go with her to an art opening at the Exploratorium featuring a mind-reading robot. We got there somewhat late, so we didn’t have time to try out the thing or to look around, but I absolutely have to go back. We stopped by Lucky 13, then we made our way over to the Flaming Lotus Girls benefit, where I got a few good pictures of the Orb Swarm. The Orb Swarm are remote-controlled balls that have lights inside of them, but they’re counterbalanced in such a way that makes them very hard to control, so they tended to go crashing into things. Perfect!


Burning Buildings

A Softer World

Obviously I draw a lot of inspiration from A Softer World with the photo-comics, though I can hardly claim their gravitas. Another of my favorite blogs, Visualizing Neolithic, does the same sort of photo juxtapositions, but without captions. Using images (or in this case comics) to showcase interpretations in archaeology is often done without too much introspection, and my dissertation necessarily involves a critique of previous practice, so I’ve turned to a lot of Visual Studies literature to work through some basic theory. If photographs are melancholy objects, then putting them together into a narrative at least gives them a bit of company, and, more enticingly, the white space between, the “gutter” where all the action really happens, is a fabulous liminal space.

Bonus, my favorite A Softer World strip:

(Poems, prose, and comics that remind me of archaeology, pt 6)

Presidio Comics

More Presidio education comics posted. I’m not sure about the last one–should I just leave the thought balloons blank?

Click to enlarge the prints; there are four in all.


PS: I did not actually participate in this dig and am slightly baffled by the methodology, but that’s neither here nor there.

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