I don’t know exactly when I started to lost my ability to read. Over the past few years I have found it harder and harder to sit with an academic text – an article or monograph – and simply consume it, absorbing meaning and argument and subtexts. Now I can barely get past the abstract before I’m looking for distractions, opening my email, scrolling through Twitter, or baking cheese scones on the spur of the moment. Earnest, turgid sentences blend and blur together into a stodgy linguistic porridge. I mean no insult to my academic colleagues and friends when I say that I would rather scoop the cat’s litter box than drag myself unwillingly through any one of your articles from beginning to end. If I do brace myself and start to read I feel an undefinable sense of doom.
I was a couple of pages in to Lorna and Tony’s comic about Stonehenge when I noticed the lack of doom. This is a rare thrill. It is emphatically not simply because of the format: there are plenty of para-academic comics and other non-traditional outputs that give me that same feeling of despair. What stands out, warmly, is the voice of the author – the thing that most academic writing conventions are intended to stamp out. This voice is clearest in the final ‘daunting wall of text’ page, and it… works. I feel, unusually, communicated with.
I particularly like the ‘research question’ of the piece: “what if what we think people think isn’t the case?” This is a punchy manifesto for a certain kind of public archaeology – the kind that starts with a respectful and curious attitude towards Other People, rather than a condescending and suspicious one. The kind I like. And what do people think? The answers – covering ancestors, aliens, access and Andover – are presented in a playful but straightforward format. I mean no disrespect when I say that this is a small and simple piece. It is cleanly, neatly, blessedly small and simple. It does exactly what it needs to do – communicating the summary findings of an interesting piece of research – and no more. Have you ever read a method statement more perfect that “I used grounded theory to sort stuff”?
Every time I re-read Lorna and Tony’s comic I am reminded also of another extraordinary work – also on my very short list of ‘doom free’ reading. Barbara Bender’s 1998 book Stonehenge: Making Space is – at first glance – just another academic monograph. Inside the covers it is a riotous adventure through archaeology, contemporary heritage politics, and intellectual autobiography, while giving voice to people then (and still today) largely marginalised in discussions of the monument and its landscape. The author’s voice is confident, funny, clear. The book is speckled with cartoons, artworks, and playful illustrations that breathe life into the text.
Most interestingly, both Bender’s book and this comic come to the same conclusion: that to grapple with public interest in Stonehenge we need to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with needs or desires for mystery, spirituality, enchantment, rebellion. This is a very human public archaeology.
I would dearly love to see Bender’s book brought up to date a generation on, and reading What’s the Meaning of Stonehenge? I can feel at least a small part of that wish come true. How often do you read an academic publication and get a strong urge to print it out and colour it in with felt-tip pens? Not often enough, that’s for damn sure.
Bender, B. 1998. Stonehenge: Making Space. Oxford: Berg.
Cover Image "The comic history of England ... With twenty coloured etchings, and two hundred woodcuts. By John Leech." British Library
Masthead Image Richardson and Pickering, What's The Meaning of Stonehenge?, pg 2