Archaeology and Comics, with a Case Study Examining the Representation of Black Archaeologists

Published on 24 April 2024 02:15 PM
By Paulina F. Przystupa
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A girl finds a book in her archaeologist father’s library that releases a powerful magic (CLAMP 2004: 23); two women repel down into a cavern with statues carved into the walls demonstrating thousands of years of occupation (Lanzing et al. 2019), and some paper girls teleport through time by touching an object (Vaughn et al. 2017). All of these are examples of archaeology in comics. Any time a relic, ancient tome, an excavated tomb, or an object from the past appears in comics there is an element of archaeology or archaeological knowledge incorporated in that storytelling. This is because archaeology is the study of the human past through the use of material culture and every relic, tome, tomb, and object is a kind of material culture.

In this piece, I explore the relationship between comics and archaeology to evaluate how comics portray archaeology for the public. As an introduction, I outline what comics are for those who are unfamiliar with comics as a medium rather than genre (McCloud 1993). Then, I summarize some of the ways that archaeologists have used comics to talk about science and how comics are one way for archaeologists to improve public outreach and work with the public (Atalay et al. 2017; Swogger 2015). Lastly, I evaluate how comics written by, and for, non-archaeologists portray archaeology as a field and, specifically, Black archaeologists as people. While archaeologists enjoy using comics to convey archaeological facts and methods, examining how the public uses our science in their own work is the true test of our influence.

This piece is not the first to consider the value of comics as tools for communicating science to the public. There is a recently published academic book on the subject whose works developed around the same time as this publication’s (Kamash 2022). Furthermore, my work is not the first to closely examine comics created by non-archaeologists (Ruíz Zapatero 2005; Shanower 2005; Swogger 2015). However, previous studies have focused on how archaeologists use comics for visualizing the past (Ruíz Zapatero 2005) or how archaeologists can use comics to convey science (Swogger 2015) rather than the ways that our knowledge diffuses into the public’s awareness (Przystupa 2019).

There is something unique and valuable about using sequential art to tell archaeological stories and portray the past (Swogger 2015). The juxtaposition of images illustrates the past in a way that academic descriptions, drawings of potsherds (Fawkes 2019), and reconstructions simply do not capture (Ruíz Zapatero 2005; Shanower 2005). This has led to an increasing number of archaeologists who draw on comics to tell stories about the past and archaeological practice, formally (Atalay et al. 2017; Fawkes 2019; Hunt et al. 2016; Richardson and Pickering 2021; Swogger 2015) and informally (e.g. archaeocomics 2022; Schlegel 2022). Such comics are a valuable addition to public archaeology by making archaeological information accessible to the public in unique ways (Atalay et al. 2017). The issue, however, is that these comics, and the associated academic work discussing them (Kamash et al. 2022), have a limited reach. Sometimes they only move within academic communities, accessible through direct contact with the publishers, or at academic conventions; rather than published as widely circulating works.

Due to these limitations, this piece explores the intersection between archaeology and comics from the other direction, evaluating public knowledge of archaeology. I focus on how non-archaeologists, publishing with major comics publishers, incorporate archaeological themes into their work (Przystupa 2019, 2020). As outlined previously, there are a variety of ways that archaeology, and archaeologists, appear in western comics (Lanzing et al. 2019) and Japanese manga (CLAMP 2004). However, not all representation is good representation. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of the public use of archaeological knowledge to understand what the public understands about our discipline, how they view archaeologists, and how non-archaeologists use our field to uphold outdated and white supremacist ideals (Colavito 2019; Hoopes 2019). To do this, I examine the portrayal of archaeologists in fiction and formalize previous work (Przystupa 2017, 2018a-c, 2019), into a focused analysis on three specific comics and their associated archaeologists.

The portrayal of Daisy Wooton (Allison et al. 2017), a pair of archaeologists in Marvel Legacy, one who has no name and the other who is referred to as “Doctor” (Aaron et al. 2017); and Nadija Katlego (Lanzing et al. 2019) exemplify how popular comics unintentionally uphold white supremacist ideas in their portrayals of Black archaeologists in comics. Specifically, I evaluate their portrayal in relation to: their treatment by other characters in the comics, the way the comics value these archaeologists and their lives within the stories, and how inadequate fact-checking by comics creators undercuts the value of their representation in these comics. Lastly, rather than a conclusion I consider the future. What can archaeologists and non-archaeologists do to repair or correct these portrayals, considering what we already know about archaeology and comics as a communicative media?

What are comics?

I draw from McCloud’s definition for comics as:

‘[j]uxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer’ (McCloud 1993, 9).

This means that I explore comics, in the plural, to:

  1. understand the information they convey

  2. to evaluate their aesthetic response

  3. combine information and aesthetics to consider comics a medium for storytelling and information sharing.

This combination of factors make comics a unique way to portray archaeology (Swogger 2015). Specifically, comics rely on multiple literacies to combine information with images to understand and illustrate the past in a deeper way.

As McCloud (1993) identifies, this definition does not limit the medium to a specific type of story or kind of character. Comics are a kind of storytelling that can be used for anything. Additionally, the definition does not include a method of consumption, such as tangible or digital, and so includes comic strips, monthly floppy issues, and works that are published as hundred page or more volumes. Rather than be defined by a kind of story or publication technique, this definition of comics focuses on what the medium does. Comics combine visuals, text, and the arrangement of those features to convey the movement of people and subjects, the passage of time, a change of location, and/or symbolic meaning that allow for multiple stories or readings within one sequence (McCloud 1993). Then, reader participation shifts the story forward by combining words, images, and closure, which is when the human mind adds something to complete or fill in missing detail, to understand what happens in comics (McCloud 1993).

This method has a long communicative history that many suggest began in the late 19th century and expanded in circulation and use during the 20th and 21st centuries (McCloud 1993). However, Understanding Comics in its history extends the creation of comics by a few thousand years to include Egyptian paintings, Trajan’s column, and Japanese scrolls. Interestingly, at the time of Understanding Comics’ initial publication in 1993, archaeologists had not discovered or dated Chauvet Cave, which is a rock art site that archaeologists date to around 30,000 years ago.

I mention this because archaeologists describe the art within the cave as mimicking key elements of comics (Herzog 2010). And this is a common feature of rock art that other archaeologists have pointed out previously as well (Loubser 2005). The art and its sequential placement add synesthetic depth, which parallels modern comics (McCloud 1993). Particularly, the juxtaposition of images imply movement, perhaps guided by the flickering of torchlight, to utilize the same methods that cartoonists developed to demonstrate time and movement in comics in the 20th century (Herzog 2020; McCloud 1993). This dialectic underscores comics as a useful medium for archaeological communication and that comics literacy may even improve our interpretation of the archaeological record.

Terms and definitions

I do not use the term graphic novel, comix, or cartooning in this work to describe the mainstream comics I analyze. This is because the publishers initially serialized the comics I explore in this article as physical print “floppy,” referring to their lack of rigidity, single-issues sometimes with simultaneous digital releases. Since original publication, the publishers collected those individual issues into editions —colloquially called trade paperbacks— that can exist as longer paperback, hardcover, or digital editions. Trade paperbacks collect multiple, formerly serialized, comics into a republished collection. Due to the accessibility of individual comics versus collected editions for citation and reference throughout the lifetime of the development of this article[1] some citations reference specific issues while others refer to collected editions.

While I reference collected editions for citation purposes in this chapter, the creative teams behind the comics I analyze developed these issues to stand on their own, for people to pick up so that a new reader could use any issue as a beginning. In addition, while publishers collected and republished these comics, I avoid the term graphic novel because of historical trends and ambiguities in the application of the term. Graphic novels are comics and, previously, the term has been used to separate ‘artistic’ from ‘non-artistic’ approaches to the medium. For me, this is a false dichotomy that feeds a classist narrative where folk or popular pieces cannot be art. However, I acknowledge that definitions for comics and graphic novels are dynamic and one is unlikely to get the same definition from two people.

Furthermore, I do not use the term comix or cartoons to describe the works in this article unless they specifically describe themselves as such. Comix, with an ‘x’ pronounced the same as comics with a ‘cs’, contrary to some definitions (de Boer 2005), has a variety of meanings (Przystupa 2021). These range from independent publication, though not ‘zines,’ to comics for adults (de Boer 2005), to a stylized choice for marketing.[2] Occasionally, the terms are used to add “gravitas” to the study of comics or a level of authority to the works. Due to either the content not being for kids (de Boer 2005; McCloud 1993, 3) or the hubris of the “comix” creator.

In either regard, the term does not apply to what I discuss. For example, the audience for the mainstream publications I explore was not specifically adult (de Boer 2005). However, I doubt the creators intended these stories for children, as comics do have a rating system. Instead, I suggest that they do not contain subject matter that is considered exclusively appropriate for adults. Beyond comix, I also do not use the term cartoon or cartooning. The artists, inkers, and pencillers in the discussed comics draw in the cartoon style, which consists of simplified depictions of detailed subjects that allow the projection of the reader into the story (McCloud 1993). However, when presented in sequence this group of cartoon-style drawings are comics. Each comic explored in my work has variable amounts of cartoon elements in their artistic styles.

What have archaeologists done with comics?

While examples of comics by and for archaeologists are limited, they do exist. The mid-2000s saw a flurry of publications with a special issue of The SAA Archaeological Record focused on these works, publications by AltaMira (de Boer 2004; Loubser 2003), and in the 2010s short, typically educational, comics (Atalay et al. 2017; Hunt et al. 2016; Kamash et al. 2022; Swogger 2015) gained popularity. In addition, single panel-archaeological comics or illustrations shared through social media on platforms such as Instagram by individual users that depict daily experiences of archaeologists (arch_illu 2022; archeocomics 2022) have increased through time. These examples demonstrate the variety of ways archaeologists use comics as a medium and bring up important issues for archaeological communication.

What do comics offer archaeologists?

Comics offer a lot to archaeologists and scientists in general (Swogger 2015). Besides their mass appeal (McCloud 1993), comics add synesthetic depth to archaeology. Like most sciences, archaeology exists outside text. It is tactile, legible, auditory, and caters to a host of senses because it is the study of the human past through the belongings people leave behind. The tangible elements of people’s lives. Or as others define it, “the science of human duration” (Hicks 2020, 36). The ability of comics to communicate ideas, emotions, time, and space allow archaeologists to add those components to our static depictions (Swogger 2015).

The Carbon Comics series, produced by the Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS), and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[3]) comics (Atalay et al. 2017) demonstrate how archaeologists can explain more about the discipline, illustrate the past (Ruíz Zapatero 2005), and correct misconceptions about the field, as a science, and about our knowledge of humanity’s story (Shanower 2005). Establishing a good balance of fact to fiction is difficult but can create a rewarding and worthwhile product that promotes modern ideas about archaeology and an accurate understanding of the past.

In addition, increasingly archaeologists integrate community engagement with archaeological practice (Battle-Baptiste 2011). Projects create supplemental public facing materials to their projects (Guengerich et al. 2018) that acknowledges that archaeology cannot continue to exist in an academic silo. Comics and other visual storytelling mediums are an important way that archaeologists provide something for the communities that host us and facilitate our work. Furthermore, comics are a medium that the public already uses to indirectly learn about archaeological themes. With the amount of pseudoarchaeology in comics for the public (Halmhofer 2019, 2020; Przystupa 2020), adding accurate stories takes skill and caters to public interest in archaeology. Such a niche exists for archaeologists, and figuring out how to leverage that to improve archaeological understanding is the subject of the conclusions of this article.

Archaeology and 'cartoons', an early 'aughts' introduction

In 2005, The SAA Archaeological record published a special issue on what they term ‘Cartoons in Archaeology’. What they mean are comics. This special issue focused on, and highlighted, a variety of ways that archaeologists used comics at the time (de Boer 2005) and included work by comics creators who drew from archaeological knowledge to depict the past in detail (Shanower 2005). The focus of these articles varied, from discussing writing one’s own comics about archaeology (Lovato 2005) to exploring how comics depict the past (Ruíz Zapatero 2005). These short articles gave a taste of what comics could do but focused on comics as a way for depicting archaeology accurately as teaching materials in college classrooms or as projects created for individual interest (Shanower 2005).

Archaeology comics: The teens and educational comics

More recent forays into archaeology and comics come from the Carbon Comics series, with one issue on radiocarbon dating (Hunt et al. 2016), another on metallurgy (Center for Applied Isotope Studies 2020), and a third on the archaeology of the cattle economy (Jones et al. 2023) from Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS). These works are important because they break down the scientific methods archaeologists use into easily digestible media. They include color illustrations that can be read and re-read to comprehend the steps for how archaeologists do the work outlined in them. John G. Swogger illustrated the first two with John Burns illustrating the third and they all use an approachable style.

These comics are complemented by the ongoing series NAGPRA comics, also with the first two illustrated by Swogger, with the first written with consent and community review by Sonya Atalay and Jen Shannon (NAGPRA Comics 2020). These comics outline the NAGPRA process and portray the reunion of specific communities with their ancestors because of this law. Issue #1 Journeys to Complete the Work...And Changing the Way We Bring Native American Ancestors Home does a great job of exploring the ways that some archaeologists, who in North America are typically white settlers, are working to undo the harm that early museums and archaeologists did to descendant communities (Atalay et al. 2017). What is excellent about this comic is that it outlines the laws generally for an audience unfamiliar with the process, then explores how it applies to a specific case so that the public can understand how the law works in reality. Furthermore, it highlights the ways that some descendants are now part of the archaeological process rather than outside of it, which was the norm for many years in archaeology and endures in many places. Further publications in this series, such as Trusting You See This as We Do: Tribal Sovereignty and the Return of Sacred Objects and Objects of Cultural Patrimony further the mission of materials for the community as the work is only available to community members as of 2021. The website lists two additional comics in development with additional Indigenous creators involved in the process.

Archaeologists' comics pros and cons

Archaeological comics, by archaeologists, make archaeology accessible to the public ( (Kamash et al. 2022) but have their own issues. While some do a great job engaging with conflicts within the discipline and how those reflect society, such as in Journeys to Complete the Work (NAGPRA Comics 2020), sometimes comics made by archaeologists combine problems within archaeology with problems in comics publishing. The most obvious example is the representation of archaeologists. In this context, I mean both how archaeological comics creators depict archaeologists within their work and who creates these comics. Like most aspects of archaeology, European descent male voices in archaeology dominate archaeological comics (de Boer 2005; Swogger 2022). While the characters within these works might be diverse (NAGPRA Comics 2020), issues in the use of color or symbolism in those works cause problems.

For example, the 2005 issue of The SAA Archaeological Record: Cartoons in Archaeology does not have a single woman contributor. Although the men who contributed provide a significant introduction to comics and archaeology, the fact that only men contributed to it is... an issue. This is doubly awkward because the publication names a woman who could have contributed. In The Archaeological Zine "Shovel Bum" Trent de Boer credits his wife Betsy as a co-creator for the zine. So why wasn’t she a co-author on that publication? Why were the voices of women archaeologists who study or create archaeology comics not involved?

Additionally, while the authors in that special issue are from a variety of places, based on their short author biographies, they only discuss western comics. By 2005 archaeological themes regularly appeared in manga, Japanese comics, such as Card Captor Sakura (CLAMP 2004), mentioned at the beginning of this piece. While I am also not exploring manga, future explorations of popular comics should explore manga as it is an increasingly large part of the comics market including in English-language regions. I applaud Zofia Guertin in her chapter “Creating Comics for Public Engagement in Roman Aeclanum: Illustrating Ancient History” for exploring the use of Chinese comics for a similar purpose in the book (Guertin 2022). While this is also not manga, it’s a great reminder that comics are a diverse global tradition.

Comparing articles and comics published over fifteen years ago to ones published recently demonstrates that women create archaeology related comics (arch_illu 2022; Archaeocomics 2022; Atalay et al.2017; Donner and Harrison 2022; Fawkes 2019; Guertin 2022; Hunt et al. 2016). However, there is a subtle issue with the writing in Unlocking the Past! Radiocarbon Dating that makes that comic problematic. It’s a minor detail and unrelated to the point of the comic itself but the sample for radiocarbon dating used in that comic is from North America (Hunt et al. 2016). However, within the issue, one archaeologist in the comics remarks that the materials the archaeologists dated came from people who were ‘everyone’s ancestors’ (Hunt et al. 2016), which is untrue.

It is not clear if the person requesting the radiocarbon dates in the comic is Indigenous and, even if they were, the dated materials never belong to everyone’s ancestors. Those materials belonged to the ancestors of Indigenous North Americans, not to settler North Americans.[4] This detail demonstrates the importance, even in comics that focus on methods, of undoing the historical and ongoing harm archaeologists have done to Indigenous communities by consistently remembering that our archaeological samples exist in context. All aspects of our field must work towards decolonization and reconciliation if we want such a transformation to be authentic.

Such issues do not occur in all comics created by archaeologists. For example, Journeys to Complete the Work... And Changing the Way We Bring Native American Ancestors Home has an Anishinaabe-Ojibwe woman creator and is explicit about the relationship between settler archaeologists and the belongings such archaeologists determine ‘culturally unidentifiable.’ However, inconsistent representation of gender and decolonization in comics created by archaeologists means that even archaeologists do not portray themselves or the science in diverse or accurate ways. Even in the more recent publication, Archaeology and Comics, only one woman of color was included in the whole edited volume. Beyond that, she is an editor and contributed as one of three authors to the introduction rather than writing a solo-authored publication, like the multiple white men in that book. So, if archaeologists themselves are not doing the work to consistently portray the field as diverse as it is and with the current ethics of the discipline, how can we expect fictional portrayals to reflect anything else?

What about popular comics?

With that question in mind, I turn to popular comics published in the 2010s to examine the portrayal of archaeologists. By looking at recently published comics, I examine how years of archaeological knowledge and depictions of the field have filtered into the medium. This allows me to evaluate how comics creators utilize available information from archaeology and about archaeologists as inspiration.

Like all forms of popular culture, archaeology in comics regularly incorporates fantastical interpretations of the discipline rather than archaeological science (Hoopes 2019). However, in contrast to other sciences and media representations, there are few examples of accurate archaeology in comics written by non-archaeologists (though they do exist!), despite a wealth of knowledge and easily accessible information. In addition, when comics creators accurately portray aspects of archaeology as a discipline, they don’t always depict positives about the communities that archaeologists create (Allison et al. 2017).

In the comics of the 21st century, archaeological themes come up with regularity (see Halmhofer and Przystupa’s work over at WWAC). Occasionally, comics are portrayed with accuracy and care by non-archaeologists such as in Zotz (Parada 2011), Shattered Spear (Heikkilä 2019), The Bronze Age (Shanowar 2005), and others (Ruiz Zapatero 2005). More commonly though, archaeology comics are dominated by popularized pseudoarchaeological narratives that often uphold white supremacy. This is done by depicting the past using outdated ideas from archaeology and anthropology (Przystupa 2018a) and by popularizing ideas that undercut the accomplishments of Indigenous peoples (Halmhofer 2019).

While pseudoarchaeological narratives are the most common way that popular comics uphold white supremacist narratives (Halmhofer 2019), I explore how the representation of archaeologists in comics written by non-archaeologists exposes white supremacist issues within archaeology and, unfortunately, sometimes upholds them. Specifically, I will examine how three comics, published by major comics publishers Marvel, Dark Horse, and Boom!, portray Black archaeologists. Like other Science Technology Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) fields (Riegle-Crumb et al. 2019), Black archaeologists are underrepresented in the field of archaeology (Franklin 1997). I also acknowledge that I am an archaeologist of Filipine-Polish heritage, born in the settler state of Canada, and am not a Black archaeologist.

In general, each of the comics I explore deals with archaeology, or the knowledge generated by archaeology, in a different way and with varying success. What unites them is that they all have at least one character that is identified as an archaeologist. Secondly, these are all comics created by non-archaeologists for non-archaeologists. Lastly, I focus on the depiction of Black archaeologists in these comics to highlight how these comics can examine issues of white supremacy in archaeology and uphold issues of white supremacy through problematic portrayals of these archaeologists.

These comics come from different genres and with variable audiences. The first comic, Giant Days (Allison et al. 2017) was an ongoing comic. Although Giant Days was originally announced as a miniseries, its run was extended and it finished publication in 2019 with over 50 issues. As an ongoing comic, BOOM! Box published the work as a monthly serialization for a number of years with no specific end announced after its initial extension, hence its status as an “ongoing” comic. The second comic is a ‘one-shot’ called Marvel Legacy #1 where Marvel debuted the Avengers of 1,000,000 BC (Aaron et al. 2017). A one-shot comic is meant to be read as a single issue and, while it might relate to other series, one-shots are typically meant to have a wholly encompassed story or an introduction to plots in other series. The last comic is from a miniseries for the tie-in comics for the rebooted Tomb Raider video game and movie franchise, called Tomb Raider: Inferno (Lanzing et al. 2019). This miniseries had a total of four issues that were collected into one collected edition. Unlike Giant Day, this series had a plot that could not be extended past, or much past, the originally ordered number of issues. It focuses on one story arc, and while it might reference other comics or be referenced in future ones, it is meant to be one contained story over multiple issues.

I focus on these publications as opposed to comics such as Clovis (Greb and Hartog 2017) and Shattered Spear (Heikkilä 2019), to examine how mainstream comics publications portray Black archaeologists. As McCloud (1993) identifies, cartoons allow the reader to project themselves, their objects, or their places into whatever story they are reading. So as important comics publishers, Marvel, Dark Horse, and BOOM! are where archaeologists want to see themselves. For archaeologists, who rarely appear in comics at all, we want to see what the public thinks of us reflected in these pages. Particularly because publishers like those discussed in this article are a major source of our representation in fictional comics. In addition, representation of archaeologists is important for legitimizing certain kinds of stories, acting as a stand-in for a particular kind of “expert”. As a visual medium comics demonstrate to non-archaeological audiences what an archaeologist looks like. We can see comics as a sort of mass-media application of the “Draw an Archaeologist” test (Renoe 2003). As much as the non-archaeologist public knows that fictional portrayals are not real, such works set the tone for who we think archaeologists are and what they look like. Both visually, who gets to be one, and in what they know about, the sources of their knowledge.

Daisy Wooten archaeology student in Giant Days

Daisy Wooten is not an archaeologist when we first meet her in Giant Days. She is part of an ensemble cast of late teen and, eventually, early twenties women who attend the University of Sheffield (a real university) together in the United Kingdom. Daisy is a kind and responsible young woman, exploring herself and her life while at Uni. In addition, Daisy, while portrayed as light skinned with blue eyes and very curly, light colored hair, is of African heritage based on the portrayal of her grandmother (Allison et al. 2015). Therefore, it is important to contextualize her experiences as that of a queer, biracial woman within the context of the comic.

Beyond getting to know Daisy as a person, the comic introduces her as an archaeology student. For a while, this is just a character detail but in issue 17 (Allison et al. 2017) Daisy and her first experience with field archaeology, take centerstage. While the original cover for that issue portrays some misconceptions about archaeology (for example, there are dinosaur bones in stratigraphic proximity to human material culture), the issue overall is a short but scathing critique of archaeology. It hits close to home for many archaeologists and, specifically, archaeologists from groups that the field typically excludes. Giant Days focuses on archaeology in that issue and gets a lot right about the field. Unfortunately for archaeology, its portrayal of the discipline is negative.

During her first trip to the field, Daisy enthusiastically begins the day excavating and working on parts of the site. As the day progresses, we watch a “supervising” white-presenting man archaeologist pester Daisy about ‘doing it wrong,’ over, and over, and over again. From excavation to drinking water, this man constantly appears to bother Daisy with microaggressions. Microaggressions are small comments that slowly erode individuals’ understanding of themselves and cause significant harm and stress. While eventually the creators depict that character’s trauma as explanation for his behavior, there’s no apology to Daisy. He harasses a young queer, biracial, woman with few repercussions. In addition, the creators accurately, though unfortunately, put the responsibility on Daisy to stand up for herself. While depicted as a moment of character growth for her, as she rarely advocates for her needs, it is depressingly accurate that no supervisors or other students call out her harrasser’s violence.

The result is an insightful issue that identifies who the public sees as archaeology’s persona. They are not the folks excavating, in this case a young biracial woman, they are the rude white-presenting men who think they know everything. While the creators ridicule this white-presenting man character by the end of the issue, he is still a practicing archaeologist and the worst part is that he is one that most archaeologists know. This harrowing portrayal accurately depicts how archaeology, and specifically archaeological field work, can be toxic environments for women of color. It illustrates how microaggressions harm and, as pointed out by my sensitivity reader, trap minoritized people in dangerous work environments. Beyond this, our field, while changing, still puts the responsibility on the minoritized person rather than on the harasser or the institution they're affiliated with to catch and correct violent behavior.

While overall Giant Days explores Daisy’s experiences as a queer woman more than her experiences as a biracial one, this example of archaeology made me, as an archaeologist and a reader, wonder what other experiences Daisy had as a student. Thankfully, this one interaction does not push her out. By the end of the series, she has gotten a job doing archaeology in the local area (Allison et al. 2019) and even works alongside another Black archaeologist! Sadly, Daisy’s experience is not unique in archaeology and while heart-breaking, I’m thankful that, according to the series, this was her only negative experience. However, these scenes are important because they demonstrate how archaeology pushes people out of the field and upholds white supremacy. Black women, and other historically excluded peoples, have done (Battle-Baptiste 2011), do (Battle-Baptiste 2011; Jones 2024; White and Draycott 2020), and want to do archaeology as capacity building by groups such as the Society of Black Archaeologists demonstrate. But when they show up to work, often gatekeepers of the field exclude and harm them. And who are those? White men.

The archaeologists of the Avengers Marvel: Legacy

What drew me to Marvel: Legacy #1 was the Avengers of 1,000,000 BC. While I explored these Avengers previously looking at archaeological topics in comics (Przystupa 2018a), here I look at the portrayal of the archaeologists in that issue. Marvel Legacy: #1 introduces us to two Black men who are archaeologists leading an excavation in South Africa. I appreciate that Aaron et al. highlighted the work of Black archaeologists in Africa rather than portraying a white archaeologist in that particular context. However, Aaron et al. does not name one of them and that unnamed Black archaeologist calls the other Black archaeologist “Doctor”. Not naming minoritized individuals, or white women, is a trope where oppressors extend dehumanizing practices by making generic the experience of the oppressed.

I do appreciate though that the Black archaeologists in Marvel Legacy #1 illustrate how archaeologists can be from any background. It expands the idea that archaeologists are not just European-descended people working in exoticized locales and provides visual evidence contrary to the typical outcomes of the “Draw an Archaeologist” test (Renoe 2003). Archaeologists, or at least those doing the majority of archaeological labor (Mickel 2021), can be, and often are, local people. While seeing these two archaeologists work is an excellent addition to archaeologists in comics, there are issues with their depiction that negatively impact archaeology and Marvel’s claim to promote STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields. These problems create a double disservice, to their publisher for inaccurately depicting a STEM field and to Black archaeologists by undercutting their authority as experts.

What is disappointing about the error is that the creators just needed to do a basic copyedit of their archaeological terminology. In Marvel Legacy #1 (Aaron et al. 2017) the two archaeologists talk about a LiDAR map showing how deep “the real find” is. The problem is that LiDAR doesn’t do that. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging (Light RADAR) and is a commonly used technique in modern archaeology. Archaeologists use it to make maps, and other models, and the method measures distance or depth by calculating the time it takes for light to bounce off an object and return to the sensor. LiDAR, like motion capture, models the surfaces of objects, such as buildings or the ground surface, and can go through things like forest canopy. However, if light can’t get through the material, neither can LiDAR. This means LiDAR cannot be used to see what’s beneath the surface as the archaeologists of Marvel Legacy #1 say. And where can you find this information? Wikipedia.

What is frustrating about this mistake is that there is a technology that can penetrate ground surfaces in the way they suggest – Ground Penetrating RADAR, or GPR. While GPR is probably not currently accurate enough to do exactly what the archaeologists in the issue said, it is improving and would be the more accurate technology to reference. LiDAR, on the other hand, will never be able to measure depth through the ground. There are similarities between the two, sending a wave out and it bouncing off something, but every archaeologist knows the difference. Why? Well, we teach people about these different technologies in introductory classes. And, if you are a field archaeologist, GPR and LiDAR use significantly different equipment.

As far as interfacing with the public, it isn’t the biggest mistake the creators could have made. Except, on the same page, two white men S.H.I.E.L.D Agents complain about ‘get[ting] stuck babysitting some two-bit archaeologists’ (emphasis in the original, Aaron et al. 2017). These men comment on the two Black archaeologists who are in charge of the extensive important excavation. While in general the S.H.I.E.L.D Agents’ complaints reflect more poorly on them, reflecting their bad attitudes, the archaeologists getting LiDAR and GPR confused awkwardly vindicates them.

These S.H.I.E.L.D Agents insult these Black archaeologists and the power dynamics of racism makes Aaron’s error significant. It undercuts the authority of those archaeologists and validates the white Agents’ insult of the two of them being ‘two-bit.’ An archaeologist that did not know the difference between GPR and LiDAR would raise some eyebrows. Particularly when one considers how much work it takes to run an excavation of that magnitude, it is unlikely these archaeologists would use the wrong technology. GPR and LiDAR are expensive and you wouldn’t want the wrong specialist showing up. Furthermore, this plays into assumptions about Black scientists and other academics of color as not being as qualified as their white counterparts in their discipline (Owusu 2020). Even when Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) academics must regularly work harder to attain the same level of economic and academic recognition.

Nadija Katlego in Tomb Raider: Inferno

Our last archaeologist is Nadija Katlego, a Black Bosnian woman from Tomb Raider: Inferno. As far as I am aware, Inferno is the only work where Nadija appears and she’s an amazing counterpoint to the series’ main character, Lara Croft. Over the four-issue arc, we learn Nadija’s tragic history. Her family was killed during the massacre of Srebenica (Lanzing et al. 2019), which implies that she is a Black Muslim Bosnian (Wikipedia 2022). She survives because ‘they were not interested in little girls’ (Lanzing et al. 2019) and thrives after the event. We learn that she ‘wrote her dissertation at age eighteen’ (Lanzing et al. 2019) and the comics set her up as an interesting villain and foil to Lara. In many ways, Nadija achieved more than Lara, all while surviving and processing childhood trauma.

Inferno spends a lot of time illustrating Nadija’s backstory and expertise as someone who employs and enjoys her intellectual and physical skills. We see her leap with ease into a cavern that seems to have no end and speak comfortably about a variety of archaeological topics. Beyond dialogue, the series shows us her skills through the art. We watch her enter violent situations and use her intellectual and physical prowess to get herself out of them. Unfortunately, after spending most of the story developing her character, she dies and the creators did not explore the implications of her identity or her death.

Nadija, like Daisy in Giant Days, is another Black woman archaeologist. And while the creators do a great job building her up as a smart character, alongside Lara (another woman archaeologist), there are multiple scenes that undercut the knowledge she should have. While archaeologists in comics get things wrong all the time, she is not just another archaeologist. As introduced in the section on the Black archaeologists of Marvel Legacy #1, it is unlikely that she would get the information wrong that she does.

For example, when Nadija and Lara reach the bottom of the feature, they examine the items in the ice to assess during what period the materials froze. Essentially, they do a rough stratigraphy, a common relative dating practice for archaeologists to use. The problem arises when Nadjia and Lara discuss those materials. In this conversation, between two women archaeologists and researchers of arcana, we get a factually incorrect exchange. They discuss how the cavern is ‘Precambrian,’ to which Nadija responds ‘The bones agree.’ Unfortunately, the bones do not agree because nothing Precambrian had bones. A quick search states when the Precambrian period was and while yes there could be fossilized foraminifera that Nadija saw in the ice, the implication with the panel layout is the dinosaur bones we see behind Lara. This error undoes all the work the creators did developing Nadija as an expert. Nadija would have known nothing with bones existed during the Precambrian period because it is orders of magnitude older than human artifacts.

While this error is bad, it is not the worst part. The worst is that the creators wrote Nadija a traumatic backstory, a thriving life that processes that trauma, and then gave her a violent death. One that happens off the pages, between the panels. While I appreciate that they did not force us to experience her death visually, there are many negatives to how the creators treated her death. They tossed in the death of a Black woman between panels so we as the audience need to put the pieces together. While this does create an aspect of respect, it also means that the audience views the violence as happening ‘elsewhere’. Putting her death between panels using closure detaches the reader from the real violence that Black women experience. Within the comic and in the world at large.

This ending for Nadija, coming after the creators’ choice to undercut her authority as an archaeologist, is disturbing. Regardless of intention, it epitomizes the ways that archaeology, and many other fields, directly and indirectly punish Black women for participating in the field (Daut 2019). Furthermore, it highlights how the suffering of Black women in our field is put to the side, outside of the view of the many if not most practitioners. Archaeology, and the academy at large, know this sort of violence happens but choose to ignore it for the greater pursuit of knowledge. Initially my interpretation of Nadija’s death was that the creators intended to illustrate the folly of Nadija’s hubris or obsession with the feature they discovered. However, Nadija wasn’t arrogant. She did not think she was more than she was. She was demonstrably an expert and so to have her die in this fashion reads as seeing another Black woman punished for her expertise.

Trends and tropes

As a discipline, archaeology came from racist practices and assumptions that excluded BIPOC from the field (White and Draycott 2020). However, we have in these comics, all published before 2017, four different Black archaeologists doing archaeology. At first glance, this is awesome. The prominence of these Black archaeologists in mainstream comics is great considering how obscured their presence was in archaeology before 2020. However, we are at the point in comics and archaeology where any representation is not good enough. With so much archaeological information available online and many Black comics creators and archaeologists, each of these comics leaves me dissatisfied with their portrayal of Black archaeologists.

As terrible as it is to consume, Allison and Sarin’s choice to illustrate the harassment of Daisy, a Black queer woman archaeologist, spotlights the behaviors that push out BIPOC people, gender-minorized people, white cisgender women, and others from archaeology. Daisy’s treatment in Giant Days elucidates how vulnerable field school students are in these contexts. It demonstrates how white men archaeologists, who continue to dominate the field (Whiteand Draycott 2020), use microaggressions to exclude and invalidate the experiences of BIPOC and other historically excluded archaeology students. Such behavior is how white archaeologists uphold white supremacist systems.

While Daisy’s treatment in Giant Days, points out how archaeology as a field upholds white supremacist systems, the lack of care that the creators in Marvel Legacy and Tomb Raider: Inferno put into fact checking is part of that same system. In both contexts, these Black women and men (and white women) archaeologists should be experts in their fields. They should know that LiDAR cannot penetrate the earth and that the Precambrian period is well before the evolution of skeletal structures. Portraying archaeologists who should know these basic facts as not knowing them, undercuts their authority and this is not the representation Black archaeologists deserve. The choices by these creators undercuts the authority of Black archaeologists and undermines the achievements of real Black archaeologists. Lastly, the violent treatment of a Black woman in Tomb Raider: Inferno enforces the lack of consideration the creators had for their subjects. Instead of a cautionary tale, the scene seems to punish a Black woman archaeologist for her skills.

The future of the past

Over fifteen years have passed since The SAA Archaeological Record published their special issue on cartooning in archaeology. Since then archaeologists have continued their forays into comics (Atalay et al. 2017; Hunt et al. 2016; Kamash et al. 2022; Swogger 2015) and mainstream comics continues to publish work using information from archaeology (Halmhofer 2020; Przystupa 2018a, 2020). In some ways, little has changed and many recent archaeology comics echo the themes of that issue. What has changed in the last fifteen or more years is archaeologists’ interest in the diversity of the field and how we want fictional media to portray us. A point accentuated by how the field has increasingly moved to highlight Black archaeologists during the developmental life of this paper from 2019 to its 2024 publication.

As for comics, their enduring focus on certain stories over others widens the harm these stories do. This is because while some archaeologists move towards inclusion, decolonization, and repairing the damage the field has done through institutional and scientific racism, archaeology in comics has not. To do so, we need to advocate for ourselves in the media that depicts our stories. While other scientists critique science in comics, many of the technologies and scientific conclusions from biology, physics, and medicine presented in comics are dreams scientists work toward. They are technologies of the future, going from science fiction to science fact. This is the opposite for historical sciences, like archaeology. These problems undercut the work archaeologists do to uncover and understand the past carefully and devalue the ways that Black, and other minoritized, archaeologists overcome racism in society and within the field to practice their profession. Such issues of representation mean that archaeology in comics goes from science fact to science fiction.

While there is a place for comics to critique archaeology, as we see with Daisy Wooten in Giant Days, archaeologists cannot accept inaccurate representations. Especially if that representation comes at the expense of BIPOC archaeologists. Archaeological information helps people craft better comics if creators do the work to create good representation. We as a society know more about archaeology than we did in the 1960s and I was happy to see such a variety of comics include Black archaeologists. However, representation is more than having a character in a story. It means understanding and taking the time to convey their experiences with care and in a way that acknowledges the greater societal and academic contexts such people come from.

While my audience here is likely invested in these issues, the greater non-archaeologist public also craves accurate representations of diverse archaeologists and pasts. Through organizing discussion panels at popular culture conventions, I know comics creators and artists who want to accurately portray the past, archaeological knowledge, and archaeologists. These range from general interest, such as a comics colorist who wanted to learn more about color and pigmentation of artifacts, to a sensitivity reader who’s excited to learn about archaeology while reading this article. While not everyone listens, archaeology’s rich information and inspiration helps comics creators craft accurate and interesting stories.

Comics are also an important way to evaluate what the public knows. Some people will get their understanding of our discipline from pop cultural products (IPSOS 2023). Additionally, future collaborations between archaeologists and comics creators will demonstrate the importance of creating accurate and fun pieces of entertainment. This work is ongoing in other kinds of popular culture (Thorne 2014) and comics are no different. While it's difficult to balance fact and fiction, works that promote modern ideas about archaeology and an accurate knowledge of the past are rewarding and worthwhile products. Recent works like Shattered Spear (Ottava 2019) demonstrate that there are people out there, doing what they can with what we know. These works create a space where the ideas of comics creators and archaeologists flourish.

Archaeologists helping comics creators, writing and critiquing comics (Halmhofer 2019, 2020; Przystupa 2018a-c), and participating in public access venues, such as comic or pop culture conventions, are valuable ways to reach out into our communities. In many cases, previous public archaeology endeavours focus on having the public come to us. These events involve self-selection based on who knows about such events and has the capability to attend. These audiences often already know about archaeology (Guertin 2022:106). By going out into the community and finding events organized around other topics, we can reach a broader audience.

Such events take archaeology out of the excavation and into the world. And that representation is important. If archaeologists want to see themselves in comics and in other media, we should make ourselves seen. And we do. Many historically excluded archaeologists are available online and make ourselves seen. However, the responsibility to highlight that diversity rests on the white men who formerly gatekept archaeology. On them to cite, recommend, and highlight the work of those people and allow them to speak. Those in power who want to be true accomplices to a better archaeology and better archaeological representation in comics should interrogate fictional representations that uphold white supremacy.

That begins when such archaeologists and comics creators recognize how representation reflects on historically minoritized archaeologists. Daisy’s story is a cautionary tale that hits so close to home that it makes me wonder if the creators had a similar experience. The event is a reminder to archaeology to do better and that our field, as it stands, does retain white supremacist ideals. Although they go unharmed, the creators of Marvel Legacy undercut the authority of two Black archaeologists by confusing LiDAR and GPR. It’s a reminder that we need good representation, not just any representation. Lastly, Lazing et al. misuse and mistreat Nadja Katlego in the Tomb Raider comics. They undercut her expertise, like the Black archaeologists of Marvel Legacy, and then reward her expertise and triumph over trauma with a violent death. It’s a horrible reminder that cautionary tales are contextual and who such events happen to matters as much as what happens to them.

Each portrayal demonstrates how the public perceives archaeology and that any representation is not good representation. Without including the voices of Black archaeologists or fully understanding the implication of including Black archaeologists, works like Marvel Legacy and Tomb Raider: Inferno uphold white supremacist ideals rather than allow for diverse representation. Why? Because we do not live in a world where all people have equal access and likelihood of finishing a STEM degree. We do not live in a world where everyone has a fair shot. This means that we cannot treat the experiences of all archaeologists the same. Creators cannot just pick a race or ethnicity and write those individuals in the same way. Our identities inform our practice and the way the field treats us. Therefore, we need such experiences portrayed as accurately as we can if we want good representation in comics. So while it’s great to see so many Black archaeologists in comics, they deserve better than what their comics and what archaeology gives them.

This article was sensitivity read by Carrie McClain.


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Cover Image: "HieroglyphVariant" by Paulina Przystupa is adapted (cropped, text added) from "From the tomb of the kings at Thebes, discovered by G. Belzoni" by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, 1778-1823 (Author and Aritst) and Charles Joseph Hullmandel, 1789-1850 (Lithographer) From the New York Public Library and is in the public domain

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  1. The ideas in this article developed between 2017 and publication in 2024. Various pieces of this appeared in the linked-to WWAC articles and I gave a presentation of a version of this work at the 2019 Society for American Archaeology meetings. The work should have initially appeared in a public facing book publication project begun in late 2019 that did not pan out. ↩︎

  2. Chix Comix was an imprint of MIXX entertainment related to Tokyopop that republished shojo manga under this imprint. Shojo manga is a genre of Japanese comics that are intended specifically for girls but spans multiple western style genres such as fantasy, mystery, and many others. ↩︎

  3. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) governs the return of Native American Ancestors and sacred objects to their communities. ↩︎

  4. There is a long history of white settlers using claims of science and common ancestry to undercut Indigenous authority and rights in North America. This is a subject of discussion on its own with many popular and academic articles produced about the topic. ↩︎