Over the last 2 years – delayed due to the pandemic and our many other commitments – archaeological illustrator John G. Swogger and I have been collaborating on creating a ‘What’s Wat’s Dyke?’ heritage comic trail. The aim is to allow visitors and local people to explore and learn about Britain’s third-longest ancient monument: Wat’s Dyke.
Our original aim was to create a printed map with c. 10 locations where one can visit Wat’s Dyke. Yet rather than take visitors to see only the well-preserved sections, we also want visitors to engage with the monument were it is fragmented, damaged and even where it is long-lost beneath rural and urban development. Wrexham serves this purpose, as the biggest town in NE Wales and Wat’s Dyke runs through and past it. So, while a walking trail already exists, this is aimed at engaging and educating people about where and how Wat’s Dyke interacts with the broader historic environment and people’s daily lives in the contemporary landscape.
This project is inspired not only by John’s Oswestry Heritage Comics by also by a blog-post I composed in 2019 called ‘Where can you visit Wat’s Dyke in Wrexham?’ Remember, John has already published on the potential for comics in exploring linear earthworks in the Offa’s Dyke Journal volume 1 for 2019.
Our comic will take you to fields, a hotel car park, back gardens, parks, a primary school, a railway line, a cemetery and much more as the dyke goes in and out of visibility through today’s suburbs of Wrexham and on into the National Trust parkland of Erddig Hall. Our comic will seek to explain what we know about Wat’s Dyke’s construction and function, and how it has been used and ignored in subsequent centuries in different regards. We also hope to use the comic to reflect on what Wat’s Dyke means to people today, and its potential significance in the future.
We’ve already published our rationale and reflections on the challenges of this project, including provisional ideas, in the book Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands: you can download of our chapter called ‘Envisioning Wat’s Dyke’ here. In publishing a chapter reflecting on a project in progress, we weren’t aiming to simply share an interim statement, but to focus on the collaborative nature of our endeavours and the strategic and reflective choices of using the comic medium in relation to a linear monument that, despite its magnitude and length, barely survives and is hardly understood.
Yet, again because of the pandemic and time pressures on both of us, we have shifted our ambitions. Rather than create a print fold-out map comic, we are now aiming for a fully digital comic of 10 locations across Wrexham, from Caer Alyn in the north to Erddig Park to the south. Each image will showcase different stories about Wat’s Dyke’s creation and interactions with the landscape, as well as the communities who have encountered it on its route today.
So, for this blog-post, we want to share a sneak-preview of some of John’s preliminary sketches and a three of is final-draft images. Note: each image will be accompanied by explanatory texts, links to text discussing broader themes, as well as connections to an overall map showing you where each image is located.
We hope this whets your appetite for the final product. Also, however, tell us what you think! Do these work and if not, why not? This will be immensely useful in coming weeks as we work towards launching the final What’s Wat’s Dyke heritage comic to coincide with the Festival for British Archaeology this summer!
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Great idea and the drawings are fab!
This looks great and I can’t wait to see (and try) the finished product. Are you hoping that people will pick up the information through digital beacons or a GPS-triggered app at locations along the dyke, or through a website, either preloaded or reached via QR codes on way markers?
‘Comic book’ style works very well as an approachable interpretation method. It’s quickly engaged with by younger people through it’s familiarity and it’s regarded as ‘non-threatening’ by adults who might otherwise be disinterested by the subject matter, or feel that it’s a bit academic for them to fully understand. The visual style is very good at ‘softening’ concepts that may seem complex presented in other forms, both written and illustrative. Interestingly, it’s the fact that the medium is frequently frowned upon as ‘for kids’ that encourages adults to engage with it more readily than they would with something that looks like it’s been written by a professor!
Good examples of the approach (and a level of its success) are the ‘How it Works’ books by David Macaulay.
Quick bit of proof-reading – ‘Mynydd Isa’ on drawing no.1
Agree with you on all counts, Andrew! Comics have proven to work extremely well as archaeological interpretation and presentation for all the reasons you cite. There’s a small but enthusiastic body of creators out there using them not just in archaeology, history and heritage, but even more in the wider sciences, taking full advantage of the “softening” and “non-threatening” affordances you mention. On the technical side, we’re not sure which digital delivery method we will use yet. As this is a pilot project with a very limited budget, we can’t install on-site waymarkers or create a GPS-triggered app at this stage – but both of those are options.
There used to be a series of A$ sized guides you could get when you went round churches etc – I probably still have some around. They were a great way of producing easily digestible guides – great way to get people interested and informed. I worried that one of my kids would only ever read comic books/graphic novels but as a librarian told me when I asked her about it – “At least he’s reading something.” Good luck with it.
That should say “A4”