Making a Connection to the Ancient World
By Emily Magnus
John Swogger ’84 has always been interested in archeology. “Even before I knew what it was,” says Mr. Swogger, “I was fascinated as a child by things like Ancient Egypt and the Sutton Hoo treasure, the Romans, that sort of thing.” Fortunately for him, he’s been able to make a career out of his fascination, illustrating archeological digs and telling the stories of ancient cultures.
Mr. Swogger grew up in Hanover, NH and attended Cardigan as a boarding student in the early 1980s. “Cardigan must have been much smaller in the 1980s–both in terms of buildings and in terms of student numbers,” reflects Mr. Swogger, “but that small size gave it a very distinctive family-like atmosphere, like the school was just a big house full of somewhat rowdy distant cousins. Even the teachers felt like a collection of uncles and aunts at times.”
That collection of aunts and uncles were the first ones to fuel and develop Mr. Swogger’s passion for archeology. “Prior to Cardigan, my history classes had been pretty so-so, but at Cardigan I was totally inspired,” says Mr. Swogger. “[My teachers] were extraordinarily passionate about history, and seemed willing to try anything to get us to share that interest and passion.
At Cardigan, I also learned that history isn’t just a subject, it’s a place. I went on a trip [with the school] to Italy, Turkey, and Greece…That trip really brought it home to me that ancient history existed outside the pages of books–that it happened in real places that were part of the modern world. That absolutely had a lasting impact on me. So much of the work I do now with archaeology and cultural heritage is about making the connection between the ancient world and the contemporary.
By 1992 Mr. Swogger had received a bachelor of arts degree in the archeology of the Eastern Mediterranean from Liverpool University in England and started contributing in archeological research all over the world. From 1993-1998 he was a building illustrator for the North West Archeological Trust in the United Kingdom. He then became a site illustrator for various projects including Çatalhöyük excavations in Turkey and the Carriacou and the Nevis Island Archaeology Projects in the Caribbean.
“The ten years I spent working in Turkey on the Çatalhöyük project were extraordinary, not just because the site was so amazing (a Neolithic settlement made up of mudbrick houses with interior wall paintings, burials under the floor and sculpted bulls heads with real horns on the walls), but also because it was a huge international project,” says Mr. Swogger. “I spent that time working on a team of over 100 British, American, Turkish, Polish, Greek, and Serbian archaeologists. It was a unique opportunity to work on world-class archaeology in the company of world-class colleagues.”
Mr. Swogger, however, struggled with what he saw as a disconnect between the artwork he was creating and the research and articles written by archeologists. “For centuries the visualization of archeology has not changed significantly,” he wrote in “Ceramics, Polity, and Comics” in 2015. “In particular, the relationship between text and image has remained virtually static. Images accompany text, they do not inhabit it. As a result, visualization becomes a secondary practice in archeological communication. And–ironically for a visual science–images all too frequently become an afterthought to text.”
He found a solution in the use of comics. While once considered a popular form of entertainment for the masses, in the late 20th century, comics went through a rebirth when artists and writers began to use them to explore more serious topics. Will Eisner’s book, A Contract with God (1978), is considered one of the first graphic novels and tells the stories of poor Jewish characters living in New York City tenements; Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns were other early successes in the mid-1980s. For Mr. Swogger, the medium allowed him to more carefully connect textual and visual content, using their relationship to tell a more complex story.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than having to describe in text, visual and spatial relationships–say, between the different layers within a site trench, or different building phases in a structure,” Mr. Swogger shared in an e-panel for Comics Forum, which aims to increase the visibility and accessibility of the educational value of comics. “With a comic, you can create panels which show all these things, freeing up your text to do other things… I’ve found I can make my comics cover quite complex and sophisticated concepts as a result” (“The Future Art of the Past?” February 2014).
Mr. Swogger’s use of comics also led him to a side project with his sister-in-law. In 2010 he co-wrote and illustrated a graphic novel about Autism/Asperger Syndrome called Something Different About Dad. He is currently working on a second medicine-related graphic novel, One of Those People, which will deal with issues surrounding dependence and antidepressant medications.
“Medical humanities makes a lot of use of comics because the medium does such an excellent job of balancing the two kinds of narrative: informational and emotional,” says Mr. Swogger. “In doing so, medical comics often act as a really useful bridge between the two different kinds of stories one tells about medicine. Interestingly, the cultural heritage comics I’m now working on are beginning to resemble those medical ones in exactly that way. They cover the archaeological and historical information and facts, but they also describe how important archaeology and history are to descendant communities whose heritage it is.”
One such current project is in conjunction with the University of Colorado for which he is collaborating with the Kumeyaay peoples of Southern California on a comic-book history of the tribe. The NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) comics have been designed to show a side of the historical, archaeological, and cultural story - as well as the political and legal story - of the United States that is sometimes hard to see; more importantly, it also allow the communities to tell their stories in their own words from their own experiences.
“I’ve been working extremely closely with tribal elders, historians, archaeologists, educators and activists when writing and drawing these NAGPRA comics, and it’s taught me a lot about collaborating with all kinds of communities when telling the story of their past,” says Mr. Swogger.
“The project will liaise with Comic Con International–the organization that runs the huge San Diego Comic Con every year,” continues Mr. Swogger. “That partnership will hopefully help us not only tell the Kumeyaay story to a completely new audience, but give the project global exposure. It’s part of a significant new direction in comics where writers and artists are making the argument that comics don’t just represent a new way to communicate; in some instances they represent a more effective way to communicate particular kinds of stories or information.”
Another current project for Mr. Swogger is The Grid, a comics and archeology anthology. Issue 0 was compiled and made available to the public in December 2019. With co-editor Hannah Sackett, Mr. Swogger’s intent is to provide a space for publishing comics that focus on anthropology, history, ancient history and related subjects, whether for public outreach and education, or documentation and research. While Issue 0 was a trial run, he is now accepting submissions for Issue 1 which he hopes to publish in December 2020.
What started as a mere instinct or unconscious passion in the mind of a middle school boy has blossomed into a career that has led Mr. Swogger literally all over the world. What else has stuck with him from his time at Cardigan? Belts. “I’m not sure I ever paid any attention to whether I wore a belt or not before coming to Cardigan,” Mr. Swogger reflects, “but now I can’t not wear one.”