The Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Review

After a couple of days at the AIA annual meeting in San Francisco, I started to wonder whether archaeologists should only be allowed to go to the meeting once every two or three years. This is not meant as a criticism to those there or the bustle of the conference (or the need for structured and unstructured opportunities to interact), but as a way to observe that changes in the field are thrown into high relief after taking a few years aways from the conference.

Here are a few observations:

1. Late Antiquity. When I first started to attend the AIA, panels on Late Antiquity were shoved unceremoniously into the Saturday or Sunday morning sessions, safely sequestered from the proper business of Classical archaeology. Over the past few years, however, Late Antiquity panels have migrated to the grown-up table, and this year, a panel on Greece in Late Antiquity happened at 8 am on Friday, prime time for the conference. 

The panel was a nice blend of senior scholars and new comers and established projects and new field work. The focus was on ceramics (3 papers) and to a lesser extent architecture (2 papers) and skewed later, into 6th and 7th century (4 papers) abandoning to some extent the 4th and 5th century sweet-spot favored by earlier scholars of this era. Three of the papers featured explicitly quantitative analysis, and two of the paper drew upon recent field work: a survey and an excavation. 

While 5 papers are hardly a representative sample of the work in Late Antiquity, the distribution of papers in this panel offers vague confirmation to my gut feeling that Late Antiquitists are working on later period and more fixated on ceramics than ever before.

2. Survey Archaeology. Like Late Antiquity, it wasn’t very long ago when you’d expect someone to stand up at any panel on survey archaeology and ask whether we could really base any arguments on material found on the surface. Those days have passed, it would seem (whether we have resolved the underlying issues associated with survey archaeology and formation processes or not) and the panel at this year’s AIA drew a standing room only crowd.

The papers were good, and projects appeared sound. None of the paper appear to genuinely embrace an analysis based on siteless survey, and in almost all cases preferred to talk about the landscape as a series of sites with distinct functions. At the same time, none of the paper really talked about any sites smaller than the ambiguous “settlement.” I don’t recall any farmsteads, sanctuaries, or site functions defined by size. There was also very little discussion of method.

3. Abandonment. I enjoyed the twin sessions on abandonment which both problematized abandonment as a symptom of decline, as well as a key stage in the formation of sites in the archaeological landscape. The convergence of concerns about periodization (period are frequently defined by episodes of abandonment) and archaeological formation processes points creates an intriguing and productive space around historical narratives that have become so dependent upon patterns of rise and fall. In fact, the ambiguity surrounding abandonment offered a temporary respite for anyone exhausted by popular narratives of decline that are so prevalent in our media today.

We can’t avoid change.

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