Five Quick Reactions to the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists Meeting

I just got home from the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona and was really impressed by my experience. Since, I’m still shaking off jet leg and racing to play catch up with my classes and other responsibilities, I’ll keep my comments here pretty short and impressionistic, but hopefully I’ll have to space to post something more involved later in the week.

1. So Many Panels. The EAAs were literally the opposite of the old joke that the food is bad and the portions are too small. The panels were good and there were so many of them. It was impossible to get anything more than a taste of the conference with panels stretching for four, five, or six hours, huge numbers of overlapping panels, and panels that might appeal to the same audience being held at the same time (e.g. a panel on Early Medieval transitions in the archaeology of Europe at the same time as a panel on Medieval archaeology more generally). At times people had to scoot between two panels in which they were participating or to see papers.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint, after all there’s a limit to how a conference can organize over 1000 papers in over a 3-day event, but it’s important to recognize that any observation on the conference will only represent a small sampling of panels at the event.

2. Socially Conscious Archaeology. The theme of the conference was “Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs”(weirdly, there are no flipped lowercase versions of Latin “n” or “r” in unicode), and, if I came away with one impression, it’s that the future of archaeology is socially engaged with pressing problems facing the world. I was particularly impressed that papers the dealt with the challenges of climate change, political pressures, and neoliberalism generally avoided the “c-word” (crisis) and preferred a sober, practical, systematic, and disciplinary approach to problems facing the future of the past. 

In fact, I sort of wanted a bit more urgency at times, but I also appreciated that so much of my desire for the urgent (OUTRAGE) demonstrates my own addiction to the excitement offered by our hyperactive media cycles and “theory of the day” approaches to problem solving and knowledge making in the humanities. What the EAAs showed me is that concepts like anarchism, decolonization, indigeneity, and public engagement have deep roots in archaeological work in the present that could produce a strong, relevant discipline for the future.     

3. Heritage, Contract, and Academic Archaeology. Maybe I’m more used to attending the ASOR or AIA annual meeting than, say, the SAAs, but I was particularly struck my the interaction between heritage and museum professionals, contract archaeologists, and academic archaeologists at the EAAs. In my panel on transhuman archaeologies, several of the heritage archaeologists deftly applied the more conceptual and academic papers to their own sites in the discussion periods. In a panel on climate change, heritage managers, contract, and academic archaeologists shared their work in documenting and preserving sites made vulnerable by coastal erosion and other climate change driven environmental concerns. 

It was really energizing and challenging as an academic archaeologist thinking in terms ontologies and epistemologies mediated largely by academic practice, to get pressed earnestly by folks involved in contract work and teaching contract archaeologists as to how what I’m saying is relevant to their work and students. This wasn’t done in a dismissive or confrontational way but as a genuinely intellectual challenge to my work and it was very much appreciated.   

4. More Bakken than Byzantine. I joked with my colleagues the week before going to the conference that every once in a while I remember that I’m a Europeanist and should attend conferences on the Continent and engage with my colleagues in Europe in a face-to-face way. What was funny though is that I found myself reflecting on my work as an Americanist far more regularly than my work in Cyprus or Greece throughout the conference. The sessions that I attended on time, climate change, and digital technologies had stronger grounding in “historical” or “world” archaeology than the work that I do when wearing my “Classical Archaeologist” hat (safety first, kids!) in Europe.

In the future, I’d like to present my work in the Bakken to the EAA audience as much to engage more thoughtfully with the social impact of my work as to grasp the role of heritage management and memory in ephemeral modern landscapes.

5. Barcelona Backdrop. Finally, Barcelona was a genuinely inspired place to hold a conference on Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs in archaeology. The city provides a master class not only on past futures visible in the Modernisme movement as well as museums dedicated to Picasso and Miró, but also a legacy of radicalism, industrialism, post-nationalism, and neoliberalism as well. A visit to Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Família is a literal reminder of modernism as an unfinished and deeply ambiguous project which juxtaposes profound, religious truth and rebar protruding through roughly finished concrete spires. 

Just to make this point more clearly the conference itself was situated at the edge of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic where the Medieval plan of the city is best preserved and tourists and pickpockets jostle with each other down this tree-line and commodified thoroughfare. We were a short walk from Richard Meier’s well-known Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (a museum that famously opened without a collection!) whose glass and white walls reminded us of the fraught character of transparency and cosmopolitan ambivalence in the 21st century.

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