WAC 6, Dublin, 2008. Part II.

Jim Dixon
UWE, Faculty of Creative Arts

I had a bad time in the first half of WAC in Dublin. A combination of bad organisation, questionable quality control in the presentation department and my own unrealistic expectations had led to a quasi-depression. Lacking the funds to abscond to Bruges, I had, by the Wednesday evening of a week long conference, been holed up at home exclaiming disbelief and weeping over the huge hole where my bank account used to be for nearly 36 hours.
This, I thought, had to change. I decided to approach the second half of the week differently. To not expect much of any consequence to occur in the sessions but instead to enjoy the experience, meet new people and try to get into some good discussions. In short, I cheered up. And, luckily it worked. The second half of WAC was great.

Beaghmore Complex (K. Williams)

Thursday began with John Carman and Carol McDavid’s session ‘Where the future of archaeological theory lies’. Speakers were limited to five minutes to allow the maximum possible time for discussion of this crucial topic. Cornelius Holtorf, Matt Edgeworth and Faye Simpson in particular made useful contributions to an interesting debate that, to my relief, concluded that the future of archaeological theory lies in the fields of contemporary archaeology, reflexivity and public engagement, all central to my own PhD research. So far so good!
My own involvement in WAC happened after the tea break. Brent Fortenberry and I co-organised a session called ‘Method and The Machine: theorising an archaeological approach to technical processes’ that opened the Critical Technologies theme convened by Beth O’Leary, Alice Gorman and Wayne Cocroft. In a session both Brent and I were pleased with, we covered such diverse topics as sustainability, radar, actor-network theory, iPods and economics and managed to leave time for both questions for individual speakers and general discussion that focussed on narrative, trauma and the incompatibility of various current approaches to contemporary material culture. I was certainly happy with it and I hope audience members were at least impressed by the interesting mix of different contemporary archaeological topics.
The day continued with a lunchtime plenary session on how increased immigration might call for a re-formulation of what ‘heritage’ is. The highlight of the session was Tadhg O’Keeffe’s polemic against the idolisation of Tara as central to an imagined Celtic-based ‘Irishness’.
This was followed by the second session of the Critical Technologies’ theme, ‘Archaeologies of internment: method and theory for an emerging field’ run by Adrian Myers and Gabriel Moshenska. This certainly is an emerging field that has received much attention recently. For me, the real benefit of this session was that the focus on POW camps and sites of ‘alien internment’ makes an important contribution to understanding the ‘home front’ side of conflict archaeology, whatever the country. Many of these internment sites are well documented from opposing and very emotive positions and this made for an interesting session. I would have liked to hear more about the wider politics and practical problems of studying such potentially controversial sites and Laura McAtackney’s recent work on the Long Kesh/Maze site in Northern Ireland was conspicuously absent from what was an otherwise worthy session.
I know of tutors from a variety of subjects who use the question, “Should Auschwitz have a gift shop?”, as a seminar topic. The difficulty of how to present such an horrific thing as the Holocaust was raised by one speaker. The paper itself was interesting and I look forward to seeing the work develop but (understandably proud of his work) his beaming grin juxtaposed with images of Jewish inmates stacked in concentration camp bunks made members of the audience visibly uncomfortable. How to do ‘the archaeology of Auschwitz’ is a tough one. There is a clear ethical dimension to the discussion but the archaeologists’ tendency to bypass ethics by professionally distancing themselves from their subjects is perhaps not the way forward in this case. Perhaps the ethical dimensions of archaeological work on the African diaspora might help in developing ways of talking about the subject that seem less problematic.
If memory serves, we went straight from this session to the student bar on the campus and stayed there waiting for the Congress party to begin which it duly did. This was a jolly affair involving multiple pints of Guinness and an increasing lack of concern for the high prices of same as the evening went on. We passed the evening outdoors standing by the lake with its nicely lit fountains and after such a successful and thought-provoking day everything seemed alright again.
My Friday began with a session, ‘Beyond Identity’, organised by Barb Voss and El Casella that looked into alternative approaches to sexuality. It was an interesting session but there were a large number of papers leaving no time for discussion, a shame as I would have liked to hear more about many of the papers. After coffee I went along to the final Critical Technologies session, ‘Nostalgia for infinity: exploring the archaeology of the final frontier’. Space archaeology has been around for a while but I’ve never made it along to any of the previous conference sessions on it so was particularly interested in what this session had to say and I wasn’t disappointed. The highlight for me was Mark Edmonds’ paper on different aspects of Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. Alongside Ironbridge and Quarry Bank Mill, Jodrell Bank is a place I associate with school trips when I was young and I greatly enjoyed hearing more about it. The rest of the session was interesting and informative. I have a long postponed plan to write about JG Ballard and archaeology and this session reminded me of his 1959 short story ‘The Waiting Grounds’, a futuristic tale in which an astronomer based on another planet finds a series of megaliths commemorating all the beings from other planets who have been on the planet over time. If we were to discover physical remains of another species or civilisation on another planet, at what stage would archaeologists become involved? And would the work be best suited to contemporary archaeologists or prehistorians? Maybe we’ll find out one day.
In all, the Critical Technologies theme was interesting, coherent and worthy of future expansion. My personal interest is in seeing how some of these very contemporary approaches to technology can be integrated with more traditional industrial archaeology.

Tara (K. Williams)

After lunch, the unfortunate WAC business plenary. This is an odd event at which people put forward motions for consideration by the WAC Council. From what I could see, it largely consists of groups passing motions to guarantee their work being published. The session was thankfully interrupted by the arrival of President of Ireland Mary McAleese who made a closing speech for the Congress. Reconvening after her departure there were a few motions calling for WAC to officially protest the road-work near the Tara site. I stayed long enough to vote against the first of these before slipping out to the bar where I found all the other people who had thought better of getting involved in this cod-democratic worthiness contest.
The second half of WAC was a really great experience and I learned new things from every session I attended, as well as having a pretty good time socially. It was a real shame that conference sessions were so over-filled with papers and although I’m sure the organisers had the best of intentions in not allowing session organisers to cut any papers, it made for a high proportion of confused, rushed and ultimately disappointing sessions. Everything about WAC contributes to it both positively and negatively. How you approach that is key to having a good time. When I expected stimulating, cutting-edge archaeological debate I was largely let down. When I changed tack and approached the rest of the week by trying to meet people and experience a broad range of subjects, it was fine.
In all honesty, if I had the choice again, I wouldn’t have gone to Dublin for WAC 6. It simply wasn’t worth the financial outlay this time (I thought that WAC 5 was well worth it). That’s not to say that parts of it weren’t fun though and I met some nice people. However, the biggest effect that WAC had on me is that I’m really looking forward to TAG and getting the disappointment out of my system.
If there were a conference star-rating system, two out of five would be fair.

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