Conferences are an important part of any field, and doubly so for scientific fields. Archaeology is a destructive science. In order to construct interpretations of the past we must dissect our sites and look at the insides to fully understand the stories of the people who lived, worked, and/or died there. When soil is excavated and taken from its original context it can never be put back exactly as it was found. This makes the documentation of sites, sites, features, and artifacts crucial. While we cannot fully reproduce our studies, by forming large data sets we can start to identify trends in certain site types and features that will help us interpret smaller portions of data sets within a larger context. The best way to do this is through attending conferences and sharing our work with colleagues.
In addition to giving and attending papers to broaden your knowledge base, conferences are also good for organizing collaborative projects and building your professional network. Larger national conferences tend to have higher quality scholarship and a much broader attendance base because of their scale, but can be cost prohibitive, less intimate, and less specialized to any particular region. Smaller regional conferences (MAAC, SEAC , CNEHA , etc.) can facilitate a much more concentrated experience and are especially helpful for people just entering the field to get a handle on the industry in their area.
I attended the Mid Atlantic Archaeological Conference (MAAC) last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland. I helped organized a session about work my company did on the Alexandria, Virginia waterfront which we presented on Friday afternoon, after which I attended a paper my department manager gave, followed by another paper about one of the first projects I supervised. Friday night Bill Auchter (@archaeothoughts, @archaeorpg) and I organized a play test for the Dungeons and Dragons outreach tool we have been working on. Saturday, I volunteered at the AITC table in the book room. That afternoon we had archaeologists answer questions on post cards from our Young Archaeologists Club. The lab manager from Thunderbird got second opinions from an expert about a few artifacts from a site I excavated last week. Every year I come, the busier I end up being with different projects and organization with which I am involved.
With the SAAs coming up around corner, and some discussions on twitter about accessibility have caught my interest. The first thing I want to point out is that the national conferences are for a lot of people, especially those just starting out in their careers and really anyone who doesn’t have a steady fulltime job, cost prohibitive. SHA membership for non-students is around $140 USD, conference registration is another $180 USD, and $25 for abstract submissions, Society for American Archaeology costs ~$165 USD for membership and ~$180 USD for conference registration, plus travel costs, hotels, food, etc. If you’re presenting costs are in the $700-800 USD for the total cost of the conference if you stay for the whole conference and can drive there. There are student discounts for membership, and you can share rooms, and find other ways to cut the costs down, but it is still a major financial commitment.
Despite these costs the national conferences are crucial to the field and industry of archaeology. They are one of a handful of times during the year that we can share ideas on a national scale and get large collaborative efforts off the ground. At this past SHA conference, I attended a workshop for legislature to create a national database for African American cemeteries. The legislation has since been introduced and is on its way to federal funding. I helped organized and moderated a forum on community archaeology with representation from across the country. The Mid-Atlantic was a bit over represented because that is who was in our network, but the idea has been raised for doing a follow up forum next year and I would like to include a broader representation from across the country. It’s not definitely going to happen right now but, if you or someone you know people who would be interested and able to participate., especially if they are not based in the Mid-Atlantic, please get in contact with me on twitter (@tcuthbertson13) or leave a comment on this post.
Why am I talking to you about this? Whether or not you believe that archeology is a science, you’re still doing research. Research that cannot be replicated. To me doing years and years of research on a subject, site, or artifact and not sharing what you have learned with at least your colleagues is negligent at best. Conferences are an important networking point and help create large data sets which are crucial to observational sciences, like archaeology.
TL:DR Regional conferences are as important as national conferences. National conferences are expensive; we need to try to make them more accessible.
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