Last week I went to the ASA2015 conference at the University of Edinburgh. While neither my first conference nor my first trip to Edinburgh, it was my first time doing both as a postgraduate student, and that perspective definitely made me look for and take away different things from this conference than I have with others.

I’ll be going into this in more detail for a proper conference review for our department’s journal Assemblage, but here are some brief thoughts about ASA2015:

  • Edinburgh is a really beautiful city, and in the sunshine (gasp!) even more so. Even though the archaeology department was a bit of a maze and perhaps doubly confusing because of the renovations work taking place, it was a lovely place to visit and I liked getting to see behind-the-scenes to my usual touristy rambles along Middle Meadow Walk.

  • Students from BA to PhD and beyond (postdoc/employment) are doing some amazing things. There were sessions on archaeology in/about videogames, dealing with Pagan “repatriation” requests, GIS as a tool to recreate ancient sailing routes, neolithic feasting at henge monuments, what community archaeology really ought to be (but sadly often isn’t), the experiences of disabled archaeologists, career prospects, medieval window glass, and a whole session on historical archaeology that I wasn’t able to attend because the community and digital archaeology sessions were just too fascinating.
  • I need to improve my practice as an archaeologist who wants to involve non-archaeologists in what I do. As per the last post, I was a community archaeologist for a year. I now volunteer in school outreach for the department’s Archaeology in the City programme, and community archaeology is something I seem to have always done (e.g. commercial archaeology in Australia inevitably includes the Aboriginal community [and rightly so]). But one talk by Dr Emily Stammitti (@archaeo_otter) really challenged me to up my game: as she said, you are doing community archaeology if you are working in the community – taking the outreach opportunities to them and doing work that they direct and are invested and interested in. If you are working with or for the community, it runs a risk of being simply “rhetoric” – a top-down process that doesn’t have a legacy or continuation after you (the archaeologist) finishes the project and leaves. I need to review my notes and make sure I have Dr Stammitti’s argument straight before I go any further or risk paraphrasing her incorrectly (and as always, all errors are my own!). This and the other community archaeology talks were a good reminder, also, of how lucky I am to get to do archaeology in the UK, which has been my goal for the last 5 years. Even if it sometimes feels a bit foolish, precarious and scary, I still get to do this.
  • I also need to improve my practice in making archaeology really accessible for all; Theresa O’Mahoney (@archaeology4all) in her BA research has uncovered some damning stories of the obstacles facing archaeology students with visible and invisible disabilities and hopes to continue this research into an MA and beyond.
  • The Careers Roundtable discussion was interesting but shows how much more work there is to be done in marrying up the archaeology “industry” and students/future archaeologists. Broadly paraphrased the consensus of the panel was that you can’t do an archaeology degree and call yourself an archaeologist; you need more training and experience, and an archaeology degree can’t be expected to provide all of the training you need to walk straight into a job. I completely agree with this (hey, I did a BA in Japanese but didn’t expect to walk into a job as a translator!) but I argue that the industry needs then to rebuild an apprenticeship culture into its hiring process. At a risk of oversimplifying things, before I finished highschool I got my first job at a department store and while I had the basics (literacy, numeracy, people-skills), they trained me on the job for the specific tasks; when I finished my BA and got my first archaeology job at Austral, I had the basics (research, academic and business literacy, some field experience) but they took me on a lower rate of pay and trained me up for 6 months, on the understanding I’d stick around for 2 years so they’d make their money back, which I did and I think it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Although there are occasional externally-funded training bursaries there seems not to be this culture of taking on newbies as an investment in the future (with the caveat my exposure to the job market comes from BAJR and CIFA bulletins over the last 5 years). A common response from the panel was that you needed to be dedicated and committed, and to take opportunities outside of and beyond your degree to stand out as a job applicant. Again, I agree, but I’m not sure how this works for people who have responsibilities beyond archaeology – to their families or mortgages – or do not have someone to financially support them while they do unpaid volunteer activities or internships. BUT I was happy to hear that the BAJR Archaeology Skills Passport is going from strength to strength and wait in hope for the Careers Passport. So a final challenge for me is to contribute to bringing industry and students together so that companies get archaeologists and archaeologists get jobs, which I’m partly hoping to do via my PhD as a model for this kind of engagement (but more on that later as well!).

So that’s my preliminary thoughts on the conference (and I haven’t even gone into how really genuinely cool the video games session was, or how I need to think more about archaeology and social media based on another one of the presentations…). Expect to see the above notes in a more coherent form in Assemblage sometime soon.