29th EAA Annual Meeting in Belfast

Mike D’Aprix (University College London) and Emily Bowyer-Kazadi (University of Liverpool)

Figure 14. The 29th EAA Annual Meeting was held at Queen's University Belfast. Photo of Lanyon Building at night taken by M. D’Aprix.

As always, the host city was welcoming and beautiful. See Figure 14. The journey from Belfast International Airport to the city centre was possibly the most scenic and enjoyable bus ride from an airport. The city itself had good public transportation making it easy to get to most places. However, despite this, many still struggled with mobility. The distance to and from housing, event spaces, and sessions were primarily walking-based which, while nice for many, created an additional hurdle for those with accessibility needs. This was certainly the case with the Opening Ceremony.

Last year’s ceremony as the first year back from COVID felt special, but for us, this year concerns about cost of living made the Ceremony feel ill placed. For Emily, the lack of transportation to the event resulted in a late arrival at the Ceremony and Mike chose not to attend the flashy event. In the future, it would be nice to think about the context of events and particularly helpful to have a shuttle service for attendees between major event locations, as was the case with the Welcome Reception.

We both attended the Welcome Reception in the ICC Belfast. However, there was some confusion with the layout which, combined with technical difficulties for many attendees, is the first point where we began to see the underlying themes of the following review materializing. Upon entry, attendees were provided a coloured wrist band and told to go to a specific floor. However, no additional information was provided. This led to confusion as to why this was, and many people felt that they had to stay on the floor they had been ‘assigned’.

The reception itself was enjoyable. As always at these events, it was nice to catch up with old friends and make new acquaintances. In our opinion, the best event and social gathering at the conference was the Annual Party at Lavery’s Bar. Yet to call this location a bar is an understatement. Lavery’s combines twelve bars with a wide range of aesthetics, music, and themes which provided something for everyone and was a fantastic opportunity to socialize with old friends while occasionally seeing someone you never thought would be a dancing fiend. It was an amazing opportunity to break down many of the barriers normally seen in more formal academic and professional spaces, and with quieter areas of the bar it was also possible to hear conversations.

Figure 15. The crowd at the Closing Reception at the Ulster Museum. Photo taken by M. D'Aprix.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Closing Reception. See Figure 15. This brings us firmly into discussing the underlying theme of the conference: ‘technical difficulties’. Another sore point for us is that we were unable to attend any of the conference excursions, as they were far too expensive for someone at our career stage to afford. The Closing Reception should have provided one last opportunity to network and break down barriers. Sadly, many delegates were turned away at the door because they had not registered to attend this free event. The crowd was larger outside of the Ulster Museum than inside, leading to a palpable frustration of hundreds that were unable to explore the museum. It is a shame that the conference ended on such a disappointing note.

Finally, it is important to touch on the accommodations provided by the university. The administrative aspects of the housing were efficient and easy to use, with check in only taking a few minutes. However, the rooms themselves left much to be desired and issues with the lack of soundproofing and limited bedding led to several sleepless nights for many. Again, mobility became an issue with the location of the housing. While it was possible to get to and from the accommodation using public transportation, the timetables did not always align with the conference, meaning that many had to walk the mile between locations. It is also important to note that several delegates were unable to get space in the discounted accommodation and had to pay more for other hotels and Airbnbs.

A Desire for Change and Technical Difficulties

The Exhibitor’s Hall was regularly packed with archaeologists milling about and the sheer number of archaeologists with their red lanyards and their green bags was comforting. But to us, it seemed that there were not enough measures in place to deal with these kinds of numbers. See Figure 16. This was highlighted by registration, with a 20-minute queue for individuals with a surname from A-G and just two volunteers who were overwhelmed by the sheer number of registrants. Surprisingly, the other volunteers for the remaining letters had very little to do. It might be worthwhile at future conferences to spread the workload and separate registration from the Fair, as queues at registration overwhelmed the space.

Figure 16. Whitla Hall, the location of the European Archaeological Fair and Registration. Photo of Whitla Hall at night taken by M. D'Aprix.

We also experienced technical difficulties in the conference program. Mike’s first session of the conference in which he presented, and which Emily attended, was Session 117: Archaeology: A hospitable discipline? How accessible is archaeology in practice? The session started with visibly stressed volunteers and session organizers trying to figure out the projector, leaving the first three talks proceeding without their planned PowerPoints. The session organizers and volunteers did an amazing job dealing with technical difficulties, which took over an hour to solve.

The session focused on ways to improve accessibility to archaeology and understand the problems and issues that arise with those whose voices are often underrepresented. There was a strong desire to see changes that would provide better accessibility to archaeology. Sadly, this was not seen as a priority by those in the top ranks of the EAA, which is ironic as many of the papers called on those in power to make these changes, yet none of those individuals were in attendance at the session.

Surprisingly, the next session that we attended did have an EAA representative present but their response to the issues discussed was confusing. Session 439: Sustaining Archaeology: Imagining the Futures of Archaeology saw Mike’s colleague Nicola Scheyhing present the preliminary findings from the EAA Early Career Community survey of archaeologists in non-academic careers. Nicola presented last, and alone, because of the ‘1 first author’ policy that most found to be unnecessarily restrictive. See Figure 17. The continuing survey has found that many Early Career archaeologists are paid minimum wage in 32 countries, are overworked, and often exploited, leaving many looking for careers outside of archaeology to make ends meet. The discussion was fruitful and enlightening, and it quickly became clear that many session attendees empathized with the report or were experiencing difficult times whether it be high financial costs, caring duties, or juggling families and children in a discipline that requires major sacrifices to make ends meet.

Figure 17. Nicola Sheyhing presenting our results on the Integration of Early Career Archaeologists: Contract, Commercial, Consulting and Specialists Survey in Session 439. Taken by M. D'Aprix.

The open and optimistic discussion about supporting archaeologists in difficult times was truncated by a strange, almost evangelical comment from an EAA representative. The speech started optimistically with the representative asking, ‘What can the EAA do for you?’ but quickly turned into the opposite. It was difficult to understand the 5-minute speech and many attendees were confused as to what was being preached to them. Our understanding is that the representative suggested archaeologists help and support the EAA through volunteering in a broader effort to ‘think about the bigger picture’, rather than worrying about ‘smaller problems’ like pay or being overworked, and that we ought to work harder on an individual level to support those around us. This is the opposite of what the morning’s session was seeking. To us, this message went against the productive discussion from the attendees of the session, which highlighted the need for more support from our organization.

After the session, we spoke with individuals and volunteers who highlighted the state of housing at the previous conference and that the volunteers were still working to the extreme. Emily and other volunteers shared that it was difficult to attend sessions or experience the conference outside of the work that they were required to do. It questions whether the volunteers get much out of their attendance or if they are being exploited as unpaid but housed workers. Despite the fee and accommodation waivers, Emily stated that she will not volunteer at future conferences. this raises issues in terms of the ethics of advertising these roles to archaeologists who normally would not be able to attend, as many volunteers are students, individuals with caring responsibilities, parents, and others who may be in vulnerable positions in their careers, and who see volunteering as an opportunity to access something that is otherwise unattainable due to their financial status.

It felt to us that many volunteers were relegated to nameless workers, despite being fellow archaeologists. They had to take the brunt of attendees who were frustrated about technical difficulties, lacking signage for buildings, or the smartphone app that constantly crashed. It is important to recognize that this conference rests on the shoulders of unpaid volunteers. They make it possible for us to present our work and enjoy social events.

Another issue we had was the scale of the conference itself. The huge number of sessions and themes made it difficult to decide what to attend. We recognize that it is a difficult task to organize a conference with such a variety of sessions, but additional care should be taken to avoid the overlapping of similar sessions. For example, all of the sessions on the themes of standards, accessibility, the discipline, and issues facing the sector were on Friday morning, while all the outreach, interactive, and archaeogaming sessions were on Saturday.

Mike attended Session 27: Archaeogaming: The liminal space invader which surprisingly had three undergraduate presenters who were given the opportunity to present to a professional audience. It is also important to recognize their professor (and session organizer) who gave them the opportunity to present. This was refreshing and is something that we believe should be provided at every conference and session. This kind of opportunity, for students that are so often underrepresented at conferences, could positively impact students’ futures and careers in archaeology.

Again, this session experienced technical difficulties. The system had not been set up for online presentations, which resulted in the session organizer and volunteer desperately trying to fix things. It is unfortunate that the volunteers are in a position with little training or support – not even a cheat sheet – for commonly occurring issues that might arise. More often than not, this results in them have several researchers angrily staring them down while they try to sort out problems on an unfamiliar system and with little or no technical support.

After this session, we struggled to find the building for the session 523: Immersive Techniques as Tools for Public Outreach in Archaeology. We both searched separately with several other individuals for over half an hour to find the building, but to no avail. This was because the maps of the event spaces were inaccurate and difficult to follow. In most cases, signs pointed in the right direction of a building, then stopped with no evidence as to the direction of the building or room. The most unfortunate aspect of this was the volunteers who had to sit out in the rain to help attendees navigate with little background knowledge themselves. This issue could easily be remedied with a few more signs and more detailed maps.

Time for a Change

This review may come across as negative, but it is important to us that EAA recognizes that these issues exist and must be addressed. It is unacceptable that so many young archaeologists, individuals who are at the most vulnerable stage of their career – and those who wish to advance their careers – are being exploited to further our academic knowledge. We need to acknowledge that these individuals should be valued and fostered in a safe and supportive environment. They are the future of our discipline, which currently operates in an unsustainable manner that too often burns out even its best and brightest.

There is an opportunity for change in terms of sustainability, accessibility, and progress. We need to ask if the traditional conference setup still works in the ways in which it was intended. We must start asking who it is that actually attend and benefits most from the Annual Meeting. More importantly, who are those who cannot attend these conferences? We must start thinking more critically about the context and landscape of conferences held across Europe. How many conferences do we really need? What conferences could be combined? And what types of restrictions are we facing that might prevent us from improving the conference experience for everyone, especially our most vulnerable cohorts: students, early career scholars and those in the public and state sectors?

It is our hope that we can begin to positively address these topics and push to improve access to archaeology for all, not just those who can pay for it.

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