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Conversations: The WAC in Washington Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003

Brian Fagan's sneak preview of the forthcoming World Archaeological Congress

(Courtesy Lesley Newhart)

Brian Fagan began his career studying the Iron Age in Africa, but for much of his professional life he has written books for general audiences. His latest is Before California (2003), an account of the West Coast in antiquity. He recently talked to Archaeology about the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), to be held this June in Washington, D.C. WAC is the only truly global meeting of its kind, bringing together 650 archaeologists from some 35 countries.

How is the World Archaeological Congress different from national archaeology gatherings?

Conventional academic meetings are concerned as much with the presentation of basic research as they are with professional issues facing archaeologists. For instance, the Society for American Archaeology meetings have become a forum where many graduate students present their fieldwork to a broader academic audience, a rite of passage that reduces the value of the meetings. Many of the papers are of an appalling standard, and are often used as an excuse to get one's way paid to the conference. In contrast, WAC's concern is with the historical and social roles of archaeology--for instance, promoting heritage tourism in the Third World. The meetings also focus on the ethics of archaeology, and the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous peoples like Native Americans and Australian Aborigines. A number of this year's sessions will be devoted to the repatriation of artifacts and human remains to native groups.

How successful have WAC meetings been in the past? Haven't there been difficulties at previous congresses?

"Difficulties" is the wrong word. All WACs have their feet set firmly in the global politics of the present. The first congress, held at Southampton, England, in 1986, became mired in the international politics of apartheid over invitations extended to white South African archaeologists that resulted in boycotts. The 1999 meeting in Cape Town had Nelson Mandela as its patron, which was a fitting sequel. WAC New Delhi in 1994 was also heavily politicized. It was held on the second anniversary of the destruction of the sixteenth-century Babri mosque in the city of Ayodha by Hindu militants. For a variety of reasons, including concern for the safety of conference participants, a controversial decision was made to ban formal discussion of the Ayodha issue during the proceedings. The subject was later taken up during a WAC meeting in Croatia devoted to the destruction and restoration of cultural heritage.

WAC's ultimate objective is to provide a forum for multiple voices and interpretations of the past, which means that debates will sometimes be heated, conversations wide-ranging and often pointed; priorities other than science may come to the fore. War and archaeology will be an important focus of the forthcoming conference, for obvious reasons.

What do you personally hope to gain from WAC 5?

Ideas, feedback, and fresh insights--especially about the future of archaeology. I think it's wonderful that the Getty Conservation Institute is organizing a major segment of the meeting. We archaeologists rarely think about conservation as a mainstream part of our academic work. I am as guilty as many of us, if not more so. Back in the 1960s, I excavated an Iron Age village in Zambia. The landowner encouraged me to leave the excavation trenches open after we finished our work, which I did. I should never have done that.

You're giving a plenary address. What do you plan to say?

The main thrust of my talk will be about the importance of ethics. For instance, the ethics of excavating and destroying a site when the research problem is not urgent, or not publishing your fieldwork in full when you know that it is the only record of a site. I'll make a passionate plea for archaeologists to take conservation seriously as an integral part of their academic research. We are at a critical time. The site base is eroding so rapidly that all of us have simply got to face the fact that conservation of the finite record is our number one priority. Will there be any archaeology for future generations if we keep on digging and digging as we are now, especially on sites that are not endangered?
* For more, visit the WAC's web site.
© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America