I recently read a recent blog post by Sebastian Hageneuer and decided to do a similar thing with my impression on the latest ICAANE conference.
What is the ICAANE? #
ICAANE stands for Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. It is one of the major conference for archaeologists dealing with West Asia. It is held every 2 year (except 2020 due to the pandemic) in a different country, and this time was held in Denmark, at Copenhagen University over 5 days. Main themes of this session were sustainability and inclusivity (let's remember these). At the ICAANE there are usually pre-defined themes on which scholars will present their work, but you can find also latest excavation reports and see a lot of interesting topics discussed. Along the main program there are also workshops, smaller (in topic and usually in numbers - but not necessarily) sessions self-organized by scholars on specific topics.
In general, it is a vibrant conference in which is highly unlikely you will get bored (even only by spending hours trying to mix and match your time to follow all the things that interest you).
My experience on this edition #
Overall, I had a positive experience at this edition. This is my fourth ICAANE and it did not disappoint me at all. I had tree talks (one single and two co-authored talks), and had fun and a great experience. For one day I followed a workshop on Drowned Landscapes, organized by my colleagues Paola Sconzo and Francesca Simi, and Jesper Eidem. This workshop was really interesting, we saw many different approaches, heard different stories, and I learned a lot from presenting colleagues. I also attended the last two or three talks of Sebastian's co-organised workshop on decolonizing the orientalist narrative in archaeological practice. This was one of the best workshop I have ever been to (and I hope there will be a way to see a full recording). The final discussion was incredible and one could really feel the need and will to change our field for the better (I can't describe it better than Sebastian already did, please see the first link on this page). It was also very nice that gaming and its representation of the past made its way to the ICAANE, finally. I also attended lots of interesting talks outside the workshops and learn a lot of new things about topics I was definitely not knowledgeable about.
The good #
- Workshops: at least from my past ICAANE experiences, workshops have always been among the most innovative presence in this conference, from new approaches to methodological and theoretical discussion. This year was the same and sometimes I hope these workshops could be turned into actual conferences.
- Audience participation: it might be me after two years and half of pandemic and online conferences, but in this edition I had the impression of a larger and more frequent participation in the discussions after each talk. All the presenters I saw received at least two questions and some had discussions going on for longer that 15 minutes. This was refreshing and exciting compared to the silence that sometimes accompany the talks of less "prominent" (whatever that means) scholars.
- The people: this one might be influenced by the kind of talks I followed, but I saw many more younger scholars and students compared to previous editions. This might be also be one of the reasons for the previous point above. That's very good and I hoped we could get more insight on this from the organizers.
- The Campus and the city: the location was really good, lots of spaces, large rooms and larger study areas. The city was beautiful with lots of things to see and experience.
The bad #
- Closing session: First of all, not the whole closing session was bad. I am referring here at one of the summing up of the conference that was made by one of the local professors and member of the international committee. For anyone not from our field, it has been years since archaeologists working in Western Asia acknowledged that the term we used (Near East/Ancient Near East/Middle East) for referring to our discipline, field, and geographical location was filled with colonialist and orientalist meaning (see e.g. From "Near East" to "Western Asia": A Brief History of Archaeology and Colonialism). This resulted in an almost global change in namings for courses, classes, journals and institutions. This is not some sort of temporary trend that can be ignored because we are used to do things in our own (eurocentric) way. The problem was not the use of "Near East" in this context (although..) but the fact that the name change was somewhat diminished, joking around that we should call West asian "land in the middle" instead, because now it there is a habit of renaming things. I think it did not look good considering the daily efforts of all archaeologists, especially when coming from an international committee member and speaking through that platform. It could have been a nice space to discuss and raise even more awareness on this topic and even(!) start a discussion about the actual name of the conference, but instead it felt to me like a big missed opportunity. Secondly - to stick with the topic of sustainability, the organizing committee decided to not include meat during conference dinner, venue, lunches or coffee breaks. Independently from wether or not one eats meat, having a member of the committee saying that he suffered too for this decision without offering an understanding view on the decision itself felt like when one of your parent tells you one thing and the other goes against it and allows you to do otherwise.
- Exclusivity: while the topic of inclusivity was indeed discussed, what was obvious to everyone (I think) was that large conferences like this are still largely exclusive events. This was discussed a lot in the workshop I mentioned before, and the general steep prices for conference registration, plane/train tickets, visas (with to my knowledge no helping funds provided by the conference itself), means that not everyone can afford it. I don't remember where I read it, but someone said that we should start rethinking the model of these large and exclusive conferences, and maybe it's time we do.
The so-so #
- The mobile app In line with the sustainability theme, there was no printed program (usually each participant will get one) and the programme was instead hosted online and delivered also through a mobile app (CM Events - Link iOS app store). It was a bit weird at first but I appreciated the attempt to try something new and stick to the themes also on a practical level. It would be nice to see improvement on this (e.g. possibility to save some papers as favourites and add or link reminders to them, export the program for offline use, etc.). The really bad thing about the app was that it was not available worldwide, and many colleagues (especially outside Europe) were cut-off from using it because it was not available on their country store.
- Dispersion: this is common to every large conference, but this year I particularly felt there was too much going on and very little chance of following more than a couple of topics per day, due to the dispersed nature of the campus.
- Weird delivery of programme information: most of the programme was delivered through the mobile app (see above), however, workshops information were scattered around. In order to see a workshops talk schedule, you needed to open the mobile app (good), but in order to understand in which room you had to go, you needed to go on the conference website, download the workshop programme and then cross-check with the mobile programme. To be fair, all issues with the scattered information were solved throughout the conference, but it was still not a great experience at first.
In general, it was a good experience with some missed opportunities and some interesting ideas, and I hope some of these will be picked up from in the future ICAANE.
Last updated: 2023-06-18