Along with about four hundred colleagues, I was at the Theoretical Archeology Group conference in Chester towards the end of last month. This is a yearly happening, Chester was the 40th, which I have blogged about before. The conference functions as both a leading forum for intense academic debate and as the discipline’s Christmas do. Given the timing at the start of the Christmas break, I normally tend to treat TAG as primarily a social occasion (a bit like my son’s attitude to school, can’t think where he gets it from). This year, however, I had a book to plug. Neolithic Cave Burials: agency, structure and environment is due out early in 2019 with Manchester University Press and so I felt I should make more of an effort in the academic sessions.
When the call for papers came out in September I thought it would be a really great idea to do two papers in two different sessions based on different chapters of the book. I did not feel so enthusiastic about doing this at the beginning of December, when the actual papers had to be written, Still, it’s all sorted out now.
Here am I on the first afternoon of the conference, talking about what cave burials can tell us about how and why the Neolithic began (photo by Caradoc Peters). This was part of the excellent Rethinking Transitions session organised by two UCLan PhD students, Nate and Rob, looking at how we identify transitions between periods and how we deal with the archaeology that crosses these boundaries. Rob and Nate had put together an excellent mix of speakers covering everything from the African Midde Stone Age to post-Roman Spain, including UCLan and Sheltering Memory alumnus Mike, now a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, talking about the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition in Northumberland.
Tuesday, the second day of the conference, was the only day when I wasn’t giving a paper, so I was free to go along and listen to the brilliant Haunt this Place session, which I’m going to blog about next week because it set of whole chains of ideas in my head. After all that excitement I’m afraid I have nothing to report about Tuesday afternoon because at that point my old bad habits kicked in and I went to explore the Christmas market on Northgate Street instead of doing any work.
On Tuesday night it was the obligatory TAG party. For many years the resident DJ at these things was the late great Sara Champion. When I was a PhD student in Southampton, Sara was a leading light in the regular Friday night alchotherapy sessions (a semi official staff/student pub-crawl/bonding session). These always seemed to end in intense musical discussions, often involving supercilious incredulity from us gobshite students that her son’s band of Radiohead impersonators would ever get themselves a record deal. In this, as with much else, Sara had the last laugh. After Sara’s death the TAG party seemed to lose its way musically for a while, a sequence of ill-advised live bands was only relieved by Will Champion bringing his mum’s old record boxes out of retirement at Southampton TAG. However, since last year’s event in Cardiff, the mantle has been brilliantly taken up by John Schofield – archaeology professor, also York based DJ and John Peel looky-likey. The person doing frankly inappropriate Morrissey-with-a-bunch-of-gladioli style dancing to Another Girl, Another Planet may have been me.
In recognition of the fact that Tuesday night was party night, sessions on Wednesday morning started at 9.30. I missed this fact in the programme and so was sitting in the venue for my second session at 9.00 vaguely wondering where everyone else was. Paper number two was part of a session organised by Andy Gardner, Manuel Fernández-Götz and Guillermo Díaz de Liaño on ‘Flat Ontologies’. A flat ontology, just in case you aren’t completely up to speed with this sort of thing, is any description of the world which treats people, objects and the environment as equally capable of doing stuff. This is something of an enthusiasm of mine. I’ve blogged before (here, here and oh look, here too) about how it is not just the people carrying out the burials which create cave rituals but also the decomposition of the bodies and the geochemical processes in the caves. I’ve also devoted a lot of the new book to this argument so it was good to have such a ready-made forum to try out a very condensed (12 minutes plus questions!) version of it.