Tuesday 6 March 2012

Australia's GOA 2012: Science and Archaeology

I can't resist commenting on the multiple and ramified ironies that struck me the moment I saw today's announcement of the Australian Archaeological Association's (AAA) Call for Sessions for the 9-13 December 2012 annual conference at the University of Wollongong. Each year the AAA meetings focus on a theme. This year's is Science & Archaeology. That theme intersects my life and circumstances in so many ways I feel a little like one of those 'lovely assistants' at the magic show who steps into a box and the magician shoves swords through the box from every angle. The good news is that the 'assistant' is never harmed. Lucky for me! But I still feel the pinch of the swords, because the greatest irony is that I won't be there. And I should be.
     Science & Archaeology. Where should I start? Why not start at the beginning. I call myself a scientist. Yet, I chose to be a student of archaeology. And, as anybody knows, most of the world's so-called hard scientists laugh at the notion that archaeology could be anything but speculative fluff. They're wrong, of course. Nonetheless, as an archaeology undergraduate I was made aware of the wrenching efforts to 'scientize' archaeology. I was weaned on Binford, who, regardless of how you view him, was perhaps the greatest champion of a scientific archaeology.
     More than a little ironic, if you're talking about science, archaeology, and me, is that as a grad student at Berkeley, I was introduced to a philosophy of science that discredited Binford's (and Hempel's) positivism at the same time as it replaced the logical empiricist formulation of science with one that more closely resembles the way science is actually done. It's called Scientific Realism. And it has staked a very real claim as the pre-eminent philosophy of science for the 21st century. 
     Perhaps some day I'll bore you with a more extensive treatment of the clash of the two philosophies of science. For now, just know that in my 'Berkeley' period I had my faith in the scientific project validated and reinvigorated at the same time as I learned how profoundly mistaken was the so-called radical critique of science that is commonly associated with post-modernism. 
     With that history behind me, and knowing as you do that 2012 has meant a rebirth, of sorts, for me and for my commitment to science and archaeology, you can imagine how ironic it is that my one time national organization is holding a conference later this year on the subject of science and archaeology. It's true. I'm a lapsed member of the AAA. Six months after arriving in Australia I was at my first 'triple A' meeting, Adelaide '96. There, I found more irony. I was surprised and pleased to discover that my Ph.D. supervisor and mentor, Meg Conkey, had been invited to be the keynote speaker. It was like a homecoming, and more than a little comforting for me, the newest foreign transplant in the Australian academic community. I also re-connected with Jo Kaminga, who rarely attended the AAA, and whom I'd met in the field in B.C. while working with Brian Hayden, an old friend of Jo's, and who had been my 'patron' at Simon Fraser while I was a graduate student. Fairly ironic, I'd say. At that meeting my university was tapped to organize the '97 meeting, and as the new kid I was eventually asked to team with Wendy Beck to organize it. 
     The '97 meetings were held at the Boambee Bay Resort, at Toormina, near Coff's Harbour, on the east coast. I came to realize that the highway running up and down the Pacific Coast of Australia is designated Highway 1. And they call it the Pacific Highway. Those of you familiar with California's road system will immediately recognize the identity of the two roads, an ocean apart. I had lived in California for almost a decade before I emigrated to Australia. More irony.
     All up, I attended three triple As while in Australia. In 1998 it was held at Valla, an inexpensive resort on the east coast. It had been the site of a legendary meeting a decade or so earlier at which the, then, much younger and friskier Australian archaeological community had debauched for three days and three nights. Iain Davidson puts it this way: 'Indiscretion was the better part of Valla.'     
     Truly, I've led an 'interesting' life. That, in itself, is an irony, because much of the time I feel as if I'm cut off from the very people I want nothing more in the world than to be with, and to be accepted, and to feel as if I belong. There, I belonged. There I should be.
     Perhaps the biggest irony of all is my many-layered relationship with science and its use and abuse in archaeology. For example, anyone who reads the Subversive Archaeologist will know that its ethos is exposing the misuse and abuse of 'science' in archaeology. Would you call it irony or simply coincidence that this blog has blossomed in the early part of 2012, and that the theme of 2012's AAA conference is Science & Archaeology?
     More irony. You've heard me gnashing my teeth repeatedly over what I see as a systemic dating issue in the southern African MSA. When I looked to see the members of the AAA 2012 conference the first name on the list is that of Richard 'Bert' Roberts, who happens to be the geophysicist who presided over all those dates. If there is a 'systemic' problem with those dates, he's the nexus. No offense intended, Bert. Just ironic, is all.
     Is there a point to all this, Rob? Now that you mention it, yes. It only just occurred to me. With only a small change in the time-stream I'd be attending. And it would be my 16th triple A. Wouldn't it be ironic if a few brave souls scattered across the globe were to get together and propose a session for the 2012 triple A, and it promised to be so amusing and so full of just the insights the conference organizers had dreamed of, and on that basis they decided it would be appropriate to pay to bring them all to Wollongong for the week? Wouldn't that be ironic? I happen to think it would be magic!
     You should make plans to attend. You'll never regret it! 


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