I recently attended my 17th TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) conference in 21 years. TAG2014 – the 36th annual TAG conference – was hosted by the archaeologists at the University of Manchester.
As soon as I checked into my hotel, I headed for the registration desk in the foyer of the Mansfield Cooper building (home to the University’s archaeologists). On receipt, I decided to immediately jettison much of the conference pack so as not to be lumbered with unnecessary rubbish. Instead I retained only the bag, abstracts, notepad, pen and a few trinkets including a souvenir bottle-opener. This immediately created a conundrum for me and material culture: do I dump the tat in the bin? No! That would be a waste. Should I hand it back to the hard-working volunteers? No! That would look rude and they might single me out for assassination during the duration of the conference. I left a random pile of stuff on a table and ran away… Ok, a bit sad I appreciate. But you know? It worked! For the rest of the conference, I travelled light! I only found the bookshops on the last day and only purchased one book, so it was a relatively cheap expedition for me this year and not much to lug around!
There were two-and-a-half days of sessions during which I attended 4 sessions from start to finish:
- The Everyday Assemblage: Routine and The Ordinary in Archaeology, organised by Helen Chittock and Mhairi Maxwell
- Stoking the Flames: Towards an Archaeology of Fire, organised by Lauren Doughton, Ellen McInnes and Rhiannon Pettit
- Ok Computer? Digital Public Archaeologies in Practice, organised by Seren Griffiths, Lorna Richardson, Chiara Bonacchi and Gabriel Moshenska
- Is it just fortune and glory? The Social Impact of Archaeology, organised by Dean Paton.
As I will discuss in a subsequent blog, I presented research papers in both the Stoking the Flames and Ok Computer? sessions. I spent the last half-day talking with archaeologists from the morning session rather than go into another session: TAG is all about discussion and debate, whether in or out of sessions.
I also attended the annual Antiquity Lecture: a plenary in two parts entitled Undisciplined Realities: Mutually Informed Uses of Ethnography, History, and Archaeology, presented by Australian archaeologists Lynette Russell and Ian J. McNiven.
Social events took a typical established TAG form. I attended the wine reception after the Antiquity lecture, hosted by Manchester museum (surrounded by wonderful dinosaur fossils). The following evening was the Antiquity quiz (which I skipped) and the TAG party at the Student’s Union. The latter involved lots of shouting over loud music, drinking beer and (for me) c. 7 minutes of attempted dancing (not a pretty sight). There was also two curry experiences associated with the two evenings at the conference, both involving civilized conversation and tasty grub.
If I was going to offer a conference report, I would point out that this was a well-organised event and the student volunteers were ace. I would have to mention inevitable shortcomings that I have experienced in previous years at past TAGs, including the ineffectiveness for lectures of small university teaching rooms (my Uni included). The plenary lectures were fascinating but far from revolutionary (as at TAG in Bournemouth) and made worse by a lack of Q&A. This last factor was a major disappointment and prevented wider issues and debates being explored. The conference sessions and papers were variable in quality and coherence as usual, but that is not a problem in itself since often sessions don’t ‘work out’ as intended but contain great individual papers. There were some hilarious bloopers with regard to style and parameters of topics presented by individual speakers, for which session organisers are NOT responsible! There were also examples of atrocious timing and session chairing: I attended a self-chaired introduction paper that lasted over 50 minutes, for crying out loud (TAG papers were 15 minutes this year plus questions, although I think I strayed over this on both of mine).
Having said that, I thought that the sessions I attended all included fascinating gems in terms of papers presented and broader discussions and the lectures were of high quality overall. In terms of my experience, positive developments included break-out discussions sessions for the audience in the Everyday Assemblage session, a pairing of discussants to the Ok Computer session, some frank debates in the Social Impact session and for overall academic quality and originality I would flag up Stoking the Flames (but then again this is my dream session theme!).
As usual, the best thing about TAG is meeting old friends and colleagues and meeting new ones and the Manchester TAG involved plenty of both for me. Conversations are never superficial and bland; I had many debates and discussions in sessions, walking around between sessions, in pubs, in curry houses and walking in torrential rain. TAG drives me crazy in so many ways and yet it renews my faith in archaeology in so many ways. Congratulations and thanks to all the organisers of the Manchester TAG: a job well done. TAG remains a vibrant and important multi-period themed archaeological conference with hard-core theory in evidence but as only one of its many merits and dimensions.
TAG next year is in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I might well be there!