Friday, May 8, 2015

Reflections on the Quantitative Methods and Computer Applications in Archaeology conference

The CAA conference was interesting, and I’m glad I went. I would have had more fun if I had figured out that they were serving lunch to everyone. I only noticed that the last day, and even on that occasion I missed the food because I stopped to chat with a graduate student. It was during the one (foodless) lunch I attended that I ran into a couple of people I know. If I had known they were there, I would have enjoyed the conference more because I would have had friends to hang out with. As it was, the conferees were mainly Europeans. Few Americans attended. It’s natural that geographic proximity would influence turnout, if only for economic reasons—my airline tickets were quite expensive—but it made the conference feel a little parochial, Roman this, Roman that.

The conference also felt a little narrow intellectually. I am probably only projecting my preferences—or prejudices—but the conference was heavy on GIS, and light by comparison on everything else. A lot of the papers and posters seem to me to be saying, “Hey, look at the cool, whizz-bang thing I can do with GIS!” I have nothing against GIS; on the contrary, I think GIS is crucial in archaeology. Because most of our data have a fundamental, primordial spatial component, GIS is the natural way for us to store, retrieve, analyze, visualize, and report our data. My own paper described research that we mostly performed within a GIS environment. Our research also would have been extraordinarily difficult to do in any other way. That said, I still think that GIS is basically a tool rather than an end in itself. Yet I came away with the impression that more than a few papers focused on showing the researchers’ technical mastery of GIS than actually contributing something substantively original. Sometimes I found myself saying, sotto voce, “It’s great that you can do that in GIS, but why would you? It’s so difficult and idiosyncratic that’s it’s not of broad interest.”

I hope in the future that the CAA gives at least a little more weight to Quantitative Methods and even non-GIS Computer Applications. I’m not blaming the organizers, who must content themselves with the papers that are submitted, and therefore do not have total control over their own agenda. But perhaps more could be done to encourage a broader range of contributions.

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