World Archaeological Congress at 30

Posted on October 14, 2016


A boycott of archaeologists! Literally, the World Archaeological Congress, the major organisation for bringing archaeologists together, was created out of an act of exclude other archaeologists. Here is brief excerpt of the history of WAC from Joan Gero that explains it:

“An international forum for archaeological research was first organized in 1931 with the founding of the International Union of Pre- and Proto-Historic Sciences (IUPPS). Archaeology was largely restricted (at the time) to Europe and to other small pockets of the developed world, and the IUPPS was — and continued to be — run by and for Western European intellectuals. In fact, all but one of its conferences has been held in a major European city; its conferences are organized around European perceptions of world-wide archaeology; and Europeans dominate its policy-making bodies. Although the IUPPS was the only organization with an international responsibility for archaeology, other organizations like the Pan-African Congress and the International Congress of Americanisms arose with time to compensate for the IUPPS’ geographic bias.

It is not surprising, then, that IUPPS planned its 11th International Congress for Southhampton, England to take place in September 1986. But it was quite a sensation when the local labor-dominated city government of Southampton announced, late in 1985, that it would withhold promised financial support for IUPPS unless the IUPPS disallowed South African and Namibian delegates to participate. Against a backdrop of growing violence in South Africa, and in light of the United Nations cultural and academic bans against Botha’s apartheid regime, local Southampton conference organizers upheld the city’s decision to ban South African participants from the event. Partly, they argued, the entire conference would collapse financially if they didn’t go along with the city ruling, but also, they insisted, this was a moral issue, and it was time for archaeology to recognize its potential for contributing to change in the present. IUPPS responded with outrage, framing the issue as one of academic freedom: “the conference had to be open to all bona fide archaeologists and related scientists with no distinction of race, country or philosophical persuasion” (Clark 1989:214). The Society for American Archaeology Executive Committee issued a December 1985 statement to all its members that “the SAA upheld, and will continue to uphold, the principles of freedom of research and the freedom of scholars from all nations to meet and exchange ideas” (cited in Hodder 1986:113-4).

In January 1986, after negotiations had made it clear that no middle ground would be accepted, the IUPPS Secretary-General and its International Executive Committee met in Paris and disavowed the Southampton conference. Most of the IUPPS British Committee resigned further involvement in the congress, and the media had a heyday. Outraged headlines (not only in Science and the Times Literary Supplement, but also in Newsweek) pitched the battle between academic freedom and the free practice of science on one hand, and apartheid politics on the other. All but a handful of North American archaeologists withdrew papers and canceled their participation, and the entire Israeli delegation withdrew, but there was a flood of support from the Eastern European block, Africa, India and South America.

It is important to stress that the North American boycott of the Southampton conference can’t be seen as a simple litmus test of righteous positions. Some North Americans who defied the boycott and went to Southampton were substantially ignorant of the events that had transpired between the city of Southampton and IUPPS, or they were aware of what had transpired but figured it just didn’t matter that much one way or the other… while other North Americans attended precisely because they embraced the strong-minded political agenda represented by the Southampton City Council. By the same token, reasons for NOT attending WAC-1 ranged widely, including an informed indignation on the parts of some North American archaeologists who had worked in South Africa and recognized that their excluded South African colleagues were among the most active and vociferous opponents to the apartheid regime. Other North Americans pointed to allegedly arbitrary and inconsistent criteria in banning South Africans but not participants from other countries whose politics were also thought abhorrent. Others said that banning archaeologists, as opposed to athletes, simply lacked the clout to make this a meaningful action. Anger, rancor, confusion and dismay were all apparent.

Still, the National Secretary of the Congress, Peter Ucko, insisted on moving ahead with a newly reorganized meeting under the name the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), no longer linked with the IUPPS….”

That was thirty years ago and things have changed a bit since then – for one, IUPPS and WAC now get along. To acknowledge this at the last WAC conference held in Kyoto a plenary was held. It was an interesting format, representatives of other societies talked, including the president of IUPPS. I video recorded the presentations if you would like to see what was said about WAC 30 years after it was created out of an act of boycotting.

Koji Mizoguchi

Mónica Berón

Jean Bourgeois

Diane Gifford Gonzalez

Catherine Frieman

Glenn Summerhayes

Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu

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