There also were internal politics. At the opening session, it was announced that the University of Pretoria had released for public display at the Congress a selection of goldwork from Mapungubwe, including the gold rhinoceros hitherto concealed because of its clearly displayed African attainments. To outsiders, this was an unexpected and wonderful event, of which the WAC4 organizers can be very proud.
Other important political moves included lengthy and apparently fruitful public and private discussions between archaeologists of various southwest Asian (i.e., Middle Eastern) nations. Also significant was the immediate response by the South African minister (who also is chair of the World Commission on Dams) when his attention was drawn to the lack of impact surveys in a major dam planned for a north African country and to be financed by the World Bank.
Nobody mentioned Ayodhya and the fracas of WAC3 (see Antiquity, 1998, 72: 747-753), at least in public, and the plenary session was dominated by goodwill and compromise.
One reason for the particular balance of the participants was presumably timing. While the chance to get away from the northern winter must be attractive to many northern hemisphereans, getting away at the start of an academic semester isn't easy for everyone. For those who came, however, there were opportunities to meet and learn from an enormous range of people. In addition to the Brazilians, British, Canadians, Kenyans, South Africans, and Japanese, I even met some Australians I didn't know.
The intent was to establish a range of themes, and convenors would be encouraged to step forward to organize sessions and participants on topics within these themes. Bullied by convenors, participants were to send abstracts and papers to be placed on the conference website well before the congress, to enable registrants to read and download any of the papers. Indeed, it was hoped that many of the papers would be read in advance, so that the actual session could consist of as much discussion as presentation. In this way, a very large conference could become a set of smaller, tightly-focused workshops or seminars. The failure of this system involved both participants and the technology.
First, few convenors came forward to organize sessions--only six of the final 87 symposia were actually developed before the congress. Most of the papers were therefore grouped by the WAC4 organizers into sessions and allocated to convenors. Although there were enough papers for this to provide numerous coherent sessions, there were certain incongruities and many participants were unsure of which session they were in.
Second, as an organizer informed me, WAC policy is to accept all papers offered. Consequently, a very wide range of material had to be sorted into sessions.
Third, and perhaps most critical, few papers were actually prepared in advance and posted on the website by the due date, which was about two months before the start of the congress. In early January, just before leaving Sydney, I checked the offerings in 10 sessions and found that only 28 of 112 potential papers were available. Of these, nearly 50 percent (12) were in one session. One might well wonder how the organizers, academics themselves, overlooked the total inability of most academics, managers, and bureaucrats to complete anything before the absolutely last moment--in this case the day of their paper.
Finally, many participants found the congress website difficult to use. Downloading the papers was almost impossible, because it required a particular program which, although reputedly available for free, couldn't readily be accessed. WAC also must consider that not all potential participants have regular and easy access to the Web and archaeologists in many African countries, and perhaps in others, have to pay quite heavily to use it.
The real question is, however, whether this system was any worse than receiving a couple of tomes of papers upon arrival--most of which one doesn't want and has no time to read. Still, these tomes can be taken home to the library. While WAC4's website will remain open for most of this year, I doubt that many libraries will download the papers. Unfortunately, neither the participants nor the technology were quite up to the aspirations of the organizers.
There were 87 symposia listed in the final program, grouped into 14 themes, ranging from identity, nationalism, and local voices to analyzing materials. CHM, in a variety of voices, was featured quite strongly and there was a range of sessions on African archaeology, landscapes, historical archaeology, education, and the environment. It was difficult to keep track of the many changes. Only the sessions were timed, not the papers. There also were 24 workshops, mostly hands-on, smallish, and tightly organized, on subjects ranging from beads to Internet teaching.
As with most conferences, the content of symposia was very variable and, despite the organizers' good intentions, only a few avoided the paper-desultory question-paper-"sorry, no time for discussion, it's tea time" situation. Given the lack of properly convened sessions maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at this, but I didn't attend many useful public discussions. Sessions on disasters (do they matter?), early humanity (the sex strike struck again), and slums (what do they tell us we don't already know?) were good, and almost every session had some interesting work presented. But deep and meaningful discussions, at least in public fora, is not what conferences are about.
There were few posters. Those present were rather hard to find and no time was set aside to view them, so not many of us actually saw them. This was a pity because some were said to be quite interesting, and this medium is often better for presenting complicated material than a spoken paper.
By contrast, the African music arranged daily by the academic secretariat was outstanding and the organized drumming by all participants at the opening ceremony was a wonderful and uplifting experience. The conference dinner and dance saw most participants on the floor in a great get-together.
Officers of WAC are elected for the next four years by a council at each congress. The council consists of a representative from each country chosen by all its nationals at the congress. Most groups simply had a discussion, whereas the British needed a secret ballot and the Australians tossed a coin. Those elected were:
President Martin Hall (Cape Town)
Vice-President Fekri Hassan (London)
Secretary Lesley Sutty (Martinique)
Treasurer Robin Torrence (Sydney)
Newsletter editor Ian Lilley (Queensland).
J. Peter White is at the University of Sydney in Australia.