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World Archaeological Congress 4:
A Personal View

J. Peter White

The World Archaeological Congress 4 (WAC4) was held at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, January 10-14, 1999. I preface this report with two cautionary statements. First, while parts of this report may seem critical, overall WAC4 must be assessed as a great success. Large academic conferences are rarely the best place to engage in strenuous, in-depth analyses, but rather are occasions for meetings, new perspectives, and a shake-up of one's narrow views. Martin Hall and his wonderful staff of organizers certainly allowed, indeed encouraged, this to happen. Second, this report is partial in both senses. I am more interested in archaeological research than I am in the administration of Cultural Heritage Management (CHM), so that's what I went to hear. However, I have since asked a number of colleagues of their impressions, and have tried to modify my own in the light of these. I have divided this report into seven sections, so as to cover the major aspects of the conference.


WAC has always been political. It was formed in 1985 as a breakaway from the UNESCO-supported but traditional and Eurocentric Union of International Pre- and Proto-Historic Sciences (UISPP). Its first congress (in 1986) banned all South Africans, as individuals, from attending, meant as a sanction against apartheid. To have WAC4 in Cape Town was therefore highly symbolic of the turnaround in South Africa's political structure. Two measures of this were the attendance of Kader Asmal, the national minister for water affairs and forestry, at the opening session (representing the Congress Patron, President Nelson Mandela) and that one-fifth of those attending were South Africans. Asmal's speech noted the importance of the original ban in the campaign against apartheid.

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.


WAC4 was a spectacularly international conference, with more than 700 participants from nearly 70 countries. The greatest representation came from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, each providing about 20 percent of attendees. At least 12 African countries were represented. Participants included many representatives from indigenous nations who held two days of their own highly successful meetings. Only South Africa had a strong student contingent, although a small group of Uruguayans contributed to the vivacity.

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.

Academic Organization

WAC4 was, I believe, the first large-scale archaeological conference to attempt to use the World Wide Web as a central part of its structure. There are lessons to be learned from this attempt, which, despite much effort by the organizers, didn't work very well.

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.


Archaeology at WAC4 was divided into three main groups: keynote addresses, symposia/workshops, and posters. Keynotes included (1) a session on current South African archaeology, in which six speakers spoke to the range of research and teaching in the "new" South Africa. Coming at the start of the congress, this gave the foreigners a good idea of the current scene; (2) a lecture by Ron Clarke and his African colleagues on the recently discovered Australopithecine skeleton, hopefully nearly complete and certainly of considerable antiquity, from Sterkfontein; (3) three concurrent lectures on a range of topics on each of the three main afternoons. Highlights here included memorial lectures on the life and works of the late WAC president Bassey Andah and Glynn Isaac.

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.


While the academic, political, and personal side of WAC4 was good, sometimes brilliant, the logistical support can only be described as poor. Provided by two "professional" conference and tour companies (who charged highly for their services), there were botched airport transfers, accommodation crises, tours abandoned at the last minute, misinformation, and incompetent financial administration. Almost everyone had a complaint of some kind, despite the friendliness of the staffs on the ground.

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.

The Future

One surprise at the opening ceremony was the deputy director general of UNESCO, who spoke encouragingly of future cooperation with WAC. UNESCO also supported an education workshop on Robben Island, the former political prison, on the day after the congress. There was some mention of WAC even becoming a nongovernmental organization, thus making it eligible for money towards future congresses. One major problem for WAC is that each congress must raise its own finances, which includes considerable support for indigenous participants, archaeologists, and heritage managers from developing countries. This puts an immense burden on each congress' organizing committee, and one that the WAC organization itself cannot help with--it only has 400 members worldwide, who pay a maximum of US $20 a year. But whether WAC wishes to give up its current independent status is something the new officers will have to grapple with.

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).


The most important thing about WAC is that it really is close to a world congress. It includes not just archaeologists but the entire range of people concerned with the material remains of the past. It is conducted almost entirely in English--although if the São Paulo bid for WAC5 succeeds that will clearly change! WAC4 was my first WAC congress and I encountered a range of wonderfully interesting colleagues. I'm already looking forward to WAC5.

J. Peter White is at the University of Sydney in Australia.

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