SHA 2018 – The Winds of Change Felt in New Orleans 

By: April M. Beisaw

Is there a better way to start a new year than attending a Society for Historical Archaeology conference in New Orleans? Yes, but there are worse ways too. Traveling from New York to anywhere cold in January is asking for double trouble. I was all excited to be heading south but New Orleans greeted me with below freezing temperatures. That was so not fair!

My official conference duties were all on the first day of sessions, Thursday Jan 4th. I attended the morning session of “Postindustrial Landscapes, Communities, and Heritage” to serve as the pre-lunch discussant. Then I presented my own work in the late afternoon session. “Contested Narratives”. From 5:15pm Thursday on to Sunday morning, the rest of my conference was about seeing “old” colleagues, making new friends, and attending whatever presentations interested me.

What interests me right now is how historical archaeology is changing – and those changes were on display at this year’s SHA. There is a lot less talk about the distant past and a lot more talk about living communities. There are fewer graphs of artifact counts and images of soil stains and more photos of people. There are more sessions on the politics outside of archaeology and even some sessions on discrimination and harassment within archaeology. These changes suggest we are in the midst of a transition that we could call New Archaeology, if that name was not already taken.

This was my 11th or 12th SHA so I was not hopping from one paper to the next. That strategy only leads to frustrations about who spoke too early, too late, or too long. Instead I pick out portions of sessions and sit for a few papers, live tweeting them all to help me focus and to help boost the signal of those who are doing work that interests me. Here are some highlights regarding what I think might interest you.

There was one paper at SHA2018 with “queer” in the title. Just one. Coincidentally it was a paper in the Contested Narratives session that I also presented in. Angela McComb and Nathan Klembara presented “Blood, Sweat and Queers: Roller Derby and Queer Heritage” as the last paper – scheduled for 4:45pm. That late spot is always challenging because audience members are already thinking about happy hour and planning for dinner. Angela also got a late start, close to 5pm, because the previous speaker went well over his allotted time. But neither the call of happy hour nor the delay of a selfish speaker seemed to harm this presentation. As soon as Angela stepped up to the podium the room filled to capacity.

There were 20 other papers with “gender” in the title or abstract, including another from the “Contested Narratives” session. Laura Galke presented “Balls, Cocks, and Coquettes: The Dissonance of Washington’s Youth”. This was a fun paper about the overly masculine view of George Washington that is not supported by archaeological investigation. Clearly the Contested Narratives session was the place to be, and I haven’t even mentioned my paper yet.

To give some love to other sessions I’ll tell you about the session “Schoolhouse Rock! 400 Years of Race, Gender, and Class in Boston Area Educational Institutions”. Most of the papers I saw were about the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. If you are interested in how gender is taught and enforced, the history of educational systems is amazingly fascinating. Restrictions on clothing, hair styles, jewelry, and toys reflected subjects taught and gender-specific employment opportunities that children were prepared for.

I skipped the earlier part of Schoolhouse Rock to attend the discussion forum “Confronting Structural Racism and Historical Archaeology”. While I am happy that the SHA provided space and time for such a forum, it was plagued by the usual problem – losing site of the big picture. Questions to or answers from the panel seemed to get lost in the specifics of someone’s own project. I don’t think lobbying Congress for new cemetery protections is what anyone came to that forum to hear about. That said, there were many archaeologists of diverse backgrounds and interests in that room. I think we need to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity that exists in our field, here and now, and do what we can to ensure that we all thrive and inspire more diversity to follow. That includes making it easier for archaeologists to meet each other, having more unstructured discussions like roundtable lunches, and ensuring that cite and celebrate those who are doing innovative work – not just the same old guard.

Outside of session rooms is where the real conferencing happens and at SHA2018 I had amazing conversations about the problems and possibilities that exist in our field. I listened to the frustrations of graduate students from my alma mater and gave them what insights I could from my experiences there. I recorded an episode of the Women in Archaeology podcast. I updated some colleagues on unfortunate events that took place at the 2016 Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference*. I got a group of archaeologists to go on a ghost walking tour of New Orleans. I joined friends for the Joan of Arc parade.

Conferences are an important part of building a career in archaeology. At this year’s SHA conference, I saw change taking hold. I hope historical archaeology becomes a career for those who can use the past to help redefine what is possible in the future. I am happy to help make that happen.

*A certain graduate program had chosen to advertise to SAA attendees using “risqué” (the program’s words) fortune cookies. How that was/was not dealt with by those involved says a lot about the work we have yet to do to ensure archaeology is a welcoming and harassment-free profession.

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