Students in archaeology

Me giving the closing address for the 2nd ASA conference (Image Copyright: Heidi Babos)

Me giving the closing address for the 2nd ASA conference (Image Copyright: Heidi Babos)

Hello, I am David Altoft, currently an MSc Bioarchaeology student at the University of York. My contribution to the Day of Archaeology last year was titled ‘Anyone can be an archaeologist!’ (www.dayofarchaeology.com/anyone-can-be-an-archaeologist). The opening paragraph summarised well my belief that archaeology needs to be more permeable to participation and sharing of ideas from an integrated audience of different demographics.

The ‘demographic’ I belong to is archaeology students. Last year I reported on the development of the student-run archaeology journal, The Post Hole (www.theposthole.org), and the Annual Student Archaeology (ASA) conference series (www.asaconference.org.uk), that I was Editor-in-Chief and founder of, respectively, in 2012-13. These two initiatives offer archaeology students an unprecedented opportunity to share their innovative research and original ideas in two accessible and increasingly respected platforms.

The Post Hole has been shortlisted for the biennial British Archaeological Award (www.archaeologicalawards.org.uk) for the Best Public Presentation of Archaeology and I will attend the awards ceremony at the British Museum with Emily Taylor and Rianca Vogels, the 2013-14 Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor, on Monday to find out whether or not The Post Hole has won. I will be delighted even if it doesn’t win, because by being shortlisted, The Post Hole has been given recognition for the positive impact it has made for opening the discipline of archaeology and proving that students can be as responsible as any other demographic for the production of great archaeology.

Annual Student Archaeology conference
The Annual Student Archaeology conference has made huge strides since last year. Following the 1st ASA conference I co-organised with other students at the University of York, I established the ASA National Committee which comprises of student representatives, currently from the Universities of Bournemouth, Cambridge, Durham, Southampton, and me at York. Together we have promoted the conference series to fellow students at our respective universities and discussed the future overall direction of ASA. In January this year we received bids from groups of students at four universities in the UK to host the 2nd ASA conference and we selected the University of Reading as the Organising Committee responsible for this challenge.

The 2nd ASA conference was held at the Department of Archaeology in Reading on 19-20 June and attracted undergraduates and postgraduates from not only across the UK, but also from other countries: Brazil, Germany, India, Italy, Poland and Switzerland! This has reinforced my growing realisation that an ‘integrated archaeology’ is permeable across borders as well as demographics. ASA helps break down this geographic barrier to student participation in archaeology by issuing a call for posters to those who cannot attend the conferences in the UK, and this year’s Organising Committee received poster abstracts from students in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States, amongst other countries.

ASA2 delegates networking with the IfA

ASA2 delegates networking with the IfA

ASA2 delegates networking with the Royal Archaeological Institute

ASA2 delegates networking with the Royal Archaeological Institute

The third main barrier ASA is trying to remove for student participation in archaeology conferences is thematic and practical specialisation. Archaeology is perhaps the most diverse discipline there is, as it is essentially the anything, everything and anytime study of the past. Understandably, conferences require having a scope, though many students may be unsure which one to approach to present their own work. ASA tries to be the opposite of most conferences and so the Organising Committee has the task each year of selecting the best papers from students across the discipline and then defining the sessions from those. It is difficult accommodating different fields of research and being engaging to all delegates of the ASA conferences, though I think the team at Reading achieved that balance by splitting the programme for the first ten sessions in two and having the eleventh and most universal session, ‘Issues and Debates’, attended by all delegates.

TAG session proposal
The truth of the matter is that we won’t ever achieve a completely ‘integrated archaeology’ as we all have our own interests that cause us to be involved in this discipline in the first place; however, there certainly is a lot more we can all do to ensure archaeology is at least a more integrated discipline.

For my part, I am currently finalising a session proposal to submit to the organisers of this year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. Whilst ASA is doing a great job of encouraging students to share their own work and ideas with the discipline, I would like to do almost the opposite and use another existing platform to ask the discipline as a whole how it currently interacts with students and what it could perhaps do to better integrate with this demographic.

It’s fantastic that there is growing consensus across the discipline that we need to better understand and interact with the public ‘outside’ the discipline and with practitioners between the academic and non-academic sectors of the discipline, but what about students in between all these groups? Are students the too often overlooked demographic of archaeology?

I hope that my proposal for a session on understanding of and engagement with students will be accepted for TAG 2014, and a subsequent call for papers can obtain the perspectives of an integrated audience from the different sectors of the discipline. Keep an eye out for any news via my Twitter profile, @DavidAltoft.

The future of ASA
So what else have I been doing lately? On Wednesday, I and fellow representatives on the ASA National Committee ratified a constitution for the conference series. Like The Post Hole, ASA benefits from being entirely run by students as this leads to a rapid turn-over of participants, and with them, fresh ideas. However, that also creates problems. I have been working behind the scenes for ASA for almost two years, whether it’s been by rallying support for ASA on its Facebook and Twitter pages, creating it’s by-now emblematic stripy red banners, or sending hundreds of emails to universities and academic and student societies. I’ve had a mad love for ASA to thrive; however, I won’t be a student forever (as soon as September, if I don’t secure a funded PhD – hint, hint, universities and funding bodies!) and so this constitution serves as a framework of knowledge from previous trial-and-error to guide future Organising and National Committees.

Southampton representative, Alistair Galt, handing out questionnaires at ASA2

Southampton representative, Alistair Galt, handing out questionnaires at ASA2

Following lots of discussion with the rest of the National Committee, applications have been opened today for students at universities across the UK to bid to host the 1st ASA conference in June 2015 and apply to join the National Committee for 2014-15. For the former opportunity, we have designed an application form, available now at www.asaconference.org.uk/get-involved. For the latter opportunity, we have emailed the Heads of all UK university archaeology departments to encourage them to consider having elections in their departments for students to democratically elect representatives onto the National Committee at the start of the coming academic year.

Students wishing to join the National Committee at universities that haven’t held elections by 7 October will be offered a second chance by sending brief statements of interest for the consideration of the retiring National Committee during 8-27 October. The new National Committee and Organising Committee (and thereby host of ASA3) will be announced on 28 October at www.facebook.com/ASAconference and www.twitter.com/ASAconference.

My Masters and future
Like last year, I’m not writing much about what I do for my degree. That’s not because it isn’t the most important thing I spend my time on and interesting at all; it’s just something I’m sure any current or previous student reading this will already know about and identity with – lots of reading and writing!

I am currently working on my dissertation, the final element of my Masters in Bioarchaeology, before I hopefully graduate in September. I have written the chapters introducing my research and reviewing the existing literature, and am balancing that with the lab work that is generating the results I will also write on. My research is the biomolecular analysis of food residues absorbed and preserved within ceramic vessels from the Early Neolithic in western Russia, firstly, to find out whether I can find any traces of their original contents, and if so, secondly, to determine what they are to infer something of cuisine during the Neolithicisation of that region.

Hopefully, if I contribute to the Day of Archaeology again next year, I will be doing so as a PhD student. It is an uncertain time for me as I pursue funding and the best possible environment for me to be one, though far from being a distraction as some people understandably worry, my involvement with initiatives like ASA and The Post Hole hopefully prove that I am passionate about archaeology and have more to mutually give to and gain from it – especially with my now much improved time management skills!