Connected Pasts workshop

Thoughts from Connected Pasts 2014 workshop and meeting

This week I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Connected Pasts workshop and meeting in London, learning about network and complexity science and its application to archaeology and the past. The two days consisted of a three hour workshop introducing and exploring one of a number software packages which can be used to analyse networks on Monday morning, followed by talks and key note speeches on Monday afternoon and through Tuesday (full program and abstracts here). The conference was held at Imperial College London, and organised locally by Tim Evans of Imperial, with Tom Brughmans of Konstanz from the wider advisory committee.

The conference was billed as multidisciplinary (within the scope of the past), and largely lived up to that; I chatted to computer scientists, geographers, statisticians, classicists and lots of physicists and archaeologists. It also attracted an international group of speakers and attendees, largely from Central and Western Europe, though with some North Americans as well. It also attracted a predominantly young audience (well, for archaeology at least – but that’s a separate post!), which appeared to be dominated by PhD students and post-docs. All of these factors lead to a really engaging, open group of people which made the conference very enjoyable. Unlike some of the bigger archaeology conferences, people were very interested to talk to everyone, and mixed freely, which lead to some very interesting lunch and coffee conversations.

The workshop was excellent; as you can see from my awkward image above we were coaxed through an introductory tutorial on Cytoscape, one of the free to use software packages available for network analysis, until we were able to produce our own network visualisations from a set of Tom’s data. Getting practical experience manipulating the visualisations and generating summary statistics on the networks was very engaging, and immediately filled my head with excited thoughts about what data I had which might be examined using these techniques.

However a number of the papers later in the first day were quite challenging in their use of archaeological datasets. In particular one of the papers used a network which was based on the transmission of ‘ideas, iconographies, models’ between urban centres as a way of generating archaeologically meaningful interpretations of ‘cultural transmission’. Now, as an archaeologist this immediately makes me uncomfortable as the whole idea of diffusion/acculturation/creolisation/’romanisation’ or to put it simply, the way people and cultures interact and change each other, is a really big debate. It isn’t as simple as ‘x culture adopts y culture’, there’s always transfer both ways and sometimes new cultures occur which attach entirely new meanings to the objects we might associated with x or y.

Consequently the idea that you could just say ‘this idea moved from this town to this town in this direction’ seems a substantial simplification of a complex archaeological concept, and at the least needs heavy contextualisation and an established theoretical basis. For example, if the idea is ‘lets build hypocausts’ how do you say what a hypocaust really means? The appearance of hypocausts might mean the appearance of Romans, a fashion for Roman things, a change in the climate, or the appearance of a hypocaust builder to name just a few. I suspect that contextualisation may have been in the original work, though not in the paper as presented due to the network science focus, but it’d be interesting to see what the justification behind the data choices was.

Thinking about Roman/non-Roman contact made me a little concerned about using network analysis for dealing with cultural change after conquest or contact. From what I learned at the workshop, network analysis is built around nodes (e.g. buildings, sites, regions) and arcs between them (e.g. roads, movement of goods), and the fundamental unit is a pair of nodes. This emphasis on pairs and a directional relationship between them (at least in most of the papers on this I saw) seems to lead to a natural emphasis on polarity and unidirectional cultural transfer, which are ideas we’re trying to drag ourselves away from in the archaeology of the Roman period.

I wonder if non-directional links between nodes might alleviate some of the misgivings I have with the network analysis of ‘cultural’ contact between cities or states. A non-directional link would create space for the interaction between the two cultures to involve more than just ‘x culture adopts this from y culture’ inherent in the directional links and which seems like a simplification too far, leaving out much of the rich human context we’re trying to get to. The underlying archaeological theory indicates that when cultures interact the communication and adoption goes both ways even when one culture has substantial power over another, so it would make sense to give this space within the network analysis.I don’t know how this would change the outcomes, but it would stop the analysis technique from clashing at a fundamental paradigmatic level with much of the archaeological theory around cultural interaction in the Roman period at least. I need to find some network scientists I tie down long enough to explain all this to, and get their opinions!

 

Hopefully many of the slides from the two days will be up on figshare at some point, and I will put together a Storify of the tweets from the conference when I have recovered from the 5:45am mornings! Beyond those above, there were a number of other really interesting points raised at the meeting which hopefully I will put together into a conference review soon, probably for PIA or possibly The Crucible (HMSnews), or even a few more blog posts. But the one thing that I took home from the conference was that network and complexity analysis is definitely happening in archaeology, and it may just become a very important part of the analytical toolbox.

Upcoming Conference, Connected Pasts London 2014

Last month I finished the last major chapter of my PhD. Last year work was slow for a number of personal reasons which made me very, very glad I switched to part-time. This situation also meant I presented at and attended few conferences, which looking back on was a real shame. I really enjoy academic or disciplinary meetings, as they can be so inspiring, even when the subject is only vaguely related to my current work. Hearing what other people are doing and in particular how they are doing it or expressing it really gets my brain going.

However since Spring this year progress on my PhD has been really steady and satisfying, and I’m now working on revisions. To celebrate I’m off to the Connected Pasts Conference 2014 in London. I’ve not been to this conference before but I was really intrigued by it’s interdisciplinary approach, which brings together scientists and archaeologists undertaking network and complexity studies on archaeological data. I’ve not a huge amount of experience with network studies, but as you can probably tell from these posts I do love exploring large bodies or archaeological data. Although there’s been no confirmation yet, there’s talk of a workshop introducing techniques for this sort of analysis prior to the conference, which I’m really interested in attending. I really want to get to grips with other ways of looking at patterns and fluctuations in data over space and time, so hopefully this conference will give me an introduction to what’s possible in network analysis.

Given the time I hope to either live tweet the conference as is my usual habit (see my twitter account @RuthFT for tweets on the day or search twitter for tweets bearing the conference hashtag #tcp2014), and write up a conference review either for this site for PIA (the Institute postgraduate journal) or another journal. It’ll be odd to be back at Imperial where I first went to University after so many years, but I’m looking forwards to it. I believe there are still tickets (and very cheap they are too) available on the Eventbrite website if you’re interested.

8th Experimental Archaeology Conference, 2014

Once again things have been quiet here during the end of 2013 as I’ve been working on supporting colleagues in Oxford who are producing the 8th edition of the UK Experimental Archaeology Conference. I think it went very well, with the organisers Christophe Snoeck & Chelsea Budd doing a great job and Merton College providing an excellent venue.

If you’re interested in what the conference is about, check out the programme over at the conference website and archive, which I created back in 2012 and manage today. It’s a thoroughly interdisciplinary meeting with academics, craftspeople and experimenters from all over western Europe. I’ve met some great people over the last few years and I absolutely love attending every year. The atmosphere is very inclusive and open, and if you do any experimental work I’d encourage you to attend. The organisers usually make every effort to fit in as many papers as they can, and there’s traditionally at least one afternoon of demonstrations by experienced crafts people of experimenters.

Miljana Leuven town hall

International Symposium on Archaeometry 2012, Leuven Belgium

The International Symposium on Archaeometry (ISA) is a week-long conference that’s held biennially. It’s the big conference for archaeologists who use scientific techniques to generate data on archaeological sites, objects or issues. This year it was in Leuven, Belgium, and I was extremely pleased to win funding from the UCL Graduate School and the Institute of Archaeology to attend.

I was presenting a poster on my work on the Roman period iron production debris from the Clatworthy site in Exmoor region of the UK. I also did my best to live-tweet the conference papers, which quickly snow-balled into a very large number of tweets and discussions on twitter. I’ve organised these using Storify, and you can find them by day below:

This was the first ISA where the organisers utilised Twitter, and although I didn’t manage to find anyone else actively tweeting the conference I think that there was a slow but generally positive move towards relying more on digital technology. There was even talk of not producing physical copies of the gigantic (400+ pages) conference programme next time!

ISA 2012 Leuven (Day 3 – Biomaterials and Bioarchaeology)

  1. I’m currently at the 39th International Symposium on Archaeometry in Leuven, Belgium, where I have a poster to present. I’ll be writing a proper conference review when I return, but in the mean time I’ll be making informal collections of the tweets and discussing the conference here on a daily basis. There are also collections from Monday (Stone, Plaster, Pigments, Chronologies) and Tuesday (Metals and Metallurgical Ceramics) if you’re interested in earlier sessions.
  2. You can find the programme and abstracts for the hundreds of oral and poster presentations in the Scientific Programme PDF.
  3. RuthFT
    No #Isa2012Leuven tweets from me this morning, and there are excursions this afternoon. Normal service resumes tomorrow!
  4. The Bioarchaeology and Biomaterials session was put together by Henk Kars, however it’s not my area of expertise so I took a break from live tweeting.
  5. EAconferenceUK
    Cynthia Debono Spiteri, who presented experimental work at #exparch6, presented Dairying in Neolithic lipid analysis today at #ISA2012Leuven
  6. Cynthia was presenting interesting work on tracing what people were doing with their pots and whether they were making dairy products or not: she had previously showed some of her experimental work looking at vegetable v dairy/meat lipid absorbtion into pottery at the Experimental Archaeology Conference UK.
  7. ISA2012Leuven
    Today the ISA team have been out and about, with the various excursions, visiting Ramoil, Antwerp, Ghent and Leuven
  8. As is traditional now at ISA, Wednesday morning’s papers are followed by excursion(s). I enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon in the amazingly beautiful town of Leuven, which after the hectic first two days was rather a relief!
  9. RuthFT
    Drinking coffee and having a little chill out time in Leuven whilst my colleagues tour the town.
  10. By the evening everyone had returned to Leuven, and after some naps and relaxing, we enjoyed some of the excellent local food. Anyone wandering through the town would have seen many groups of archaeologists scattered across the bars and restaurants!

ISA 2012 Leuven (Day 2 – Metals and metallurgical ceramics)

  1. I’m currently at the 39th International Symposium on Archaeometry in
    Leuven, Belgium, where I have a poster to present. I’ll be writing a
    proper conference review when I return, but in the mean time I’ll be
    making informal collections of the tweets and discussing the conference
    here on a daily basis using Storify. The following is from Tuesday; you can find Monday’s here.
  2. The second day of the conference was entirely devoted to Metals and metallurgical ceramics, and was organised by Thilo Rehren. Full details of the posters and papers, including abstracts, can be found in the Scientific Programme PDF.
  3. wallerpottery
    39th International Symposium on #Archaeometry: “50 years of ISA” is on twitter! Follow @ISA2012Leuven & #archaeometry2012 or #ISA2012Leuven
  4. LeMoustier
    Follow @RuthFT and #Isa2012Leuven for livetweeting of all the great research from massive archaeological #science meeting
  5. We started to get some more interest in ISA over twitter, which I think is a positive thing. Archaeometry/archaeological science is sometimes criticised for not engaging with archaeologists from other specialisations/paradigms, and Twitter is a good way of raising the profile of our work with other open-minded and technology aware archaeologists.
  6. RuthFT
    Today will be pretty non-stop, from the first paper at 9am through to end of Anniversary Reception at 9pm. #Isa2012Leuven
  7. PrimitiveMethod
    RT @RuthFT: Today is a whole day of papers on metallurgy and metallurgical ceramics! This is my favourite day :-) #Isa2012Leuven
  8. It was a very long day, but as someone who primarily studies metals and metallurgical debris, I was extremely excited by the range of papers. I was sad that there were no papers on precious metals, but there were a wide selection of presentations covering copper alloy and iron use across a period of 5000BC to 1500AD.
  9. RuthFT
    First paper of the day, @milaiana Radivojevic et al presenting v exciting evidence for earliest tin bronze c.5K BC #Isa2012Leuven
  10. RuthFT
    Interested in earliest human use of tin-bronze? Radivojevic et al 2010 Journal Arch.Sci 37, 2775-2787 #Isa2012Leuven
  11. Although many of the authors gave references on their abstracts, which I tried to share, I was surprised that some of them gave little or none at all. Considering the number of years it takes to get conference papers published, it’d be useful to be able to read background or lead-in work somewhere.
  12. RuthFT
    Angelini et al discussing a very thorough muli-technique analysis of some complex Chalcolithic copper debris #Isa2012Leuven
  13. This was one of a number of papers which showed petrographic images of slag, which I used to think was quite a rare technique. However after seeing the beauty and clarity of some of the images, I am keen to try this myself!
  14. RuthFT
    FMI on Spanish Chalcolithic copper production see Colpani et al in Proc.ISA 2006, pub 2000, 367-374. #Isa2012Leuven
  15. RuthFT
    Loic Boscher presenting s-w Asian arsenical copper production: some of first actual analysis of production of this alloy #Isa2012Leuven
  16. Some background on Near-East arsenical copper alloys can be found in Eaton and McKerrell, 1976, World Archaeology, 8, 169-191.
  17. RuthFT
    Hayashida and Killick present Middle Sican period Peruvian copper debris, only one other studied site of type/period #Isa2012Leuven
  18. This was another paper which tackled a material/cultural context which had not seen much research before. However some information on early Peruvian copper smelting can be found in Epstein’s 1993 PhD thesis from the University of Pennsylvania.
  19. RuthFT
    Really excited about Shadreck Chirikure paper which argues against usually assumed gender divides in African metallurgy #Isa2012Leuven
  20. RuthFT
    Chirikure argues crucibles were made by women, which should be forbidden in metallurgy, but clearly gender divide not simple #Isa2012Leuven
  21. Shadreck was one of the most entertaining presenters of the conference so far; not only did he make the audience laugh, but he gave a strong and clearly explained, meaningful anthropological/archaeological interpretation for his scientific work. I was really pleased to see a paper like this at an often methodological or data-dominated conference.
  22. RuthFT
    Benjamin Roberts of @britishmuseum now presents redebate on Bronze Age metal spread using established data #Isa2012Leuven
  23. LeMoustier
    RT @RuthFT: Roberts suggesting metal adoption on colour, and needs movement of skilled individuals #Isa2012Leuven
  24. Roberts presented an overview of his work trying to show how the adoption of various forms of copper alloys and iron took place over time and space. A number of attendees mentioned individual sites which went against the trends he was proposing, but I was more interested in whether his broad-brush approach of making statements about widely differing types of culture and interaction was viable. It was good to see a synthetic paper presented here, and it raised important questions beyond the usual single site/material analysis.
  25. RuthFT
    On to Kristina Franke comparing use of pXRF and WDS to comment on the pXRF limitations #Isa2012Leuven
  26. EAconferenceUK
    Christina Clarke is presenting her experimental work replicating Minoan vessels at Archaeometry Conference #Isa2012Leuven
  27. Having met Christina and heard her present at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s last Research in Progress Meeting I was extremely pleased to see her at ISA. Christina is a gold/silversmith by profession, rather than an archaeologist, and undertook a PhD which involved considerable research and replication Minoan vessels. I was very happy to see a non-scientist non-archaeologist invited to present at ISA, and she presented some new information on the technology, the physical practice and the tools used.
  28. LeMoustier
    RT @RuthFT: Really excellent cross-over work by Christina Clarke with experimental, experiential, craft and science #Isa2012Leuven
  29. RuthFT
    Now Andreas Charalambous et al on alloy variations in Cypriot bronzes from early iron age #Isa2012Leuven
  30. RuthFT
    David Larreina Garcia talking about copper production plant in Sijiawan China #Isa2012Leuven
  31. Poor David had the hard slot just before lunch, but he did very well and his presentation on Chinese bronze production for elite Imperial use was interesting.
  32. RuthFT
    Twittering silence 2-3pm was due to needing to stand in front of my poster and tell everyone how lazy my Romans were #Isa2012Leuven
  33. ISA always runs poster sessions on the four full days of the conference, with two days for each theme and a full hour after lunch and before the oral papers start for authors to be present at their posters to answer questions and discuss them with other attendees.
  34. LisetteKootker
    poster opgehangen bij #ISA2012Leuven over isotopenonderzoek in de Nederlandse archeologie. Nu maar hopen op veel respons! #archeologie
  35. Marcos was talking about a popular and unique subject, and though I should say that Marcos is my primary supervisor, his presentation was engaging and contained very interesting conclusions.
  36. RuthFT
    Arrows of the Terracotta Army were batch made rather than production line made #Isa2012Leuven
  37. However I think perhaps my favourite paper – both personally and as an analytical work likely to influence my own studies – was David Dungworth’s paper.
  38. EHArchaeology
    RT @ruthft: FINALLY some iron slag! David Dungworth et al on bloomery iron. Fantastic! #Isa2012Leuven
  39. EAconferenceUK
    David Dungworth is discussing his experimental iron smelting work at International Symposium on Archaeometry #Isa2012Leuven
  40. David works for English Heritage, and presented some 60 analyses of different slag, ore, ceramic and iron pieces produced during an experimental smelt. I was extremely interested to see the quantity of variation in the raw materials and the slag fragments, and very pleased to hear David encourage archaeometrists to talk more with the many crafts/people with established experience in ancient technologies.
  41. subbasegirl
    RT @RuthFT: David Dungworth’s paper is fantastic! So pro experimental! And fantastic analytical data. #Isa2012Leuven
  42. RuthFT
    Onto Tom Birch’s paper on variability in slag inclusion as issue in provenancing #Isa2012Leuven
  43. I met Tom at a site in Austria last year, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of hard statistics he was going to bring to ISA! His paper took a very thorough look at various aspects of provenancing using trace elements.
  44. RuthFT
    Toms work is looking at provenancing iron from bog iron ores, using Crews experimental work #Isa2012Leuven
  45. RuthFT
    Maxime L’Heritier up now for analysing lead and ferrous construction pieces in Gothic Cathedrals #Isa2012Leuven
  46. There are a number of people based in French labs looking at tracing the shift from iron produced in a bloomery to that produced in blast furnaces, and Maxime’s work comes from some of that. Cathedrals and large churches are some of the best areas for looking at this, as they contain massive structural iron fixtures which can be dated to the well-documented phases of construction of the Cathedrals.
  47. RuthFT
    And now Filomena Salvemini et al on quantitative and 3D mapping of Japanese blades #Isa2012Leuven
  48. This presentation was extremely popular, and had immediate visual appeal supplemented by some absolutely fantastic videos of neutron imaging of objects. The first one was of a Moka pot boiling, where it was possible to see through the metal of the pot and watch the water bubbling up within.
  49. RuthFT
    Neutron imaging is very cool, showing areas of slag inclusions etc as well as corrosion #Isa2012Leuven
  50. David Killick was originally billed as the key note speaker, but unfortunately he was not able to be present and instead Mark Pollard presented his vision of where archaeometallurgy should go over the next fifty years.
  51. RuthFT
    Pollard is arguing for reuse of old data as easiest source rather than new tech/theory #Isa2012Leuven
  52. Pollard had some very strong opinions about the use of legacy data, which I think were interesting and certainly got people talking. I certainly agree with his position that we need to fully publish all our data and to share it with each other openly. As he said, we all have colleagues who are remarkably difficult to pursuade to share data, and I think that’s a real loss in many cases.
  53. RuthFT
    Pollard wants to make giant database of all Bronze Age analyses to share with all #Isa2012Leuven
  54. RuthFT
    And we’re done with serious work! Rest of evening is discussion of next venue, reception. #Isa2012Leuven
  55. As is traditional at ISA, the two venues/organisers competing to host the next symposium gave brief presentations to try and win the votes of the attendees. ISA alternates between Europe and North America, so ISA 2014 will be in the US: the choice was Philadelphia with Rob Sternberg of Marshall College at Drexel University, or Los Angeles with Marc Walton and Ionna Kakoulli at UCLA and the Getty Institute.
  56. ISA2012Leuven
    After an excellent day of lectures we were treated to a reception celebrating 50 years of #archaeometry
  57. Following that we were treated to a reception at the province house Vlaams-Brabant celebrating 50 years of ISA. This included a number of speeches by founder members, and a discussion of the history of ISA and its birth as a place  for owners of magnetometers to meet and discuss their work.
  58. wallerpottery
    MT @ISA2012Leuven: Prof Martin Aitkin (founder of #archaeometry) & Prof Mike Tite gave excellent speeches #archaeometry2012 #ISA2012Leuven
  59. In typical archaeological style we moved from the reception to finish the evening celebrating the many successful presenters with some of the excellent Belgian beer.

ISA 2012 Leuven (Day 1 – Stone, Plaster, Pigments, Chronologies).

I’m currently at the 39th International Symposium on Archaeometry in Leuven, Belgium, where I have a poster to present. I’ll be writing a proper conference review when I return, but in the mean time I’ll be making informal collections of the tweets and discussing the conference here on a daily basis using Storify. The following is from Monday, and is unfortunately only a brief taste of the conference as I lacked the ability to tweet for much of the day.

  1. The conference started at 9am on Monday, with the Opening Ceremony by this year’s organiser Patrick Degryse and the Chairman of the Standing Committee Yannis Maniatis.
  2. ISA2012Leuven
    If during #ISA2012Leuven you have any questions please feel free to ask the people with blue badges for help
    Mon, May 28 2012 06:10:08
  3. The venue itself was one of the large lecture halls at KU Leuven, the University suppporting the Conference this year. The organisers and their assistants seemed to deal with the influx of c.500 delegates very well, and things ran smoothly throughout the first day.
  4. RuthFT
    Here’s the #Isa2012Leuven conference venue in all its sunny glory :-) http://pic.twitter.com/TN5H7O0X
    Wed, May 30 2012 08:15:03
  5. The first and second sessions of the day were Stone, Plaster and Pigments organised by Yannis Maniatis and Robert Tykot. Full details of all the oral and poster presentations, including abstracts, can be found in the Scientific Programme PDF.
  6. RuthFT
    No live tweeting from me this am/pm due to a big lack of charge in my phone, and it being WAY too hot to lug my laptop #isa2012leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 09:07:37
  7. The weather at Leven was absolutely amazing – Patrick joked that we were experiencing all of Belgium’s summer in one week – but this did mean that I was exhausted and ended up taking a break during much of the afternoon session.
  8. RuthFT
    Currently underway at #Isa2012Leuven is a paper on Rehydroxylation as a dating method for ceramics by Moira Wilson.
    Mon, May 28 2012 10:09:40
  9. The first afternoon session was Archaeochronometry organised by Marco Martini , which contained three papers including a really fascinating look at a new technique for dating ceramics called rehydroxylation dating.
  10. amphinitum
    RT @RuthFT: You can read more on new rehydroxylation dating method at Proc.Royal Society A 2009 Wilson et al 465, 2407-2415 #Isa2012Leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 10:25:40
  11. RuthFT
    So rehydroxylation looks frankly awesome as a dating technique, all pottery fired up to 1200, though organics complicate #Isa2012Leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 10:20:25
  12. Rehydroxylation looks particularly promising because it seems to have a low error on those samples without organic/carbon contamination.
  13. The final session of the day was Radiocarbon and Historical Chronologies, organised by Christopher Ramsey.
  14. ISA2012Leuven
    RT @RuthFT: Now onto exciting AMS radiocarbon dating of ancient irons with Stephanie Leroy et al #Isa2012Leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 12:07:43
  15. I was particularly intrested in this paper, which applied standard AMS radiocarbon dating to very small samples of carbon liberated from carburised iron (ie steels/cast irons etc).
  16. ISA2012Leuven
    RT @RuthFT: Ricardo Fernandes et al have done some really clever stuff to reconstruct diets from isotopes #Isa2012Leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 12:07:27
  17. Ricardo Fernandes was an engaging presenter, and his work was particularly noteworthy as it turned a problem – isotope ratios used for provenancing people fluctuating as a result of varying fish/animal intake – and turned it into an opportunity to examine diet patterns.
  18. RuthFT
    Now we have Colin Renfrew to give keynote speech, who is as close to archaeological superstar as possible to get! #Isa2012Leuven
    Mon, May 28 2012 12:10:26
  19. Keynote speeches are a new introduction to ISA, but Renfrew’s demonstration of the importance of using multiple techniques on sites and related materials was well received.A drinks reception followed the keynote speech, after which many attendees moved off into the nearby town to enjoy the fantastic variety of bars and restaurants. All in all a very good beginning to the conference.

6th Experimental Archaeology Conference, York, 2012

Wow! I got back from the 6th Experimental Archaeology Conference on Sunday evening, and it’s taken a few days for me to collect my thoughts.

I was presenting a paper on ‘Teaching and learning in Experimental Archaeology‘ (abstract here), which is one of the reasons I have been quiet recently. Along with proof-reading and chapter-writing deadlines, writing a conference paper on a topic outside my PhD was quite challenging and as a result I have been knuckling down.

The paper itself went over far better than I could ever have hoped. I felt like I was taking a chance, presenting a theory dominated and teaching/learning focussed paper at a practical and science dominated archaeology conference. However the attendees gave me overwhelmingly positive feedback, which was not only a relief but in fact buoyed my spirits with regard to engagement with teaching theory in archaeology.

Beyond my own paper, the conference itself was great, with a number of really great papers. I did a reasonably amount of live-tweeting the conference papers as they were given, using the hash-tag #exparch6, which was an interesting experience and I hope went some way to increasing awareness of the conference and the work of experimenters.

Rather than write a formal conference review, which I will probably do for HMSNews/PIA or similar, I’ve put together a Storify using the tweets of myself and others. It’s very informal and, well, story-like, but I hope that this too will make it an interesting read for people not specifically engaged with experimental archaeology.

blogwordle14032010

Tips on writing an abstract for a conference paper

Presenting at conferences is an important part of entering academic society, and grad students are usually encouraged to present their PhD work at least once to a major conference. But before you even get to the stress of writing a presentation, you have to be successful in the scrum that is abstract submission.

Considering the brevity of these documents – typically less than 500 words – the amount of effort required to write one seems disproportionate! Whilst some conferences provide detailed examples of what they wish to see, others do not even give formatting guidelines.

I’ve had mixed success in the past, and the current abstract is intended for a particularly important conference which I really want to present at, so I’ve been trying to create an explicit pathway for creating the best abstract I can. Some aspects of abstract writing remain a bit of a mystery, so I’d appreciate any feedback you could give, but I present below what I’ve learnt so far:

Preparation – know your audience, know your material

One important aspect of abstract writing that is sometimes overlooked is the conference itself. Abstracts have to be tailored to the whims of the conference and session organisers. It is worth making sure that the conference you are eyeing up really is the best place for you to present. With money for conferences sometimes in short supply, check with your supervisor or colleagues whether this is the best conference. If you are certain,

  • Track down the names of the session organisers.
  • See if anyone you know, perhaps your supervisor, has the abstract handbook from the last edition of the conference
  • If the previous conference has published proceedings it may be worth examining this to get a feel for the approaches the conference prefers
  • Identify any special themes to this year’s conference
  • Double-check the abstract submission guidelines and deadline
  • If you are working with other people, get their permission before you submit

Trying to fit into the conference ‘theme’ is unlikely to work well at graduate level, because unless life is being particularly serendipitous, your work is probably so niche that shoe-horning it into a ‘theme’ will be obvious and not that successful. Don’t try and make your work something it isn’t, just to fit it into a particular conference.

Remember that in general, conference organisers only like to include presentations by people who have completed their work. If you have an incomplete study, it will be difficult to get a conference to accept your abstract because you won’t be able to tell them the conclusions of your work. This is a key piece of information they use to judge whether your work is suitable for the conference!

Whilst important members of your field, including your supervisor, may have a laissez-faire attitude to submitting on time, you are unlikely to have that luxury. Remember to draft the abstract early and enquire whether your supervisor will offer constructive criticism before you send it off. Submit on time: whilst you can try submitting late, don’t hold out too much hope!

Abstract structure – attention to detail

Every discipline is different, but there are some general guidelines that you can follow. Abstracts are often broken down into three paragraphs:

  • Paragraph 1: What the problem is and why people should care.
    Introduce the context of your study, perhaps including the particular issue or question your study responds to. In general people don’t mention their study in this paragraph, but use this opportunity to set up the context of the study and demonstrate their understanding of current literature. It helps if you can demonstrate that your question or issue is interesting and worth answering.
  • Paragraph 2: Your approach, and your results
    This is where we get the real meat of what you might present. Outline your project, the theoretical or practical techniques you used, the experiment or source material, and how you answered the question you outlined in paragraph 1. The number of words you have to play with governs to a certain extent how much detail you go into, but it’s worth trying to make this important section as meaningful as possible. Remember to explain your evidence and where it comes from, not just what it is you’re arguing. If your paper is an argument, remember to establish the steps you go through to get to the final point.
  • Paragraph 3: Conclusions, and why people should listen to you.
    Here you discuss briefly how your work affects the wider context of your discipline, and why it is relevant and exciting. You need to convince the reader that your research is significant and that you deserve the time to present it.

Some people place the study in the wider disciplinary context right at the beginning, others suggest making the first sentence/paragraph bold and challenging. That’s probably okay if you can count on people knowing the material reasonably well, but in some disciplines or interdisciplinary events your subject can be so niche that you need that first paragraph to properly give the context.

The above structure works for a 300-500 word abstract, but if you are allowed more or less you will need to adjust this outline. No matter how short or long, remember to avoid generalisations and make every word count. Reviewers always appreciate someone who gets to the point!

Abstract formatting – clean and clear

  • Some conferences have a template. If so, use this and do not deviate from it.
  • Pick a good name for your presentation. I’m not good at this myself, but it’s important.
  • Don’t go over the word limit! Your work may be dismissed out of hand.
  • Equally, it’s not a good idea to produce less than the minimum word number suggested.
  • Leave off the jargon if you can. If you use anything obscure, explain it. Otherwise, do without.
  • If the conference does not give formatting guidelines, use those of an associated or most relevant journal
  • Try not to use too many references – generally five is enough for a big abstract – consider including ‘classic’ and ‘cutting edge’ references
  • Double check any references if they involve one or more of the session organisers!
  • Don’t include a bibliography unless asked for one, it’s usually a waste of words
  • Do not forget the names of second/third authors

Some conference organisers send their abstracts to be reviewed anonymously – it might be worth making sure that any references to your previous work that you make are done carefully so that you don’t spoil that. Generally it is advisable not to put your name on the abstract or in the file name of a document unless you are asked to.

As ever, double-check things, proof-read and get as many people as you can to help you read through and check the draft. Supervisors should be happy to do this. Keep reading, revising and coming back to the abstract for as long as you can, as it will really benefit from your tender loving care.

Finally…

Conferences are a great way to offend people, and this is also true of abstracts. Remember that the abstracts are likely to be visible to lots of people, so don’t be overly critical of another researcher, even if that is the main thrust of your work. Trust your supervisor’s judgement on this. If your work is conducted with someone else, make sure they are happy with what you are submitting. Lastly, if you need to include an additional author due to their earlier help – do not forget. Some people take this sort of stuff very very seriously.