Wow, wasn’t that cool!  Last week was spent Tuesday-Thursday afternoons at the World of Iron Conference, which was held at the Natural History Museum in the Flett Theatre.

Natural History MuseumWikimedia Commons image by David Illif

The conference itself ran Monday pm through to Friday am, but unfortunately due to financial and time constraints (ie I had to take most of the time as personal leave and pay for the conference myself)  I could only make the afternoon sessions. However, I have to say that I really enjoyed them and found most of the papers to be very interesting. The sessions I attended were:

Invention, Innovation and Inspiration Chaired by Gill Julef (Exeter University)
Theoretical Approaches to Technology Chaired by Pierre Lemonnier and
Scientific Approaches to Technology Chaired by Vincent Serneels (Fribourg University)

Hearing Pierre Lemonnier chair was awesome, as he is one of the greats of ethnographic and anthropological study of technology (chain operatoire etc), and Gill Julef is a good speaker and comes across as sharp as a button and the kind of person you could have a really good conversation with. I have to admit to not knowing exactly who Vincent Serneels was… but he did chair his session well, and handled the extended discussion afterwards.

The sessions themselves were good, though the Theoretical Approaches was perhaps a little dry – conversation during the post-conference drinks indicated that most of the hard-core archaeometrists/archaeological scientists felt that very little of the ethnography/anthropology discussed (excepting Louise Iles, UCL) was applicable to them  – which was rather not the point of the session.

In addition, there did seem to be rather a lot of shouting about menstruation, blood, furnaces being women, furnaces having breasts, furnaces giving birth, impregnating the furnace, nakedness (or not) near furnaces, semen and other bodily fluids, which made all of us British and north-western Europeans a little uncomfortable. To be frank, it was all a little bit weird! I have to admit to having problems trying to relate much of this work to my view of British prehistoric practices, but maybe that just shows my own weaknesses – still, I rather imagine the Iron Age Briton to be too busy being grumpy about the terrible weather to think about dancing round his furnace and splattering it with blood!

However any weakness that afternoon was made up for by the fantastic papers given in the Scientific Approaches session. Wow! I mean, I am a self-confessed geek, but it was really great to see so many people using statistical multivariate techniques to interrogate their analytically-derived datasets.

My favourite paper was probably Michael Charlton’s Measuring variation in iron production slags. He used a few different techniques, including Kernal Density Estimation (which was new to me) to look at his data, and he seemed to have some really promising ways of  classifying and grouping his results in a meaningful manner. Also of interest was a paper (unfortunately not fully given as the author was taken ill) on fluid dynamics and modelling furnace interiors from Exeter University, which suggested promising things.

Attendance to the conference was reasonable, considering the niche subject – I think they had around 100 people every day, and a lot of people were only popping in for one or two days.  The theatre could hold 250, so looked a little empty, but there were enough people there to make it seem full enough.

I didn’t think much of the timing though – it was clearly set up during university reading week  so that the organisers weren’t teaching etc, however it was also half-term so the museum was packed – to the extent that queues were going all the way out and into the access tunnel from the tube station. Whilst we were given passes to the conference, it took a bit of persuasion to get the guards to let me in ahead of the queues, and the press of people inside and the queues for the toilets were very tiresome.

However the Museum itself was a great venue, and having the conference buffet and drinks  in the Treasures Gallery was really lovely, as it’s full of beautiful objects and looks lovely at night. The buffet was pretty poor if you’re an aspiring vegetarian like me (I think there were two or three things I could eat), but although the variety was limited the food was good quality and the red wine certainly seemed to get the conversation flowing!

Of course, the venue and the food were all down to sponsorship deals with Tata Steel and Rio Tinto that had been struck as little as a month before the recession began to bite. The conference itself was largely the product of Xander Veldhuijzen, a post doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology ULC, and  Jane Humphris, a PhD student also at the Institute, with Thilo Rehren, Professor in Archaeological Materials and Technologies at the Institute.

As a result it looks like it’ll probably be a one-off, but it was well worth the effort and the organisers did very well bringing it all together. I certainly met some really interesting people and left the event with my head buzzing with ideas every evening. Fingers-crossed that Jane Humphris finds a post after completing her PhD – she’d certainly make a good addition to any faculty if her conference-organisation skills are anything to go by!

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