Report from UISPP

In response to our post yesterday, Andrea Vianello sends this personal report from the recent UISPP conference in Lisbon:

I arrived in Lisbon on Sunday from the United Kingdom, and the first thing that I noticed was the temperature: 35 degrees Celsius, a lot more than what it was in Britain. The following day, on Monday morning, it was time to register, and awkwardly we had to queue at different desks according to our first name, something that caused confusion for some of the delegates. Then it was time to pick up the two heavy volumes of abstracts and head for the opening meeting. The chancellor of the University of Lisbon welcomed the delegates and a few officers from government and city council. A representative of the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) informed us that after many years, UISPP and WAC were together once again, although they would remain independent. Our president, Anthony Harding, was announced, but nobody showed up and this was a delusion, as many expected at least a message, if not a substitute speaker. It was clear since then that the UISPP had a long history and was perceived by all delegates, about 2,000, as an important archaeological congress, but failed to attract much attention from media or authorities. Indeed, Luiz Oosterbeek, the congress organiser, lamented a lack of economic and practical support from the Portuguese authorities.

It was not long before the sessions began in the afternoon, and the large crowd of archaeologists attending the congress became apparent. It was my first time at a UISPP congress, and the first thing that I noted, after several year of attendance of EAA meetings, was the many countries represented. French, Italian and English speaking delegates formed the largest groups, demonstrating that European archaeologists of different languages can participate together at a conference. Since the vast majority of the UISPP delegates were Europeans and not members of the EAA, an official EAA presence would have been most welcome to attract new members. I had little time to browse around as I had to deliver my paper that same afternoon, but I felt immediately comfortable and was pleased that the papers at my session succeeded in starting a productive discussion. Several papers were cancelled and this became an unfortunate recurring feature of the congress to the end; eventually even some full sessions were cancelled. Because of this, all expected times shifted regularly, and it could be difficult at times to hear a scheduled paper without attending the whole session. In the evening there was a reception at the archaeological museum, where we were offered free entry and a free printed guide.

The second day I attended the first part of a session entitled “Mountain environments in prehistoric Europe”. Without commenting on individual papers, I recall that the session was mostly in French, but the audience was also French speaking as it seemed, and I sometimes struggled to understand it. Nonetheless, the speakers came from a variety of countries and several interesting notices of new research were given, including the comprehensive study of portable painted stones from Dalmeri rockshelter near Venice (Dalmeri et al), on which wax has been preserved, and the announcement of new rock art from Gobustan (Malahat Farajova). I then browsed around part of the afternoon, meeting some friends and new colleagues, but did not attend any session in particular, with the exception of the “book release session” in the evening, where new books were presented by the authors. I attended the session as a speaker, but I was pleasantly surprised of the usefulness of hearing several authors, one after the other, briefly presenting their work. This session turned out to be far more interesting than browsing a bookshop’s stand and several other attendees confirmed this impression. I certainly felt honoured in having a chance to present my first book along with more experienced authors, it was fun for us, and the audience also had a chance to talk to us after the session. The presented books covered different topics, including theoretical issues, the origins of symbolic thought and the Mycenaean exchange network. This was an idea by Dr Oosterbeek, and it was so successful that more authors asked for a second chance, that promptly came on the following Friday. The EAA meetings should consider including a similar session.

The real fun was to be had on Wednesday, for the free excursions. I promptly arrived with all the others at 8:30 am for departure, but not all the coaches had arrived yet. Nine o’clock arrived, and the scheduled departure had obviously to be postponed. About half an hour later, Dr Oosterbeek started screaming, he was reading the names of the participants of each excursion and provide directions to the appropriate coach. That was the idea at least, as it was not an easy task for the mass of people to hear their name or anything else. The coaches also were still turning and parking, so that most of the times all what could be said after reading a long list of names was, “and now go together and find your coach, it’s here somewhere!” I went for the excursion to Evora, for which there were two coaches departing. Boarding was strictly by call, and the call followed the list as it was, so the confusion and frustration can be imagined. I finally boarded the coach and off we went, past a bridge on the Tagus with magnificent views, to see first the stone circle of Almendres, then a standing stone. By then I had realised that I was on the best coach, the one with air conditioning. When we arrived in gorgeous Evora, we barely had the time to eat. The coaches left us at two different squares, our task was to find something to eat and reconvene after one hour to visit the cave of Escoural. However, our coach was not allowed back the square, so we had to rush to the other square through the town centre. That was our visit of Evora. On our way, a colleague and I kept exchanging our cameras and take pictures of each other as souvenir. Finally rejoining all the others at the other square, we were told that the group had to be split again due to lack of time: one coach would go to the cave of Escoural, the other would visit other megalithic monuments. Some more scenes of confusion afterwards, during which the destination of the coaches was swapped a few times, I was heading to the Escoural cave, which was well worth the effort to visit it. We rejoined the other coach at another stone circle, and there we stayed. The lack of air conditioning on the other coach and the heat and dryness of the region convinced many to wait for cooler times for our return journey, after planning a further stop to drink water. We arrived much later than expected, but it was fun. Next day I heard from other colleagues stories from other excursions, we all had stories to tell regardless of the destination. I remember an American colleague saying that he went to a place with rock art on the bank of a river. He could not see it, however, because the river was almost overflowing and covering the rocks. In addition, the only rainy cloud to be seen in Portugal that week was right above his group. So, “wet, cold and tired”, he endured two hours of “freezing air conditioning” on his way back. An Italian colleague instead recalled his arrival at a place where he found a table prepared with food “enough for 50 or 80 people” and “rivers of wine” In his group they were only 30. He couldn’t recall what happened to them after the “rivers of wine”, or what he was supposed to have visited, but he definitely was happy, and so were the others in his group.

On Thursday I attended what I consider the most interesting and challenging of sessions, entitled “the Pleistocene palaeoart of the world”, but the title does not fit the contents of the presentations. First to talk was prof Paul Bouissac, who informed the audience that geometric signs commonly found in cave and rock art may be part of a symbolic form of language, predating iconographic and alphabetic ones. Jean Clottes confirmed that many geometric signs were indeed found in French caves, including at the earliest one, Chauvet. He also suggested that the iconographic repertoire at Chauvet was already mature and most likely more ancient caves await discovery. Frederick Coolidge and Thomas Wynn then changed topic altogether introducing the first “neurological” paper. In short they propose an alternative to David Lewis-Williams’ suggestion that cave art was produced in a state of altered consciousness: their study of Enhanced Working Memory suggests instead that “daydreaming”, like the state obtained trying to recognise shapes in clouds, could have been responsible for many figures, including compositions of different animals. John Feliks attempted in a double bill to enter the mind of Homo erectus: by reviewing the marks on bones from Bilzingsleben he convincingly demonstrated the possibility that Homo erectus’ brain could support complex social relationships and perhaps, even language and philosophy.

Robert Bednarik then suggested that many bones of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens found in Europe and showing some characteristics of both species could be evidence that anatomically modern Europeans (graciles) descended from Neanderthals (robusts), and indeed he is convinced the change from robusts to graciles occurred also in Australia, Asia and Africa. He also went as far as suggesting that some European Palaeolithic cultures, such as the Aurignacian and Uluzzian, were Neanderthal cultures, or at the very least the product of post-Neanderthals. He also considers the earliest depictions at Chauvet cave to be made by a Neanderthal’s hand, after footprints of Neanderthals were found inside the cave. He asked researchers to test these hypotheses and generally to keep and open mind in the study of the Palaeolithic. Derek Hodgson then presented some innovative research on neurons: he found in particular a neuron specialised in the recognition of corners and one specialised in the recognition of concentric circles and spirals. Incidentally, these are shapes very common in ancient art. The site of these neurons is the templar cortex, which started expanding since the Australopithecines, and therefore in his opinion visual memory and recognition of shapes played an important role in the development of human brain. Dirk Huyge had then the task to conclude this eclectic session, which included also other papers, with a note on recent discoveries of rock art in Egypt, which may be the oldest yet, perhaps dating as early as the Palaeolithic. Very few attended this session, and roaring applauses from a nearby room where there was a session on the typology of stone tools often interrupted the speakers, yet I could not stop thinking on the many ideas presented here. There is no doubt that most people preferred to attend “safe” sessions on typical research, and I think they missed a chance to open their minds. I then lost a session on similar topics which was running in parallel, and could not attend Ian Tattersall’s paper. In the afternoon I attended “Ancient cultural landscape in South Europe, their ecological setting and evolution”. Environmental archaeology is not my specialty topic, but the last paper on the Mycenaean culture in Italy interested me. I started a discussion with the speaker, Tomaso di Fraia, with some difficulties to find a workable language among French, English and Italian. However, it was not long before the session organiser told us that the topic we were discussing was “irrelevant” to the session and he was right. This was another recurring feature of the congress: some papers appeared to have been included in sessions focusing on different subjects and left for the last minute, this was the case at least for Huyge’s and Di Fraia’s papers. The discussion for them was then held after the official discussion, among the few interested.

On Friday it was time for some chronological issues related to the Mediterranean Iron Age, at least for me. In “A new dawn for the Dark Age? Shifting paradigms in Mediterranean Iron Age chronology” several papers alternated presentations of ceramic-based chronologies and radiocarbon chronology. In particular, the Phoenicians and central Italy (Etruria and Latium) featured prominently in this session. Although there was incertitude with radiocarbon dates, it was generally agreed that the beginning of the Iron Age should be dated shortly after 1,000 BC, probably a date valid in the whole Mediterranean. Since then the Phoenicians were active in the whole Mediterranean, with their presence at Huelva, Spain dated in the second half of the ninth century and the foundation of Carthage set at about a century later. If this is true, then the Phoenicians were already in the West Mediterranean when the Greeks decided to colonise Magna Graecia, and therefore the two migratory waves were initially separated.

Last day tiredness started to kick in, but not before attending two more sessions, “Theoretical and methodological issues in evolutionary archaeology, toward an unified Darwinian paradigm” and “American archaeology”. The first session presented the application of the theory of evolution to human cultural development, but as the first speaker, Monica Tamariz, said, evolutionary units in culture have not yet been found and the search is on. Until they are found, the current research on this will be nothing more than a series of nice hypotheses, theoretical exercises. Some speakers also equated, unconvincingly in my opinion, evolution with cultural development, and therefore any development was seen as the result of unknown evolutionary processes. The last session that I attended was on the other side of methodology: scientific analyses and rigorous excavations underpinned all interpretations of papers, leaving little space to theoretical methodologies. Among the most interesting papers, for me at least, Robert Tykot’s impressive work on palaeodiet, with more analyses I can think of, and M. Gardner’s report on a pre-Columbian skull from Jamaica, dated now at 1,000 BC, and the troubles with radiocarbon dating that he had, something that tied very well with other similar laments, from the analysis of Dalmeri rockshelter that need to be repeated, to the Mediterranean Iron Age session. In short, a first analysis yielded a much earlier date, and the initial lab suggested that natural contamination occurred, which was denied by three further samples analysed at Oxford. Eventually, it was revealed that the first lab sent the samples to a sub-contractor that did not have rigorous procedures in place and may have contaminated the first sample. All this was a stark warning to the audience against uncritically accepting results from scientific analyses.

Overall I was really pleased with the UISPP congress and its outcome. I could attend several sessions, some more interesting for my interests than other, but all very informative. I certainly felt like I knew much more at the end than at my arrival. Most sessions were concerned with symbolism in rock art and the study of the Palaeolithic, which I marginally covered, so other delegates may have very different views from mine. I went to the UISPP to propose new ideas, hear about new research and have some fun, and that I have got. My last comment on the beautiful hosting city, Lisbon, which really requires a proper visit to make it justice.

Further reports and comments are welcome.

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2 Responses to Report from UISPP

  1. william Tennis says:

    Bones of Bilzingsleben may be a Solstice Calendar

  2. william Tennis says:

    MASTER SOLSTICE testing.cwk (WP).pdf