MAC: A Non-Archaeologist’s Perspective on an Archaeological Conference

October 4-6, 2018

It’s oddly quiet at 8 o’clock Thursday morning, as the world seems to still be stirring. As the clouds roll in and the spotty drizzle picks up, I hurry across campus to my workplace to meet a few of my coworkers and head to the Midwestern Archaeological Conference (MAC), held this year in South Bend, Ind. The smell of damp stone and rain-spattered lavender accompanies me.

The Indiana Memorial Union, the heart of campus, is silent. I consider grabbing a coffee as I pass Starbucks (one of a dozen in Bloomington), tempted by a whiff of coffee in the air. I resolutely decide to wait and bank on my work being open so I can grab a free cup there. It’s not, I soon discover, so I trudge back into the humidity to sate my caffeine addiction.

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MAC is an annual conference, held yearly at a different university (this year, at Notre Dame). It gathers professors, researchers, and others across Midwestern archaeology, which is a incredibly interconnected field. It’s my first such conference, so I went into it with two things on my mind: 1) the many qualms I had with academia in general and the Midwest in specific, and 2) several years of attending comic conventions as my only frame of reference for what this might be. (Spoiler: It wasn’t like comic con.)

We rented a car and drove up on the first day of the conference, intending to settle in before the main event began Friday morning. We stopped in a small, incredibly Indiana town and grabbed lunch at an equally stereotypical Indiana dive bar (with pretty fantastic BBQ, I might add), before arriving a few hours later at the fantastically fancy hotel and conference venue.

My coworkers met up with a few colleagues to reminisce and trade field talk over beers in the swanky hotel bar. On the edge of the conference, I sipped my drink and listened to the lighthearted disagreements and comparisons of theories and field technique, smiling along at the reminiscing over past digs. The common themes seemed to be the humidity, the necessity of a cold beer after a long, hot day, and the great pie at a place called the Hull Café.

“All I had to do was dig, screen, and eat pie,” said one of my companions.

“Yeah, I remember that pie…” said another, almost dreamily.

That night, we attended the reception, located in the anthropology department, whose offices were interestingly located in a building adjoining the stadium complex. The narrow halls were the setting for the elbow-rubbing of colleagues old and current, and the consumption of fruit skewers and as many mini-cupcakes as humanly possible. My time was mostly spent wandering and attempting to look occupied, as I was underdressed and undereducated for the setting.

I’m not an archaeologist –I’m a writer, who happens to work with archaeologists.

I found the reception very loud. To be honest, I was incredibly overwhelmed and several times had to flee to quieter parts of the floor (hello, bathroom, my old friend). It was a loud, packed crowd full of people I didn’t know, talking about things I didn’t understand, at a volume I couldn’t comprehend.

I was expecting tweed-wearing academics who were quiet and demure, but offer free booze and snacks, and everyone, no matter who they are, will eventually get deafening.

Receptions (and parties, and large groups of people in general) aren’t for me.

After the reception, I gratefully accompanied my coworkers away from the crowd to a lovely Irish pub (the Fiddler’s Hearth) downtown. My fish and chips was eaten along to the live music, helpfully labeled “R&B/Jazz/Folk.”

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s/o to Kevin Scott Joiner & Hidden Chambers, a great South Bend band

The others at the table swapped stories of Midwestern archaeological legends, odd road trips, and past conferences. There was a great atmosphere, a welcome change from my panic at the reception, with smiles all around and a fantastic performance by the band (which we eventually decided fell under the ‘folk’ theme).

The next morning, Friday, was spent sitting quietly, going over the day’s schedule and listening to the (sometimes torrential) rain. Then we headed to the conference for the first symposium and poster presentations of the day.

Posters lined the walls of the room, presenters standing by to answer questions and point out features. They were all enthusiastic, likely helped by the smaller size of the conference, and would leap into their explanations as soon as you made eye contact.

Conferences like this are great for information-gathering. About different dissertations and institutional projects, obviously, but also about the field of Midwestern archaeology as a whole.

This is a regional conference, with a variety of institutions represented. Still, there is a pretty stark lack of diversity (racially and academically speaking) in those present. You learn very quickly –even as an outsider, as I am– that archaeology is a small field, both in- and outside of any given region of specialization. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone has stories about everyone, good and bad, flattering and otherwise.

It’s a very elbow-rubby deal, evident from just the first few minutes of my first conference.

An independent lunch break, a few hours away from the conference hall, was a relief.

I wandered over to the Eddy Street Commons, which has a dozen different restaurants and a monstrously large shop filled with all sorts of school spirit merchandise (and mislabeled ‘bookstore,’ as I didn’t find a single book). Apartments line the upper floors of the buildings.

Clearly it’s usually packed with students, but a combination of the frigid, rainy weather and the weekend seemed to be drawing people away from town.

I resolved that, as I’m not an archaeologist and only understand about half of the technical terms people throw at me while I nod sagely, the rest of my conference experience should be spent stuffing myself (and my bag) with free hors d’oeuvres, wandering campus, and perfecting the art of timing my entrance into conversations so that someone introduces me and my presence feels somewhat natural, rather than forced.

The Notre Dame campus is densely clustered with similar-looking Gothic-esque (I know nothing about architecture) buildings and a massive stadium complex smack in the middle. Coming from IU, spread across a sprawling campus, it feels small. To me, everything is a bit squished.

This part of South Bend had city-like features, like restaurants and shops and high(ish)-rise apartments and hotels, and a bus route, but it’s an academic complex, with an attempted city-eque coat of paint.

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It feels small, like the buildings are closing around me as I’m walking down the street. It’s norther than I’m used to, just across the southern border of Michigan, but it’s still very much Indiana. If you’re from Indiana, you know what I mean.

Returning to the conference, I reflected on how interesting it was to sit through posters and presentations with archaeologists, listening to the quiet groans and attempting to interpret the face-palms. Later, in the safety of our Airbnb, the grimaces are explained as professional differences and different interpretations of theories.

A very good criticism was made in the last symposium of the day, by one of the final discussants (which is not, as I thought, a discussion –instead, it’s an individual discussing what they thought, while somehow tying it back to their own work to make it relevant to the topic…but you didn’t hear that from me). The criticism was that data had surpassed the collectors’ ability to comprehend it. That is, there are too many numbers –it’s a great foundation, but effort needs to be put in to continue the conversation.

Especially emphasized was the necessity for an interaction with those outside of the Midwest, as ‘outsiders’ can suggest things that may not have occurred to those who’ve been buried in the same data for months or years.

Certainly it was an interesting experience for me. It was good to get insight (as a non-archaeologist) into the inner workings of the Midwestern archaeological community. I enjoyed the feedback given to presenters, and see the possibility for it to be applied to my own work and the work of those around me.

Only about 200 people came to this year’s conference, which I was told was quite a bit smaller than previous years. There is a definite need for communication and discussion –the community is incredibly tight-knit, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, limit theories and outside-the-box thinking.

I’m hopeful the criticism raised will be applied, or at least considered.

 

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