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In August 2016, three IIICH students (and one staff member) gave papers at this the eighth World Archaeological Congress held in Kyoto, Japan. The conference hosted over 1,300 scholars from 86 countries. We asked two of them to describe the experience.

WAC student volunteers © World Archaeological Congress (Sarah Howard)

The World Archaeological Congress was a fantastic opportunity to meet and reconnect with brilliant academics from all over the world in a new cultural setting. As an international student volunteer I was working to support session organisers alongside students from Doshisha University and, despite quite a language barrier, we were able to work together with the help of the Google Translator app and lots of pointing and polite bowing, coupled with ‘Arigatou gozaimas’ (thank you very much!).

The main reason WAC was an academic success was the realisation that my research area is still relatively untouched. Although I attended sessions on sustainability and sustainable development in relation to archaeology, few presenters were critically engaging with the concept. Following my presentation (which I survived despite just three hours sleep) I was approached by a number of delegates who were interested in hearing more about my research. I participated in a short but interesting debate that arose from a statement made during a Q&A session that “sustainability had failed” to which the organisers of the session unanimously agreed. This puzzled me, because I did not understand on what grounds they were determining that sustainability, or rather the various things we do under the rubric of sustainability, had failed? Although I was nervous about challenging established perspectives and academics, I responded to the discussion suggesting that sustainability does not and really cannot fail as it is a social construct; we determine the aims to make something ‘sustainable’ and the units of measurements for determining if outcomes are ‘sustainable’ against criteria for ‘sustainability’ that we have the power to determine. I was the first time that I was able to use my research into sustainability discourses to suggest that archaeologists should not be constrained by existing rhetoric but should make it work for us.

Outside of the conference I went on a 23km walk to discover the many shrines of Kyoto, the Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku-ji and Nijo castle (in 36 degrees with 80% humidity!!), received an impromptu guided walk around Tōdai-ji Buddhist Temple complex UNESCO World Heritage site at Nara from a lady called Yoko that we met at the foot of the sacred mountain, and finally before flying home we experienced the bright neon lights of the Dontonbori area of Osaka. I have stocked up on Matcha (finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea) so that I can make Matcha Latte to get me through the next few months of my PhD thesis write-up period.

WAC provided a platform for researchers from all over the world to meet and share often cutting edge research. It was certainly a place where I could learn about the latest developments in archaeology.  The size of this event had its drawbacks since many of the sessions which I was interested in clashed. This led me to missing some presentations which were relevant to my research. The set-up of the building did not help, sessions were held on different floors, so it was  difficult to make contact with people from sessions which I had missed.

Another observation which comes to my mind is that WAC sticks to its code of ethics. For example there was a debate on Palestine-Israeli issues concerning protection of basic human rights and the promotion of social justice amongst other proposed statements relating to the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Of course, these issues are highly political,  however, in my personal view,  intergovernmental meetings which I have experienced in the past which took place under the aegis of UNESCO have virtually nothing in common with the same word ‘political’ used by some of the WAC members. I would rather call it an ethical organisation which holds to its core values, as opposed to political.

During different sessions, there were questions raised and many of them I thought remained unanswered. One question asked was how do social impact evaluations apply to dark heritage sites where communities are not comfortable with its interpretation (or even existence)?

Another critical comment was to abandon the word 'empowering' as it assumes that people who we engage with have no power as oppose to us ‘experts’ who have the power. There are many more comments which I found interesting during the WAC debates.

To sum up, I thought that the papers presented at the Congress were well researched and based on empirical studies as oppose to one’s opinions! I attended sessions where presentations which were talking about people were based on real experience talking to people, I mean working with people, rather than making assumptions on their behalf.  Of course, you will find naïve comments, but that’s good when you know that they are not based on academic enquiry, life experience but judgments and one’s opinions.

If you are interested in the democratisation of archaeology where social justice is at its heart and issues which connect past with the present WAC definitely serves its purpose. This year’s Congress was a success and I am pleased that I managed to make it.

See also Sarah and Malgorzata's jointly-authored paper ‘Personal, professional and academic journeys to WAC 8’ in Archaeologies: journal of the World Archaeological Congress 12(2), 153-162.