Next week marks thirty years since the first World Archaeological Congress took place at the University of Southampton. In our latest blog post we take a brief look at the controversial events leading up to the conference.
The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) began life as the 11th Congress of the Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques (UISPP), an affiliate of UNESCO and recognised by the latter as the official body of world archaeology. The 11th Congress of UISPP was set to take place in Southampton in September 1986, with the responsibility for organisation delegated to a British national committee. However, as preparations were underway, growing violence in South Africa midway through 1985 brought heightened awareness to the issue of apartheid. This led to pressure from Southampton City Council and other organisations funding the conference to impose a boycott on South African participation. The decision of the British organisers to implement the ban led to UISPP refusing official recognition of the conference, citing the case as one of academic freedom. The decision received considerable coverage in both the popular and scientific press and resulted in a series of resignations and withdrawals. It also led to a significant split of opinion among the academic community with a number of open letters circulated arguing both for and against the ban.
Despite these setbacks, Professor Peter Ucko, the National Secretary of the Congress, insisted on moving ahead under a new name: the World Archaeological Congress. The first WAC was held in Southampton from 1-6 September 1986. It drew in 1000 people from 100 countries, with special efforts made to provide a more open and inclusive platform and encourage indigenous people from underdeveloped countries to attend. The conference also brought into stark focus the idea of archaeological ‘objectivity’, challenging the orthodox view that the profession was either above or outside politics.
The success of the conference has since enabled the WAC to continue to promote openness, inclusivity and diversity through a series of major international conferences held every four years. These have included WAC-2 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 1990; WAC-3 in New Delhi, India in 1994; WAC-4 in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999; WAC-5 in Washington, D.C., USA in 2003; WAC-6 in Dublin, Ireland in 2008; and WAC-7 at the Dead Sea, Jordan in 2013. However, subsequent conferences have not been without political and social complications, with organisers of WAC-3 in India being heavily criticised after a controversial decision was made to ban discussion of the recent destruction of the Ayodhya mosque.
The WAC has also sponsored a series of regional thematic Inter-Congresses, including ‘Archaeological ethics and the treatment of the Dead’ in Vermillion, South Dakota in 1989; ‘Environment and Archaeology’ in Puerto Rico in 1992; ‘Urban origins in Africa’ in Mombasa, Kenya in 1993; ‘Nomadism – Past, Present in Global Context and Historical Perspective, The Phenomenon of the Hsiung-Nu’ in Buryatia, Russia in 1996; and ‘The Destruction and Restoration of Cultural Property’ in Brac, Croatia in 1998.
Special Collections holds two collections relating to the WAC: the papers of Peter Ucko (MS 406 A928) and the papers of Peter Stone (MS 406 A4167). Peter Stone was project manager and co-ordinator of the Archaeology and Education Project at the University of Southampton from 1985 to 1988. During this time he was heavily involved in the creation and development of the WAC, acting as Honorary Chief Executive Officer between 1998 and 2008. His recently catalogued papers contain a range of material relating to organising several of the international conferences and inter-congresses, with a particularly significant amount of material focusing on WAC-1. The papers include correspondence, minutes of committee meetings, articles, press cuttings, promotional material, programmes and pre-circulated papers. Other material in the collection includes WAC publications such as WAC News: The World Archaeological Newsletter and the World Archaeological Bulletin, the first edition of which focused on the issue of academic freedom, particularly in terms of its relationship to apartheid and archaeology.
WAC-8 is set to take place in Kyoto, Japan and will run from 28 August to 2 September 2016.