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The International Symposium on Archaeometry

Monday, 11 Dec 2017
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The 50 years Anniversary of ISA

Talk given by Mike Tite

Martin Aitken has succinctly outlined the beginnings of the discipline of archaeometry and of the International Symposium on Archaeometry. I was at that first Symposium back in 1961as a DPhil student, and as far as I can remember, I have attended all but three of the subsequent Symposia.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the range of topics covered by the Symposium progressively increased, the length of the Symposium was extended, and parallel sessions were introduced. Then in 1981, at the 21 st Symposium at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York , the model for all subsequent Symposia was established. Parallel sessions were abolished, the length of the Symposium was extended to five days, and poster sessions were introduced to supplement the oral presentations.

If one looks at the themes at Leuven, these are not so very different from those at Brookhaven (ie Provenance, Ancient technology (non metals and metals), Prospection and Mathematical methods, Dating (inorganic and organic), the principal addition being Biomaterials and Bioarchaeology which was introduced during the 1990s.

However, between Brookhaven and Leuven, the distribution of the papers between the different themes has changed dramatically. At Brookhaven, the number of papers devoted to ancient materials, dating and prospection were fairly evenly balanced, but at Leuven, and for several previous Symposia, ancient materials papers have been dominant. This in part reflects the introduction of specialist conferences on radiocarbon dating, luminescence dating, geophysical prospection, and bioarchaeology. However, this is not the complete explanation since there are also specialist conferences on ancient stone, ceramics, metals and glass, and yet, the ISA still attracts large numbers of papers on all these ancient materials.

As a result of so many specialist conferences and the fact that, in spite of the dramatic increase in the number of people working in the overall field of archaeometry or archaeological science, the number of participants at ISAs remains at a few hundred, the Standing Committee has sometimes asked itself whether such a generalist conference still has a role to play? I would, however, strongly argue that the ISA still has a very important role to play in the dissemination of research in this field.

First, by covering the entire field with single oral sessions and posters, which have always been given as much importance as oral presentations, the ISA provides an opportunity for participants to keep abreast of developments outside their immediate specialist research interests. This aspect of the Symposium is further enhanced by the inclusion, as at Leuven, of a number of Keynote papers. Furthermore, as seen yesterday by the interaction between radiocarbon dating and organic residue specialists, the Symposium provides opportunities for the exchange of information between what might otherwise be regarded as separate disciplines.

Second, by routinely alternating Symposia between Europe and North America, the ISA brings together on a regular basis archaeological scientists from both sides of the Atlantic which, in part because of the different milieu in which they operate (i.e., archaeology and anthropology respectively), is something of great benefit to both groups. In this context, I am delighted that two groups from North America, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, are now bidding to hold the 2014 Symposium.

Finally, a significant and most important feature of ISA is that a high proportion of the oral and poster presentations (typically about 50%) are given by students who clearly benefit from the overview of the entire field that attendance at an ISA provides at an early stage in their career. In addition, the Symposium gives them the opportunity to meet academics and fellow students from across the discipline.

In conclusion, therefore, I would like to propose a toast to past and present students since it is their enthusiasm for their research and their belief that anything is possible that provides a constant challenge and stimulus to their supervisors. So, let us drink to past, present, and indeed future students of archaeological science who, as the life-blood of the discipline, are crucial to the ongoing success of ISAs.

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