The Theoretical Archaeology Group 2004 had its conference in Glasgow where 450 delegates were treated to the legendary hospitality of that city. One innovation of "Tartan TAG" was a ceilidh in which theorists were put through an exceptionally well-organised sequence of Highland dances rich in the metaphors of courting and rejection. Another was a plenary session in which all who attended were issued with a laser gadget with which to vote. Propositions put by speakers could be tested instantly by democratic mandate; we just pointed our widgets at little sensors in the roof and pressed one of buttons 1-6, according to our likes. As a warm up, we rejoiced to learn that we were almost exactly 50 per cent of each sex, 42 per cent were from the UK and 38 per cent of us had PhDs. I would have liked this social analysis of the audience to have penetrated still deeper: how many of us still believed in processualism? How many of us actually liked theory, or thought it might be vaguely good for us, like losing weight? How many of us had children and pets, and of course compliant partners or nannies allowing us to attend a three-day conference so preposterously close to the New Year holiday? But the organisers' minds were set on more exigent matters: the archaeology degree, the archaeological work-place and the relationship between the two. We were quickly shown that democracy is a capricious instrument, the electorate being quite happy to vote for impossible or contradictory contentions, and if necessary to lob random "dissident" votes into the mix.
For all that, we agreed with Meg Conkey that the archaeology degree was matchless in its combination of arts and sciences, with Bill Hanson that it should be undertaken for its own sake and did not have to be useful to anyone, and with Matthew Johnson that the student, not the government or any prospective employer, was "the primary stakeholder". 90 per cent of us thought a degree should include ethics, and 77 per cent that it should include more compulsory practical training, while a gratifying 70 per cent reckoned that this practical training should encompass survey, buildings and artefact studies as well as digging. However on the question of how much training was necessary to make a professional, the house divided on party lines, in this case by age, employment and background. While 94 per cent of students thought that a degree in archaeology should qualify you for a career in commercial field work, obviously nobody else did: the lecturers thought the answer was an MA (which they were trying to sell) and the contract archaeologists thought that the best training was done on the job--although they were not offering it.
Kenny Aitchison of IFA offered a ray of light in which vocational apprenticeships could be combined with full-time education. Naturally there will be much to talk about here, since the archaeology profession embraces a much broader constituency than either the University or the Field Contract sector. Everyone was happy to agree that the sectors had grown unacceptably far apart, John Walker announcing that he proposed to "shoot the duck of autonomy". It was pointed out from the floor that the investment that students have to make in a first degree, or an MA or more significantly in a PhD, offered no comparable financial returns to an employee. Thus the commercial sector was hardly in a position to demand any particular level of training--since it would neither pay for it nor reward it. Once pay was mentioned the discussion deteriorated rapidly, and took on the sepia tinge of a 1980s "Rescue" meeting. Yannis Hamilakis reminded us that we were being manipulated by power factions and should demand a total political makeover, and Colin Renfrew, winding up, played the wistful card of priestly vocation: low pay was a concomitant of a pleasurable craft.
From a ledge above this old impasse, I wonder if I might be permitted an attempt to shoot the duck of poverty with the cross-bow of pricing. …