What Happened at WAC-3?

By Colley, Sarah | Antiquity, March 1995 | Go to article overview

What Happened at WAC-3?


Colley, Sarah, Antiquity


We asked Sarah Colley, who teaches Aboriginal archaeology and heritage management at the University of Sydney, Australia, to give an account of the 3rd World Archaeological Congress, held at New Delhi, India, 4-11 December 1994, as she experienced it.

Arriving at the Congress

I don't know exactly how many delegates attended the World Archaeological Congress-3 in New Delhi. When we arrived for Registration at the Taj Palace Hotel on Sunday 4 December the organizers seemed not to be sure themselves. I've since heard that about 900 people from 70 countries were there. At Registration we learnt that the academic programme was in disarray. Before I could register my papers I was asked if I had any major disagreement with the following:

Following a meeting in New Delhi on the eve of the Third World Archaeological Congress, the WAC Executive is making it known that it supports the view of our Indian colleagues that there should be no papers or discussion within the Congress programme nor resolutions or discussion at meetings of the Executive Committee/Council and in the Plenary Session on the politically and communally sensitive Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid (Ayodhya) issue. The Executive recognises that the practical consequences of discussing this issue would be beyond the Executive's control.

In asking members of the Congress to respect this understanding, the Executive assures participants that this is the only concession that it is willing to make to limitation of the WAC principles of discussion of the historical and social role, and political context, of archaeological enquiry and interpretation.

Signed: Jack Golson, President WAC

As I had just arrived and was unfamiliar with the issue I had no particular opinion. Near-by a group of Indian male delegates were involved in an ugly, physical altercation. What on earth was going on? I quickly tapped into the rumour-mill which was often the only source of information. Someone said that several UK delegates had dropped out at the last minute in protest at attempts to gag the WAC over Ayodhya. Maybe I'm cynical, but I couldn't help wondering if some people were relieved to find a 'politically correct' excuse not to attend. Delhi is not an easy place for the average Western visitor. As an Australian colleague remarked - you can't breathe the air, drink the water or eat most of the food without getting sick.

The conference was very expensive and plagued by practical problems. Individual experiences varied, but there were common themes. The urban third-world setting and the complexities of Indian culture, Ayodhya aside, provided an interesting but often frustrating backdrop. Very poor organization magnified problems experienced at all large conferences. After much hard work, mainly by UK delegates and some session organizers, an academic programme eventually appeared listing times and venues for each Theme. Individual speakers were usually only announced each morning (if at all) on hand-written notices posted in the lobby. Planning ahead was very difficult; switching between sessions was foolhardy. An official printed 'Programme of the Congress' also appeared. This should probably be renamed 'The Programme of the Congress that Never Was', as it lists scores of papers and delegates who weren't actually there and excludes many who were.

In some cases individual enterprise successfully surmounted practical hurdles. For example, the organizers of Theme 3 ('Language, anthropology and archaeology') borrowed the British High Commission's xerox machine to make multiple copies of their programme, so delegates knew the order of papers in advance. Having a Lord (Renfrew) as one of the theme organizers clearly helped here! Theme 3 also successfully repelled all attempts to evict them from their allocated room. Other themes weren't so lucky. 'The Neogene and the Quaternary' started at the National Museum but was later switched back to the Taj Palace Hotel following multiple problems with transport, rooms unavailable or locked, papers cancelled without notice, and general disorganization.

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