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Conference report: European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

The annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists is one of the largest gatherings of archaeologists in the world. This year’s event which took place between 6-11 of September,online only, was to have been based in Kiel. Over 2,400 people attended the conference, taking part in 236 sessions with 2,500 contributions and eight keynote lectures. As with any conference of this size you can only really scratch the surface. The differences between a physical conference of this type and a cloud-based one are significant. They are distinctly different experiences; both are valuable but sitting looking at a screen is, for me, no substitute for meeting up with colleagues in person. Sadly, with the pandemic not yet over, we really have no choice but to eschew international gatherings. The good thing is that we were able to continue with the exchange of ideas, and with electronic sessions it is much easier to pick and choose what to attend; no sneaking in late at the back of the room.

I organised a session of twelve papers within the globalisation and archaeology theme, entitled Ideological, technological & economic change in the first millennium BCE at the Eurasian extremities: Japan and Britain in wider context. In the end it was a truly international session with speakers from the UK, Japan, Korea, Germany, Canada and Holland. A key theme for the session was evaluating the usefulness of Karl Jaspers’ ‘Axial Age’ for understanding archaeological material across Eurasia, but with an emphasis on the extremities.  

Karl Jaspers, in his 1953 book The Origin and Goal of History, outlined what he considered to be a foundational period in Eurasian history, the ‘Axial Age’, a time lasting between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, when philosophical and religious leaders emerged in several locations: Greece, the Levant, India and China. A case can be made for this period being an essential precursor to modernity, as it was these thinkers that Renaissance and Enlightenment writers were drawing on for their own concepts about the nature of reality. More recently the anthropologist David Graeber has utilised Jaspers’ formulation and included another significant innovation which took place in the same locations during this period, coinage. He viewed this as a key aspect in Jaspers’ pivotal moment, extrapolating from it a complex of concepts: money, states, slavery and the further innovation of a paid professional military. He linked all these to developments in philosophical and religious thinking which spread from the places of their initial genesis out across the continent and eventually engulfed a span from Ireland in the far west to Japan and Indonesia in the far east.

During the discussion there was much debate on how useful the ‘Axial Age’ is as a framework for understanding. The timeframe of 800 – 200 BCE was challenged and generally considered to require expansion back into the Bronze Age (2,500 – 800 BCE) and forward, particularly for Japan to the Kofun period (300-550 CE). Given these provisos there seemed to be something of a consensus that it was a useful heuristic framework. For me the connection between religion and the concept of money, or more fundamentally mind and material culture, is a particularly fruitful area of focus, which I am planning on studying further whilst in Japan next spring on a Fellowship at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku), working with Professor MATSUGI who also took part in the session.

We are hoping to publish the papers from the session as a book planned for release in 2023.

Andy Hutcheson
Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeology and Heritage, SISJAC

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