Looking back on the WRoCAH Conference 2019, by Gabriel Jones

On 17th October, the fifth annual WRoCAH conference was held at the De Grey Rooms in York. This was a special day for WRoCAH and for us as an organising committee, marking the end of more than six months of preparation. This piece tells a little of our story.

Gabriel Jones (2018 Cohort)

School of Music

University of Leeds

On behalf of the WRoCAH Conference organising committee: Marta Donati, Milena Schwab-Graham and Eleanor Green.

After the 2018 conference at the University of York’s STEM Centre, a number of us volunteered to organise the conference for the following year. From initial emails and first meetings, the group established itself as Marta Donati, Eleanor Green and myself, Gabriel Jones. Sensing that we needed some extra support and social media expertise, I asked my friend Milena Schwab-Graham whether she’d be interested in joining the team. Thankfully, she agreed, and the committee was formed.

Marta Donati, Gabriel Jones, Milena Schwab-Graham and Eleanor Green

From the outset, we felt like a cohesive group, with each person bringing something unique to the table. We decided not to take official committee roles. However, over time, Eleanor became an acting chair, keeping us on-track and leading each meeting, Milena managed our social media promotion and Marta and I looked after the preparation of conference materials, including artwork and the conference booklet. These positions remained fluid throughout, contributing to the easy-going, productive camaraderie of the group.

Our first important decision was to include breakout workshop sessions and thesis SLAMs (dynamic, ten-minute PhD overview presentations) in a revamp of the traditional conference structure. Above all, we aimed to diversify delivery of content, allowing people to present their research in a variety of ways, whilst keeping our audience engaged. The workshops and SLAMs were a challenge to plan as neither had been done at a WRoCAH conference before, making the call for papers somewhat complicated.  Initially we were a little nervous about what kind of response we’d get, but thankfully we received plenty of proposals (Milena’s social media promotion helped a lot). Finally, after much discussion, we were able to put together an exciting provisional program.

We were thrilled to be able to hold this year’s conference in the De Grey Rooms in York. Apart from its stunning building and stylish premises, the venue benefited from a central city location, making proceedings around the conference a lot more vibrant and exciting. As the day approached, we had a number of sessions liaising with the venue, and trying to envision how the day might look. We were particularly keen to find spaces for our breakout workshops that would accommodate groups of different sizes. Thankfully, the venue proved an ideal fit, with the added bonus of abundant golden pineapples. I wonder how many people spotted them?

We were also delighted to welcome Andrew ‘Bone’ Jones, a retired archaeologist from the University of York, to be our keynote speaker on the day. We were all relieved to hear that Bone had agreed to speak, but couldn’t have anticipated how positive and inspiring a choice he would be. More on that later…

The evening before the event, Eleanor, Milena and I arrived at the venue to help with the setup and run through our plans for the day. This was our first encounter with the gigantic sixteen-foot screen we’d hired for presentations in the main hall. Having organised the rental and witnessed the extensive setup procedure, I was a little concerned that we’d overdone it, but it turned out to be the perfect size. The following morning, we arrived early, setting up our sign-in desk and going through last-minute preparations. Delegates and speakers soon began to arrive. It felt incredible to witness the conference coming together after so much hard work and preparation. Aside from my failure to alphabetise our sign-in sheets (sorry guys), things ran smoothly, and the day kicked off with a good level of attendance.

The SLAMs proved an ideal way to start the conference, with each speaker adopting a different approach to presentation, covering a huge range of subjects and methods. The ten-minute format kept people engaged and the competition element added an extra level of interest. As the chair for this first session, I was in charge of running our online ‘mentimeter’ poll for best SLAM, with the audience voting in real time to award the top prize to Taryn Bell, whose presentation, ‘My Friend Norris’, delivered above and beyond the brief. After a coffee break, we had our first workshops. These also ran smoothly and were very well-received. In the morning, I got to sit in on Lucy Moore’s fantastic coin-making session, witnessing the production of some brilliant contemporary stycas (with zero finger amputations). Later in the afternoon, I got to enjoy Paula Ponce’s skeletal remains workshop, getting hands on with some human skeletons (and mistaking a shoulder blade for a pelvis). As our most ambitious innovation, these workshops were a big success – well worth the logistical challenges they posed. Finally, to round off the student presentations, we had a ‘traditional’ paper session, showcasing some brilliant and innovative work, and highlighting the enormous diversity of WRoCAH-funded research.

This left an increasingly frazzled organising committee with just the keynote speech to present. We already had a good feeling about the presentation, but none of us could have anticipated Bone’s levels of commitment, generosity and humour. As a speaker, he could not have been more accommodating, giving me a PowerPoint with more than a hundred slides and asking me how long I wanted the presentation to be. Ten minutes? Half an hour? An hour? Amazed at his spontaneous flexibility, I asked for forty minutes, bringing us in exactly on time. Needless to say, he obliged in style, delivering an unforgettably informative, inspirational and hilarious keynote speech, covering his career as an archaeologist and experience with public outreach, that will live on in the memory for a long, long time.

With the day over, we debriefed and said our goodbyes, extremely proud of what we, WRoCAH and the cohort had achieved. It was a wonderful experience, well worth the time, effort and occasional stress (it seems you think so too – check out the word cloud of feedback). Speaking on behalf of the committee, we’ll miss our team meetings, and being part of this fantastic process. But for now, we’re looking forward to the 2020 conference, and seeing what direction the next committee will take.