Community, Climate Change, and Self-Reflection Highlight a Vibrant 28th Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology

By Matthew Reilly, CUNY, USA

Following the first congress in 1961, the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology (IACA) has met every other year to discuss fieldwork, finds, theories, and practices of regional interest. For its 28th meeting, delegates, for the third time in the organization’s history, gathered in Barbados from July 21st through the 27th to, following the title of the conference, “Re-Examine Self” – a theme that sought to push regional and international specialists to consider issues of ethics, interpretation, technological advances, community, climate change, and heritage. Hosted by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, the conference welcomed experts from across the globe, fostering dialogue about innovative regional research and sparking self-reflexive conversation. Despite having expertise on the past, archaeologists attending this meeting demonstrated their commitment to the present and future.

As at previous IACA meetings, the tremendous diversity of Caribbean archaeology was on full display. Delegates presented exciting new work ranging geographically from the Florida Keys southward throughout the island chain, hitting the Greater Antilles, the Leewards, the Windwards, and into South America. The congress promoted the exchange of ideas, just as archaeological research presented highlighted the interconnected nature of Caribbean cultures from the pre-Columbian past into the present. Questions posed to presenters indicated a particular excitement with new and emerging technologies, especially 3D scanning and ancient DNA.

Organized thematically, conference sessions drew together specialists working on sites spanning from the earliest human inhabitants of the Caribbean, such as one of the earliest burials from Cuba, to far more recent sites of the contemporary past, like the ash-laden ruins of Plymouth, Montserrat. Of particular note were the sobering presentations that highlighted the mass destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Archaeological sites, especially those along coastlines, and collections are extremely vulnerable to storms, and delegates, including IACA President Jay Haviser, presented cautionary tales of what has already been, and what stands to be, lost. Archaeological heritage in the Caribbean is not a renewable resource, and this conference served as a painful reminder of the new reality faced by peoples of the Caribbean in the wake of climate change.

While the earliest IACA meetings were largely devoted to pre-Columbian studies, papers and sessions on the colonial and contemporary period have become increasingly common. As the Caribbean, Barbados included, finds itself in the midst of conversations surrounding reparations for slavery, papers presented provided insights into the effects of slavery that lasted well beyond emancipation. It was this pivoting between past, present, and future, alluded to by many conference presenters, that showcased the importance of archaeology in the region.

Conference participants were also exposed to the rich archaeological heritage of Barbados, visiting sites in and around the Bridgetown area and beyond. Prior to a reception at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, participants were fortunate enough to be on hand for the official opening of the Caribbean Ties exhibition. This exciting and innovative travelling exhibition, sponsored by the Nexus1492 project, which proudly demonstrates the persistence and resisliance of indigenous Caribbean cultures, is currently on display in twelve countries. Neatly encapsulating many of the themes of the conference, the exhibition features extensive collaboration with indigenous Caribbean populations. As part of the reception, representatives of the Kalingo, Invince Auguiste and Sardo Sutherland, described their role in the project and its significance for all indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. 

Questions and comments from audience members from the public throughout the week made clear that Caribbean non-specialists are interested and invested in the work conducted by archaeologists in the region. Part of the self-reflection and inquisitive dialogue was prompted by insightful questions that reinforced the importance of public engagement and heritage promotion. It was repeatedly mentioned during the week that IACA is a family. The six days of the conference certainly proved this to be true, but it also demonstrated that the Caribbean public is part of that family. The success of the 28th IACA conference in Barbados should certainly be attributed to the efforts of the dedicated staff at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, but what attendees will likely carry with them is the importance of community, solidarity, innovative and thoughtful practice, engagement, dancing, and perhaps a little rum.