This year, I am spending 3.6 AMS dates, or 141.6 undergraduate research assistant hours to attend the SAA meeting. I must say I was a bit shocked by the price of hotels in the vicinity of this year’s venue in Washington DC. It got me to reflect on 1) the barriers to participation in academic and professional archaeology, and 2) on the use we make of the funds entrusted to us by the public.

Diversity is good. The more voices, the more perspectives, the more varied backgrounds we have available to contemplate a problem or a question, the likelier we are to find a solution or a solid answer. If we want to be truly inclusive and welcoming as a discipline, we have to give very serious thought to the cost of participating in something as important as the annual meeting of the SAA.

Our mission is to learn what we can about the past to help with the present, if we can. The more money we spend on actual production of knowledge about the past, the better. The more students we can support in their training, the better.

Conferences still matter

Despite all the technology, all the new means of communication, and all the great ideas out there about how to congregate virtually, face-to-face conferences still matter. They are where working relationships are forged, where people hear each other’s ideas live, often for the first time, where they can try out new interpretations in a relatively safe space, and where they have extended periods of time together in informal settings to really brainstorm with people they don’t normally meet with.

And like most important resources in our messed up world, conferences are least accessible to those who need them most and to those who would contribute most to the effort, in this case, students, early career professors, those with no institutional support, those with no institutional affiliation, and scholars from far away. Their participation in this kind of venue is key to the success of the discipline because they bring the diversity and novelty of perspectives that we need to actually increase our understanding of the human past and present. That is, after all, what we are here for.

The cost of attending

It is still worth committing a portion of our research budgets to participating in conferences. The question for me is: how much of a portion? How many AMS dates, RA hours, or days in the field is it responsible for me to turn into conference attendance each year?

Roughly 4000 people attend the meeting annually. Let’s assume that because I cross a border, my attendance cost is a little above average. Let’s assume 1500 USD per participant. That means we collectively commit about 10 000 AMS dates or approximately 333 000 hours of undergraduate research assistant hours to the meeting each year. It is difficult to estimate the number of days in the field this amount represents because the cost of fieldwork varies so much. But where I work, the amount would support a whopping 500 months (yes, 41 years) of field work with my regular crew of six. And I work in the north, so not cheap.

The cost of non-attendance

In addition to this direct cost in knowledge production, the individual cost of attending the SAA meeting directly drives the cost of non-attendance for the discipline. Those who can’t attend can’t contribute, and they can’t benefit. Making sure that the greatest diversity of people can participate in conferences means controlling the cost of attending, so that we minimize the cost of non-attendance. There is always a cost, and some people will always be excluded, but cost control and maximization of participation should be a key criterion in the choice of venue for a conference like the SAA.

I don’t know to what extent the Society takes this into account. I am sure they do, at some level. But the evidence of my senses, in the form of the sight of the little price flags around the conference hotel on Google Maps suggests that more can be done.



Figure 1: available bookings in the immediate vicinity of the conference hotel, April 11-15

I don’t remember being shocked in the same way at the price of hotels when going to the SAA, at least in some previous years. Even in San Francisco, which I expected to be quite expensive, I found a reasonably priced hotel within easy walking distance of the venue, with plenty of tasty and cheap food options nearby. Vancouver, which for Canadians is considered expensive, had plenty of surprisingly affordable options for lodging and food within walking distance of the conference center. No such luck in DC. I did find a room at the upper end of my tolerance range within a metro ride or a 40 minute walk of the conference. I am looking forward to the walk.

So that we can make better individual and collective decisions about participation in what is the world’s leading archaeology conference, I would encourage the SAA to report the cost of individual attendance as well as our total disciplinary investment in units to which archaeologists can readily relate. I would like to see it expressed in AMS units and student training units. Perhaps there are even better ideas for units out there that would be helpful in guiding our resource allocation decisions.

One thought on “The cost of attending the SAA meeting

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