September is back and yet many of us are wondering how we got here…

There is no doubt that 2020 has been an extremely challenging year for most of us. Although Covid-19 shows little sign of disappearing, this new term does seem to bring a new energy; a sense of hope, albeit tentative, grows as we reshuffle our schedules, adjust our working conditions, embrace new technologies (yes Zoom, I’m talking about you) and adopt new ways of doing things. Many of our day-to-day activities have undergone rapid change in response to social distancing and ‘intelligent lockdown’ measures. As a researcher of ancient people and their material culture, I find myself watching these changes in our current society and thinking about the events and challenges faced by those we investigate in the past.

One major change that 2020 has seen in the academic landscape is the emergence of the digital or virtual conference. As climate concerns and accessibility issues within academia have grown over the past decade, so has the potential for hosting virtual conferences, not only for reducing unnecessary travel and financial penalties for speakers and attendees, but for exploring new digital technologies and widening participation. Back in March, just as Covid-19 forced us into lockdown, our team member Caroline Jeffra was heavily involved in helping the EXARC Berlin conference, Documentation Strategies in (Archaeological) Open Air Museums, transition to a digital event (https://exarc.net/meetings/berlin). The success of this event has given Caroline and her co-organisers (Richard Thér, Chase Minos and Roeland Paardekooper) the confidence to take the upcoming Archaeological Approaches to the Potter’s Wheel conference online in late November. You can read more about this exciting conference here: https://potterswheelconference2020.wordpress.com/

At the start of the year, the TPW team were planning to share the progress of our digital database with colleagues in Budapest at the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA). As you may have guessed by now, travel to Budapest was cancelled but the meeting was able to proceed virtually using the Hopin online platform (https://www.e-a-a.org/eaa2020virtual). Over 1000 archaeologists from all over the world met in virtual sessions to give talks on their research and discuss all things archaeology. Our team joined two sessions to share our progress and chat about digital databases and archives. To offset problems with internet connections, we decided to pre-record our presentations with audio, which can now be accessed online:

BALANCING DATA STORAGE AND USER FUNCTIONALITY: THE 3D AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL DATA STRATEGY OF THE TRACING THE POTTER’S WHEEL PROJECT (which appeared in Session #401 – Image-based 3D Documentation – Next Level of Data Storage in Digital Archaeology, organised by Marco Hostettler, Clara Drummer, Lea Emmenegger and Johannes Reich)

CREATING AN OPEN-ACCESS DIGITAL REPOSITORY OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND EXPERIMENTAL CERAMICS: THE TRACING THE POTTER’S WHEEL APPROACH (which appeared in Session #414 – Digital Pottery Archives: New Methods of Data Use and Classification, organised by Gabriele Gattiglia, Holly Wright and Francesca Anichini)

How do virtual conferences work then? The format of our sessions varied slightly, depending on the number of people giving papers. Each session formed a self-contained chat room. Only nine video screens could be viewed simultaneously, with other viewers of the session participating anonymously in the discussion, though they could announce their presence and participate in the discussion through a running chat function. For many speakers it was a new experience to answer questions without speaking directly to the asker. In some instances, discussion was perhaps a little more stilted than an in-person experience, with people hesitant to address an almost empty screen. At other times, the speed of question typing prevented a free-flowing discussion of the topic at hand. This meant that session moderators were key for maintaining the pace of discussion, as well as ensuring all views and questions typed in the chat were voiced for all session viewers. Our sessions were luckily also relatively free of technical breakdowns or software glitches, although other sessions were forced to adapt the running order of talks to accommodate system rebooting by some speakers. As with any major conference, our viewing schedules were torn between interesting sessions running concurrently. The ability to simply click and enter a different session did mean an end to physically running between rooms, floors and buildings, but the adapted schedules were often difficult to figure out, and inevitably some papers were missed.

Overall, our TPW experience of virtual conferences have been positive, as they have allowed the sharing of research to continue and promoted useful and necessary discussion with other specialists and interested parties. Yet, the same debate emerges from this context as video calls to family, online lectures or music lessons, which is whether this virtual interaction can bring the same benefits or value as in-person interactions. Networking, the buzzword used to justify so many professional meetings in the past, was encouraged during the EAA Annual Meeting via a randomised chat function you could enter or, alternatively, you could privately message people using a directory of participant names. The measure of success will come over the next few weeks and months, as the connections initiated in these chats, and during the sessions, are developed and transformed into communication of new research ideas and potential networks of collaborations in the future.

As with any new technology, constant change and development continues: we will see more virtual conferences on the horizon, conferences designed from the outset as virtual experiences and harnessing the technology and format of the ‘academic encounter’ to best effect. Whether pre-Covid normality resumes or not, it seems these new methods of connecting academics through research are truly out of the box. Our new challenge is to ensure they live up to their potential for widening participation to research and archaeology in general.