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Review of the 10th Radiocarbon & Archaeology Conference (Zürich, 11-14th September). T. Higham

The 10th Radiocarbon and Archaeology conference was held at the ETH Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich), in parallel with the 24th Radiocarbon conference.

 

The meeting got underway on Sunday 11/09, with a series of workshops at the Hönggerberg ETH campus, covering topics such as the Carbon cycle, compound-specific radiocarbon dating, mortar dating and also included lab tours of the ETH facilities. This was followed by an ice-breaker event.

 

The remainder of the conference was held at the main ETH building in central Zurich. Following a welcome from the Rector of the ETH, Prof. Dissertori, Alex Bayliss began the conference by giving an overview of the radiocarbon dating of historic sites in the age of single-year calibration, providing a measure of how far the field of radiocarbon dating and archaeology has come in terms of precision and interdisciplinarity, with dendrochronology and genetics now complementing AMS dating. Aside from two other plenary talks, the remainder of the Archaeology part of the conference was split into two parallel sessions, covering the topics of agriculture/migration/DNA, diet and reservoir effects, archaeological samples for accurate dating, dating at the limit of the method, geoarchaeology, art and cultural heritage and radiocarbon and the protection of cultural heritage. The parallel sessions of the Radiocarbon conference focussed on technical developments and the carbon cycle.

 

As in any event like this, synchronisation is of the essence. For the most part it was relatively seamless to move from one session to another and catch the talks in time; this was helped because of the relative proximity of the lecture theatres to one another.

 

For me, highlights of day included Emmanuelle Casanova’s presentation on compound-specific dating of lipid residues in pottery vessels and Anita Quiles careful work on new chronometric models for the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Damien Finch gave a very interesting presentation on dating Australian aboriginal rock art using mud-wasp nests and reported dates for the most ancient art of the Kimberley region of Northern Australia. Following the talks there was a poster session and drinks, followed by a visit to the IonPlus facility.

 

Christopher Bronk Ramsey’s plenary talk on Tuesday was concerned with the history of radiocarbon calibration, from the earliest days to the latest INTCAL20 curves. Other memorable talks included the important discussion on the role of radiocarbon dating in the protection of cultural heritage presented by Tim Jull, the dating of Neanderthal remains using compound-specific approaches by Thibaut Devièse, and the complexities of dating boundaries and transitions covered in an afternoon session with talks by Lyndelle Webster, Elisabetta Boaretto and Johanna Regev.

 

Later in the afternoon there was a great range of excursions to choose from, including walking tours of old Zurich, trips to the Semper observatory, the Botanical Gardens, the National Museum, Kunsthaus, and more.

 

Nicholas Conard’s plenary talk on Wednesday morning on the spread of modern humans and the disappearance of Neanderthals was a masterful overview, skilfully melding the archaeological picture with the latest scientific and dating work. Mike Dee’s talk on the possibility of dating glucose from tree rings was very interesting, as well as Brendon Culleton’s talk on dating leather and the challenges involved. The benefit of having the Radiocarbon conference running in tandem was that one was able to also attend talks on the more technical aspects of radiocarbon science. There were several very good presentations here that are worthy of mention. Melina Wertnik’s presentation on the use of Laser Ablation-AMS to date continuous/real-time samples of speleothem and otolith was an exciting glimpse into the future, as was Kai Nakajima’s talk about rapid pollen sorting and the direct dating of pollen remains from peat bogs.

 

The conference finished with a dinner at the Schützenhaus Albisgütli overlooking the city of Zurich.

 

Despite 70 years since Libby’s development of the radiocarbon method, the technique as it is applied to archaeology continues to evolve and surprise in its range of applications. Archaeologists and radiocarbon scientists alike continue to wrestle with challenges of decontamination, reservoir corrections and the reliable dating of different types of materials. The widening impact and evolution of clever compound-specific approaches to dating samples of pottery, ancient bones and an increasing range of molecules heralds an exciting way forward. The impact of single-year spike dating of so-called Miyake events in dating archaeological events such as the Viking settlement of North America demonstrates that new applications of radiocarbon to archaeology are sometimes surprising and hard to predict. The combination of improved technologies, the imagination of researchers and the collaborative input of scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields ensures that the field keeps moving forward.

 

After three years of interruption from Covid, this conference once again confirmed that radiocarbon and archaeology is very much alive and well, and there is still a huge amount to work on. The many young and motivated researchers giving presentations and soaking up the discussions augurs well for the future. The opportunity to get together, face-to-face, reminded us all of the importance of exchanging these ideas and sharing new scientific results. The wider radiocarbon community has always encapsulated a spirit of collegiality and friendship, with colleagues happy to exchange help and advice in a spirit of collective learning. The use of the online tool allowed others, not able to make it to Zurich, to participate too. This is all the more important when one considers the backdrop to this meeting in terms of the impending climate disaster bearing down on us and the need to take urgent action to halt CO2 emissions. While it is wonderful to travel to meetings like this, we must surely take steps to address these environmental impacts. Hybrid events, with physical meetings held in different regions in parallel (Europe, the US, Australasia, Africa, East Asia?), have to be considered for future get togethers in my view (see Klöwer et al., 2020). The era of single-venue meetings, with the high carbon costs involved, has to come to an end at least until we brought down runaway emissions.

 

The organisers of the conference; Irka Hajdas, Elisabetta Boaretto, and Hans-Arno Synal, and their wonderful team of volunteers and helpers, are to be congratulated for their hard work on bringing this all together. We look forward to the next meeting(s) with anticipation.

 

 

Reference:

 

Klöwer, M., Hopkins, D., Allen, M. and Higham, J., 2020. An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19. Nature 583: 356-359.  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02057-2