New Frontiers: reflections on the 2019 Cambridge Annual Student Archaeology Conference

The weekend of September 13th-15th was full of ‘new’ things for me – pretty fitting for a conference themed around ‘New Frontiers in Archaeology’! The Cambridge Annual Student Archaeology Conference (CASA 3), held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, was…

…my first experience leading a conference session

After coming across an interesting email detailing the theme of this year’s CASA conference, and calling for prospective session leaders to submit an abstract, I shot my shot. I emailed the CASA committee with an abstract outlining an interdisciplinary session about researching past lifestyles, with pretty robust expectations that it probably wouldn’t be accepted, but planning to attend the conference nonetheless. To my great and pleasant surprise, the committee accepted my idea and encouraged myself and Helena Muñoz-Mojado (of Leiden University) to lead a session together, as our interests overlapped. I really enjoyed this unexpected opportunity to make a new friend!

…my first experience at any conference, actually

I do think that I would’ve benefitted from attending another conference before CASA 3, just to know what to expect (in general) – to say I was terrified was an understatement. It’s all well and good planning a session in a Google Doc and emailing back and forth, it’s quite another to stand up and talk in front of a roomful of archaeologists! I have massive admiration for the delegates who presented their research; it’s tough enough just introducing the speakers and leading Q&A sessions. My headache during Day 1 (the same day as my session) was awful, but unwarranted. Everyone was so lovely – I really enjoyed meeting students from other universities (and countries!) and learning what their departments were like. I’m actually applying to the University of York for a PhD purely stemming from a great conversation I had with a postgrad student from their department! I loved seeing what other people are currently researching – I had constant ‘why-didn’t-I-specialise-in-that-field’ questions after every presentation.

…filled with fascinating research – here are two favourites:

(I apologise in advance for any slight inaccuracies in relaying their work, I’m writing this from my conference notes! Please contact the presenters if you’re interested in their research.)

  • new perspectives on the phenomenon of ‘desert kites’ in the Near East, presented by Mariam Shakhmuradyan of Yerevan State University (
    • these large stone structures (2 or more long stone rows attached to an enclosure with towers) date back to as early as the Neolithic period, and the enclosures have a myriad of forms. Despite the popular theory that these ‘kites’ were hunting corrals, they’re nearly always totally devoid of organic material (as a bioarchaeologist I found this aspect the most interesting), have low walls that animals can easily leap over and escape – and out of over 5000 kites only 10 have arrowheads, one or two per site and always surface finds rather than at deeper, archaeologically significant levels. It’s possible these ‘kites’ had a cult aspect to them – and Mariam drew some very striking links between the structures and animal forms, as well as some Mesopotamian and Egyptian glyphs. Truly fascinating stuff!
A group of us discussing the desert kites after Mariam's exciting talk.
Several of us stayed behind to discuss the ‘desert kites’ further with Mariam before the conference dinner!
  • a maritime archaeological case study of two surfboards from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii, presented by Joanna Tonge of the University of Southampton (
    • As an anthropologist with an interest in identity politics and the self, I found this talk to be a really interesting look into the cultural importance and material agency that Hawaiian surfboards hold for indigenous Hawaiians, tied to the social tumult taking place there in the 19th century. Decreasing surfboard size mirrored the shift from surfing as an act of displaying prowess and prestige, to surfing as an act of subversion against European imposition. Joanna also drew a very intriguing comparison between pewa repairs on surfboards to Japanese kintsugi repairs on pottery – both styles of repair add to the object’s life-history as well as augmenting its design, and may reflect a micro-scale repair of the macro-scale trauma experienced by its its relevant community, such as an earthquake or political upheaval.

Aside from these two, there were plenty of other riveting talks that you’ll soon be able to see in print!

Proceedings from CASA 3 is set to be published in 2020 with Archaeopress, with both print format and a free online download available (three cheers for open-access research!). I’m helping to edit the relevant material to my session, and I look forward to having both a useful reference text as well as a memento of a great first conference! I shall definitely be keeping an eye out for CASA 4…

A hilarious piece of decor hanging in the McDonald Institute!

~ S


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Hi! We're Haylie and Sabrina, two graduates from Durham University (UK) in BSc Anthropology and BA Anthropology & Archaeology respectively. We've both also recently completed MSc degrees, Haylie in Global Governance & Ethics (UCL) and Sabrina Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology (Exeter). We started this blog as a way for us to share interesting things we were learning, researching and discussing. Hope you find something that catches your interest too!

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