It's so good to see the cheerful images of the band of organisers of TRAC 2017 on social media, and the delegates gathering for the planned events and sessions in Durham and on Hadrian's Wall. I'm struck now for the first time what a comparatively solitary and nerve-wracking undertaking it was to set up and organise the original TRAC in 1991. It also still amazes me a bit just how much TRAC owes its origins to a whole load of random happenings - a set of unforeseen political circumstances in the Gulf, a chance meeting in Jerusalem, and a piss-up with Charles Daniels upon my return to Newcastle.
I thought it might be interesting to use my Archaeology Blog to reminisce a little bit about some of the lesser known details of the story, in a more personalised way than I've previously told it.
How did the idea come about?
In the summer of 1990 I was based at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (now known as the Kenyon Institute). I was supposed to be mainly doing fieldwork in the Negev region, looking at Roman period settlement, based in Arad. I was already a Roman archaeologist trying to think like prehistorian, giving primacy to reading material culture over and above, say, Suetonius, Tacitus and Josephus, to see what that new narrative could look like from the ground up.
As a kind of 'on the side' project, I was joined by three students from Newcastle University to do a photographic project following in the footsteps of Gertrude Bell who'd been active in Jerusalem and Palestine in 1899-1900. I'd been formally awarded my PhD on Roman villas at the beginning of May, and the British Academy had given me a postdoctoral research grant to go out to Israel and the Occupied West Bank for summer and autumn.
When the Iraqi army occupied Kuwait on 2nd August 1990, my team and I were at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, establishing the Gertrude Bell photographic project. Till then, it had been a very happy, buzzing place to be. We rubbed shoulders with a visitors such as William Dalrymple and Martin Biddle, and made firm friends with other students and scholars staying at the School. Brian Boyd was writing his final year dissertation on Natufian culture; Audrey Hamilton was researching Maimonides; and Andy Reyes was working on something so obscure I can't even remember it - but I do remember his smiling face as he discovered there was a showing of Back To The Future III in West Jerusalem one evening.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait changed all that. One of the immediate knock-on effects was that Israel went into a state of high alert. My work in the Negev would not be possible. One of the main threats of concern - gas and missile attacks on Israel - led to one of my students understandably returning home at the request of her family, as did most of the tourists who had been visiting the region.
I spoke at length to the other two students, Phil Supple and Aiden Glendinning. What did they want to do? Being resident in East Jerusalem - the British School is located in Sheikh Jarrah - we were not issued with gas masks by the Israeli authorities. We would have to make our own arrangements. Somebody gave us a 'helpful' hand-drawn leaflet showing a stick figure running away from a gas cloud.
I think the calm and sanguine attitudes of the Director Richard Harper and his Assistant Director John Woodhead were quite influential in our decision to stay. John's dig at Tel Jezreel went ahead, Richard's daughter's visit to stay with him went ahead, and things at the School simply carried on. We still had bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning, and Phil and Aiden still had falafels most days for lunch just inside Damascus Gate. We registered with the British Consulate in East Jerusalem, and took advantage of a very quiet Old City and environs to take photographs; and I was unexpectedly able to photograph and assess some Roman settlements in the Occupied West Bank after Audrey took pity on me and organised some trips for me with acquaintances of hers from the Department of Antiquities. (They turned up with guns. I was naive to think they wouldn't.)
Brian Boyd also stayed on for most of the summer. We all found ourselves going out much less in the evenings. The nightclubs of West Jerusalem, like the notorious 'Underground', were now devoid of tourists, and were pretty much wall-to-wall with (armed) Israeli off-duty soldiers and United Nations UNFIL troops down from Lebanon on leave. It was like the 'space bar' scene from Star Wars. (Having said that, I did meet someone who became a 'significant' other, and visited him in Sweden the following February, whilst in the midst of TRAC planning.)
Spending more time actually inside the School in the evenings, we all got to know each other very well. Richard Harper ran a small bar at the School and stocked it well with gin and tonic, beer and pretty much anything on request. We'd sit outside on the veranda in the evening, Brian Boyd dead-panning comments like, 'Was that gunfire?' with a tilt of the head. Brian and I talked and talked about theory, about TAG conferences, about Natufians, about Roman landscapes, and about lecturers whose work we rated highly like John Barrett and Richard Reece. Whilst I bemoaned the state of theory in Roman archaeology, and how crap a lot of writing on the Roman world seemed to be, I was able with Brian's help to list a fair few lecturers who were doing some really good stuff. And Brian uttered the fateful words: 'Why don't you have a conference?' And I said, 'That's a good idea'.
Because I unexpectedly had that extra bit of time on my hands that summer in Jerusalem, I was able to run with the idea straight away. I wrote letters to potential speakers - snail mail - on the headed notepaper of the British School.
Why was it called TRAC?
I thought the conference would need a snappy acronym, so I just kind of copied 'TAG' (the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference). I juggled the words 'Roman', 'Archaeology', 'Theoretical' and 'Conference' around until they and the initial letters formed something meaningful and sayable. That was 'TRAC'.
I also copied the TAG format, which I always enjoyed, of a two-day conference with a wine reception and a party. Also, because TAG always ran at the start of the Christmas vacation, I thought TRAC had better take place at the start of the Easter vac.
TRAC is TAG's child; and I think I was heavily influenced by TAG by being on the Newcastle TAG organising committee for 1989, courtesy of John Chapman. It taught me a lot about hosting conferences and the petty logistics, and just stuff like floor space and delegate packs.
How was it funded?
Funding was modelled on the NUARS (Northern University Archaeology Research Seminars, pronounced New-Arse) seminars, which I'd helped organise for many years - there wasn't any.
When I finally got back from Jerusalem to Newcastle, I went for drinks with my Departmental mates in our usual watering hole, 'Inventions'. I remember talking to Jon Coulston and Nick Hodgson about my adventures in Jerusalem and the idea of TRAC, and then I talked to Charles Daniels. I'm not going to lie, the culture of the Department back then was extremely boozy. Charles was a fabulous character at the centre of this culture - he had a big heart and he utterly adored Roman archaeology. Whilst he violently disagreed with the introduction of 'claptrap' 'fucking theory' into Roman studies, in the end he (and Peter Fowler) agreed that the Department could in some way accommodate the conference and that it would provide the lecture theatre and an office for free over a whole weekend.
I had become a diplomat.
The Department also eventually provided a £200 budget. I've also a note of £100 income from TAG. How I made the overall accounts balance without losing money I'll never know. In my archive 'dump box' I've got scrawled notes with estimates and room bookings and wine prices - and a beer delivery! - and all sorts of random jigsaw pieces of a putative conference, which pretty much show me flying by the seat of my pants to make this happen, and trying to make it pleasurable for people, and trying to work out where the break-even point was with regard to pricing the conference fee for 50 delegates, or 75 delegates ... If there was to be a loss, it would be mine, personally, financially, reputationally.
As the conference drew closer, many people started helping out, all for free. Phil and Aiden who'd been with me in Jerusalem the previous summer became helpers, ushers and floor-space hosts. A good friend Sally Richards assisted with the accommodation bookings, and my younger brother Rob Scott did the artwork - I'd picked the Rudston 'Venus mosaic' as the conference meme for its uncodeable content about 'Roman' and 'native'. Sally and I booked rooms in a Hall of Residence, and fortunately managed to 'sell' most of them, and some of the Newcastle students offered floor space; and the student union offered cheap 'crash space' with showers.
Everything was done snail mail, or landline phone. My then colleagues at the RCHME office in Newcastle, run by Humphrey Welfare, were hugely supportive and understanding, as my office became ever-more invaded by bits of TRAC-related paper. I was extremely committed to my full-time job on the Hadrian's Wall archives, as well as being extremely committed to TRAC.
Lindsay Allason-Jones is another Newcastle legend with a very big heart. Looking at my desk diary for that weekend, I'm reminded that Lindsay offered up the Museum of Antiquities for a wine reception, and also did her own drinks party for the troops on the Sunday evening. I've never been so glad of a bottle of wine. I was absolutely knackered.
How were the TRAC 1 speakers 'selected'?
Looking at the letters I wrote to potential speakers in the summer of 1990, that list is overwhelmingly male: Martin Jones, Martin Millett, Ian Hodder, Kevin Greene, Richard Hingley, Ross Samson, Richard Reece, Richard Bradley, John Barrett, Paul Lane, and Margaret Nieke.
And that was how academic archaeology was back then - a majority male profession. My own experiences definitely reflected this. My Department in Newcastle - all the lecturers were male. The Newcastle office of RCHME where I was based when TRAC 1 took place - I was the only woman. Surrey Archaeology Unit where I'd previously worked - I was the only female archaeologist. At the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, Audrey and I were the only two resident women. Jobs that I had after TRAC 1 were also in male-dominated Departments, such as Winchester, and no matter how supportive and kind one's male colleagues might be, it's really quite dislocating to work daily in a culture that is so out of kilter with normal, real-life demographics.
Yet I'd met brilliant women archaeologists at TAG, postgraduates working on prehistoric and medieval data, researching gender and settlements and landscapes.
And so in terms of potential women speakers for TRAC 1, I felt sure that there must be women out there working on relevant Roman material in interesting ways. That's why I sent the 'Call for Papers' to as many Archaeology departments, museums, units and RCHM/English Heritage offices as I could find addresses for. It took a long time to do this manually, using library directories and lists. But it was important and it needed to be done. And I asked colleagues in Newcastle and Durham to spread the word. Word-of-mouth (pre-internet) was crucial and Lindsay Allason-Jones and Carol van Driel-Murray were hugely significant in this regard, and they helped to put the reach of the first TRAC into Europe.
Out of this 'Call for Papers', the first TRAC was fortunate enough to attract offers of papers (which I snapped up) from Sue Alcock, Karen Griffiths, Sarah Scott and Pat Southern. Even with my own small contribution, that wasn't enough women's participation - but it was a situation of its time, and that's interesting in and of itself. Five papers by women out of a total of 19 papers was nevertheless a huge improvement on female participation rates at other contemporary Roman conferences, and it was definitely more 'TAG' than 'traditional Romanist'. Just as an example of what the late 1980s had been like: even at a villas conference (i.e. a non-military specialty) which had run over a whole weekend in Oxford, I'd been the only female speaker - and that was considered quite normal.
Conference Chairs and Delegates
I've published the original delegate lists elsewhere on this website, and I hope the information has been helpful to those looking at the history of TRAC. Far fewer than half the delegates at TRAC 1 were female (20 out of 68 if my calculations are accurate), but again it was a considerable advance on Roman conferences at the time.
Delegates came from around the world - from the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the USA. Having had no idea whether the conference would be a success or a damp squib, I was very surprised and relieved at the turn-out. Maybe just a bit elated. Ian Hodder came all the way up from Cambridge to Newcastle for the day just to chair a session. Ian fucking Hodder. I'd met him at my own request a couple of years before when I was struggling with a section of my PhD thesis - I'd read The Present Past and just needed a final push of ideas about villas as material culture. Ian Hodder took me out for lunch in Cambridge, and talked villas with me - and things fell into place. There were two others chairs, Jon Coulston (a fellow Romanist in the Newcastle Department), and Ross Samson (whom I knew from TAG). Jon and Ross also read papers in absentia from John Casey and Richard Reece.
I know that TRAC these days is successfully known and promoted as a safe space for postgraduates, which is a wonderful thing for it to be. That it has grown into this from TRAC 1, which depended so much on the speakers I could talk into participating, who were mostly not postgraduates (and many were established academics) is a testament to the vibrant nature of postgraduate archaeology in Britain and the rest of Europe, and North America, and the confidence that their supervisors have in them and their ideas.
I also personally think that the ethos of TRAC has benefited from the many kindnesses shown from the start that were woven through it. TRAC doesn't shoot people down. It supports. It educates. It has fun. It's egalitarian. Well that's the theory. If that's not working out, I'd like to hear about it.
How did it become a conference series?
Originally TRAC was devised as a one-off gathering. I certainly never wanted to organise another conference as long as I lived. But in the last discussion of TRAC 1 on the Sunday afternoon, the subjects of (a) publication, and (b) TRAC 2, were raised. There were mixed views, and I recall Martin Millett saying that while he'd originally thought that it should be a one-off event, he had come round to idea of doing it again the following year if someone would take it on. The decision was made via 'show of hands' democracy, and the TRAC series was born.
The people who really need to be thanked for this are Pete Rush, who offered to organise TRAC 2 at Bradford; Ross Samson, who set up the first publications; and the archaeologists who straight away volunteered to contribute TRAC 2, giving it legs from the outset, such as Lindsay Allason-Jones, Carol van Driel-Murray, Richard Hingley and Tony Wilmott. TRAC as a series is, for me, very much defined by 'traditionalists' like Lindsay embracing it, and always reaching out to everything new and interesting.
And I owe a huge debt of thanks to Martin Millett. He was never a lecturer of mine, being at Durham while I was at Newcastle, but he was always incredibly positive about building links and making introductions and promoting me and other postgraduates and post-docs. Along with Richard Hingley, he continues to support TRAC year on year, and I was genuinely chuffed to be able to speak alongside both of them at the 'Retrospective' session at 'TRAC Turns 21' in Newcastle a few years ago.
TRAC is actually part of the 'Retrospective' of my life. It's more than a conference for me. It's the archaeology I grew to love, the people I knew and know, the anger and dislocation I felt, and the life I've led. And in a life full of mistakes and small victories, TRAC is one of the best pages in the diary - and seeing photographs of archaeologists smiling next to banners saying 'TRAC 2017' in Durham, is, for me, quite extraordinarily special.
Anyway, that's how, and why, TRAC was invented.