NEARCHing Factory – Review

By Emily C. Arauz, PhD Candidate
Dept. of Archaeology and History of Art, Graduate School of Social Sciences & Humanities
Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey


Upon exiting the San Martiño Pinario Monastery conference hall on the final day of the NEARCHing Factory, a fellow attendee made the cursory remark to myself and a colleague that this will go down in history as one of those conferences where, years hence, everyone will be asking one another: “Were you at the Nearching Factory in Santiago de Compostela, January 30th – February 1st, 2017?”

Fortunately, I was one of the lucky 96 attendees who took part in this unique experience over the course of two and a half rainy and cold days in the Galicia region of Spain. The meeting, deemed a ‘factory’, was a public and interactive component of the NEARCH (New ways of Engaging audiences, Activating societal relations and Renewing Practices in Cultural Heritage) project[1], organized in coordination with INCIPIT, CSIC[2], CYTED, and with support from the European Union, Santiago City Council, Galician Culture Council, and EMPRENDIA network. According to the website, NEARCH is a five-year project (2013-2018) conducted by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) and has established a cross-European network of 14 partners from 11 countries. The NEARCHing Factory was a step towards increasing networks and expanding dialogues among professionals.





With archaeology at the center of the three-day event, the sessions were organized with a goal of “creating new scenarios for archaeology […] to re-think the practice of archaeological activity (i.e. archaeological as a way of life and of making a living).”[3] As one of the few in the conference room who could claim to be neither an archaeologist nor currently working with archaeologists, I provided a counter-view to the main discourse, often finding myself in disagreement with many of the hegemonic perspectives propagated by a select few of the core group of NEARCH. This difference in perspective was also heightened by my own professional context of Turkey, which seemed incompatible at times with the viewpoints put forth by those working in the UK, Sweden, or France, among others. Similar to previous archaeology conferences, a striking dichotomy between northern and southern (or [south]eastern) Europe was apparent among the perspectives and case studies presented throughout the sessions. Non-European viewpoints were represented by participants working in South American contexts who were members of the parallel session organized by CYTED and conducted in Spanish. This helped expand the discussions yet, overall, the European perspective remained dominant.

Nevertheless, the discussions were pushed farther and critical views were more constructive than at many heritage or archaeology conferences I have attended recently. This success was certainly a direct result of the organizers’ democratic sensibilities and desire to expand the notion of what archaeology should and can be. The structure of the three working days and the additional, complicated methodology of using post-it notes to establish discussion points were critical in establishing a participatory framework, supported by an extensive social media presence which expanded the platform and audience.

The first day of the NEARCHing Factory began semi-traditionally with a key-note but was followed by a live interview about cities and mapping conducted by a local Galician journalist with two practitioners working in Cuba and Colombia. Following the theme of mapping, the afternoon activity was a walking event, for which participants were divided into small groups and led to different parts of Santiago in order to brainstorm about the cultural values of the city. As most conferences tend to imprison their participants, this activity was a welcome addition to the program as it is important to recognize and experience the cultural space in which an international conference is held, a particularly critical aspect for cultural practitioners.

The second day of the event was a full working day, divided into two segments of ten parallel sessions – five in the morning and five in the afternoon – with an additional session conducted in Spanish by CYTED. Each session was given a lengthy four hours for discussion which served to foster more in-depth discussions. However, this also limited the number of sessions in which each attendee was able to participate, an unfortunate consequence of the constrained time-frame.

The theme of the sessions varied greatly, ranging from art, professional ethics, heritage values, sustainability, digital technologies, place-making, archaeology of the present and for the future, social innovation, entrepreneurship, education and participation. The structure of each session also varied and resulted in different outcomes. For instance, the session on “Heritage & Participative Strategies,” managed by Hayley Roberts from Bournemouth University, was organized around participants’ short presentations which fostered topics and diverse case studies for discussion. Contrarily, the afternoon session on “Heritage Value(s),” began with a presentation on the history of the topic by the session manager, Dr. Margarita Diaz-Andreu, based at Barcelona University. This didactic introduction was followed by an impromptu survey of some of the available local residents regarding the user-determined values of a popular public park in Santiago. While this participatory aspect put into practice the topic of discussion, it also highlighted the fact that the concept of heritage values is itself a structural format imposed on heritage sites and managers by UNESCO. Hence, the discussions during this afternoon session did not lead to any new conclusions and did not advance the concept of heritage values; rather, it served only as a didactic session on what those concepts involved, how they had evolved and how to put them into practice.

Alternatively, and to the credit of the manager and the participants, the session on “Participative Strategies” produced a more productive round of discussions and arguments. As a result, this dynamic group decided to prepare a working document on what participation means and guidelines for how it may be implemented. While the case studies presented by the participants cemented the understanding that site-sensitive applications of participative strategies was necessary, and that a gap existed in some cases between archaeology and heritage practices, the participants of the session nevertheless agreed that some form of a statement would benefit the wider community. This document is currently in an early phase of preparation and will be shared at EAA in Maastricht this fall. It intends to propose a guideline and common language for those already working on the topic and serve as a form of education for new practitioners.

Other sessions resulted in a similar diversity of results and conclusions, but no other group decided to prepare a working document to be presented at EAA. However, the NEARCH group will be leading a discussion session at EAA, most likely complete with post-it notes and extensive social media documentation. The session is titled, Creating new scenarios for Archaeology: NEARCHing Factory reloaded.[4] Be sure to attend the session if you are at EAA this year in order to experience an alternative to the standard EAA sessions and for a more in-depth overview of the event.

The final, half-day of the factory was a culmination of the working groups as each manager gave short, six-slide, six-minute presentations on their sessions’ results. This was followed by a group discussion organized around the final round of post-it note comments and questions collected during the managers’ presentations. While the post-it note discussion topics were being collated by the discussion leaders, a final participatory activity was organized: each participant was asked to give a 40-word response to the NEARCHing Factory experience. The short version of the video of participants reading their statements is available online.

NEARCHing Factory Day 3

Overall, despite some critiques on the sessions and the frigid cold of the meeting room, the NEARCHing Factory was a success. Let us hope that those who were in attendance in Santiago will bring their energy and collaborative experience to the European Association of Archaeologists Meeting in Maastricht this fall. While these smaller and intimate conversations are exciting and useful, nothing will change on a grander scale unless the audiences in platforms like the EAA, AIA or the WAC recognize and place value in expanding the critical discourse on archaeology and heritage. My final ‘post-it note’ on the factory, recommended that we are clear that “heritage” does not equal “archaeology”, one term should not be interchanged with the other for convenience or a particular political agenda. Going forward with this discussion among professionals and amateurs, a more critical approach to the language used and concepts explored, as well as attention to the diversity of cases and practitioners, will help the field and the practice develop in productive and sustainable directions. 


[1] NEARCH Project website: http://nearch.eu/
[2] Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [CSIC] & Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio [INCIPIT] website: http://www.incipit.csic.es/es/Default.aspx

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