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'Chacmool' turns 50

Archaeological conference spearheaded by University of Calgary students continues to make its mark

Kelsey Pennanen, Brendan Jenks, and Anthony Hawboldt spearheaded the archaeology conference: Chacmool at 50: The Past, Present, and Future of Archaeology. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Heath McCoy
November 3, 2017

Archaeology master’s student Kelsey Pennanen first became aware of the University of Calgary’s annual Chacmool Conference when she was working on her undergraduate degree at Northern Ontario’s Lakehead University.

“My honour’s thesis supervisor and a couple of other professors were University of Calgary alumni and they talked about this amazing student-led conference they took part in. I’m excited to be taking part in it now,” says Pennanen, who’s helping to organize this year’s Chacmool Conference while serving as the event’s graduate advisor. “This conference has a legacy that’s so important in the history of Canadian archaeology and it feels wonderful to play a part in that continuing legacy on its 50th anniversary.”

Running on campus from Nov. 8 to 12, the 2017 Chacmool Conference, dubbed Chacmool at 50: The Past, Present, and Future of Archaeology, is expected to bring in about 400 participants, including archaeologists, researchers, students and UCalgary alumni from as far away as Japan, Europe, South America and Australia.

As always, prominent keynote speakers will make presentations on their current, cutting edge research and excavations while students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels will also have the opportunity to present papers. In addition, there will be a retrospective focus at this year’s event, reflecting the way in which the Chacmool Conference — named after a particular pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture — has been a guiding force in Canadian archaeology. As is the case every year, many of the presentations will be collected and published after the conference. These conference proceedings are closely followed. “It’s certainly been a go-to resource for any western Canadian archaeologist,” says Pennanen. 

All of this is worth celebrating, but what make the story of the Chacmool Conference even more of a triumph is the fact that from the beginning it’s been a student-led initiative.

“When the University of Calgary was founded, it was established that archaeology was going to be prominent,” says professor Geoffrey McCafferty, the event’s faculty supervisor. “From those beginnings, there was also a strong leadership push from the students to develop this conference, which has become one of the leading archaeological conferences in the country.”

“Many practicing archaeologists in Canada got their feet wet at the Chacmool Conference.”

Brendan Jenks, the president of the Chacmool Undergraduate Club, says he takes particular pride in the fact that the Chacmool is led by undergraduates, which makes it unique in the archaeological world.

“It really is a rare thing that this is an undergraduate run event which has become such a spearheading conference in the discipline,” Jenks says. “It provides an undergraduate voice, which is not typically heard, and it exposes undergrads to the real world of archaeology, with opportunities to present, learn about current research and meet some of the top people in the field.”

Indeed, says McCafferty, networking opportunities abound at the Chacmool Conference. “Archaeology students can really get their foot in the door, coming face to face with potential grad school supervisors and major players in the field. There’s also a lot of top people in attendance who work as consultants for the oil industry.”

A number of accomplished archaeologists will be attending the event this year, many of whom helped get the Chacmool Conference started in its earliest years. Among them are the likes of William Byrne, lauded for his career achievements by the Canadian Archaeological Association, who was one of Chacmool’s first undergraduate majors. Other prominent names who played a role in the early days include Jonathan C. Driver (Simon Fraser University) and Michael C. Wilson (Douglas College).

“People like that left a legacy and these are big shoes to fill,” says Pennanen. “But I’m excited about the way things have come together for the 50th anniversary and I think it’s going to be a great conference.”