Why studying the past matters

Alarming news that the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology is facing closure has led to worldwide debate over the future of the subject as a university discipline. The Past’s Florence Chilver offers her perspective on the value of an archaeology degree in today’s world.

Recent news that the Archaeology Department at the University of Sheffield, internationally renowned for its pioneering research projects and cutting-edge facilities, is being threatened with closure has sparked outrage across the globe.

On 26 May, the University Education Board (UEB) voted to recommend the dissolution of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. Scrapping the Department, which has existed for over 50 years and ranks 29th in the QS World University Rankings, would see the jobs and livelihoods of staff put at risk, and important research jeopardised.

Dr Hugh Willmott, Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at Sheffield, said just two elements of teaching (osteoarchaeology and cultural heritage) will be retained and transferred to different departments ‘where they shall surely wither and quickly die.’

There has been an outpouring of support as the Department is renowned globally for its prominent research projects, and has cultivated many distinguished archaeologists, such as Professor Lord Colin Renfrew, Professor Susan Sheratt, and Professor Mike Parker Pearson – the latter’s research has contributed to a ground-breaking reinterpretation of the Stonehenge landscape, and Parker Pearson has criticised the decision to close the department, saying: ‘I suspect the vice-chancellor has no idea of the international outrage that closing the department is going to cause. Sheffield seems about to shoot itself in the foot.’

The department’s staff and students have also been involved in community outreach programmes and assisted Sheffield City Council in heritage initiatives. At the time of writing, over 40,000 people have signed a petition in favour of safeguarding the Department.

Karen Nichols Excavations at Sheffield Castle were carried out by Wessex Archaeology, along with a team at Sheffield City Council, who commissioned the work, and their on-site partners from the University of Sheffield and the Friends of Sheffield Castle. Photo: Andrew Norton/Wessex Archaeology.

The UEB’s decision comes as the latest blow to the study of archaeology as a core university subject and is symptomatic of a long-standing debate concerning the value of the material past to the public. In CA 330 and 280, Professor John Schofield of the University of York addressed the wide-ranging benefits of undertaking an Archaeology degree, reasoning that its interdisciplinary approach – which brings together practical, theoretical, and scientific teaching – could open doors to innumerable careers ranging from forensics to journalism. Yet Schofield also wrote that that, in the current political climate, being an archaeologist is sometimes written off as ‘not a proper job’.

The events unfolding at Sheffield form just part of this wider context that threatens UK archaeology; it comes at a time when demand for archaeological expertise in service to major infrastructure projects, such as HS2, has exploded – there is an estimated 100% increase in the need for trained archaeologists – but with a decline in the number of students pursuing the discipline at university, as well as the endemic government cuts to undergraduate courses, these initiatives and post-excavation analysis will be impacted by a shortage of archaeologists and heritage specialists, at the expense of understanding our history.

In a statement, the Council for British Archaeology said that ‘graduates have underpinned approaches to commercial archaeology in the UK for the last 30 years’ and criticised the UEB’s decision as ‘short-sighted and retrograde’.

At the same time the Department of Education has proposed cuts to funding by almost 50% for certain Humanities and Arts courses. Instead, funding will be channelled into high-cost STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects that, a statement from the Department claims, ‘support the skills this country needs to build back better’.

With AQA’s Archaeology A-Level scrapped in 2017, it has been suggested that declining undergraduate numbers might be linked to fewer prospective university students wishing to invest in studying a subject of which they have no direct experience.

Excavations of the post-medieval structures of Sheffield Castle. Photo: Wessex Archaeology.

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures Lisa Westcott Wilkins said: ‘one of our real terrors is that the government is going to use the shortage of archaeologists as an excuse to reduce our role in the planning system, just as it’s being redesigned with a white paper, paving the way for development at the expense of our history.’

In the days before Covid, the heritage sector generated around £36bn a year through tourism and development. However, as Current Archaeology’s Chris Catling wrote in his Sherds column (see CA 374), economics ‘cannot be used to measure the emotional, educational, psychological, spiritual, health, and social benefits of heritage – all the things that make life worth living – nor to place a value on the distinctive character of a cathedral, village, town, or historic house, and the effect that these have on people’s well-being.’

There’s more to archaeology than the past

Archaeology is more than delicately brushing mud off Roman pottery sherds, or poring over illegible manuscripts, it is about using the materials of the past to connect us to our environment and the stories of our ancestors. It deepens our understanding of our origins and of diversity, and sheds light on the development of civilisations, behaviours, and religions across all continents and throughout history. It allows us to delve into a world pre-dating the invention of writing and shed light on past individuals whose lives have not been recorded in scripture or treatises.

Science and the Arts are so often viewed as entirely separate entities. However, archaeology is a unique interdisciplinary blend of key elements from the fields of biochemistry, geophysics, climatology, and medicine, and the realms of art, history, architecture, and anthropology. It sees analytical scientific methods of DNA and isotopic studies combined with critical text-based analysis and digital data-modelling and interpretation. Students can research the Neolithic Revolution through handling skeletal animal assemblages in a laboratory or by creating sites maps using Geographic Information System (GIS) software.

Opportunities to volunteer at excavations not only provide essential practical training for those seeking a future in archaeology, but also foster extremely transferrable teamwork and leadership skills. The chance to be a part of excavations abroad also expands curiosity and appreciation for different ways of life, and forces students out of their comfort zone.

Amy Brunskill, Assistant Editor at Current World Archaeology, studied archaeology at Durham University for her undergraduate and master’s degree. Reflecting on this experience, Amy said: ‘I am constantly grateful that I had the opportunity to do so.’

She continued: ‘I was drawn to archaeology because while I loved studying history at school, I was far more excited by archaeology’s ability to provide a tangible connection to people who lived in the past. As a discipline that has existed for centuries, archaeology is forever growing and changing, and archaeology degrees play a vital role in the research and discussion driving this development.’

University of Edinburgh students volunteering at an excavation site abroad, gaining skills in digging, handling artefacts, and recording accurate find-spot coordinates.

I graduated in Archaeology from the University of Edinburgh in 2020 – as one of the Covid-19 cohort. I had originally imagined myself specialising in the Classical world, but soon realised my interests lay in the humanistic slant of social bioarchaeology, which focuses on how biochemical analyses of material remains can help reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities, and provide direct insight into diet, status, and health in the past.

I had the chance to explore numerous sub-disciplines, ranging from osteoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, Egyptology, and palaeogenetics. The scope of teaching meant I could weave together skeletal evidence, textual sources, and radiocarbon dates to craft well-rounded essays and arguments.

Combining my interest in medieval studies with bioarchaeology, my thesis even drew upon a ground-breaking research project led by Dr Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield, which investigated a mass burial of Black Death victims in rural Lincolnshire. The eerie experience of writing about quarantine whilst in quarantine truly highlighted the relevance of archaeology in the modern world.

Nevertheless, for those who are interested in studying the subject, but who envision a career outside of museums, archives, or excavation sites, the transferrable skills it provides will benefit those aspiring to pursue careers in anything from law enforcement to NGOs, journalism to teaching, and the civil service to public relations. Besides, it offers a strong foundation for many post-graduate qualifications.

Looking to the future

The UEB’s recommendation to close Sheffield’s Archaeology department will be considered by the University Senate on 23 June before the University Council makes a final decision on 12 July. There is still time to voice your support via the petition, and on social media using the hashtag #savesheffieldarchaeology.

Ultimately, archaeology plays a significant role in shaping and informing local and national identities; it inspires creativity in the form of literature, drama, and film, and safeguards the conservation of national treasures, and monumental landscapes for subsequent generations to enjoy and learn from.

Archaeology looks to the future as well. It can contribute to our knowledge of climate change and pathogenic evolution – issues at the forefront of the world today.

Elsewhere on The Past, Dr Hugh Willmott makes the case for the discipline's vital importance as a field of academic study.