Archaeology: still the best degree

Five years after he first explored the prospects of Archaeology as an academic discipline in these pages, John Schofield revisits this topic and reveals what has changed.

Image: Ian Martindale.

Five years ago, I wrote a short piece – under the title ‘The best degree?’ (CA 270) – responding to the suggestion in CA 268 that Archaeology was under threat as a university subject. Certainly there were reasons to be concerned, and that remains true today. But there are also reasons to be optimistic. In this follow-up essay, I will review the current state of the discipline and the opportunities (and challenges) it presents. I still believe that an Archaeology degree is the best grounding for those wishing to be archaeologists, arguably the best for those wanting to enter the broader heritage sector, and certainly an excellent preparation for most other (seemingly unrelated) careers.

‘A unique education’

Students taking Archaeology with the intention of becoming archaeologists can do so now with a very good chance of success, whether in fieldwork or in the many other jobs archaeology and the heritage sector offer – for example, as specialists, analysts, scientists, and conservators. Although questions circulate about the sustainability of field archaeology programmes that generate yet more data – as well as the public benefit of such endeavours – major infrastructure projects like HS2 and Heathrow’s third runway look set to create a situation where entry- and higher-level field archaeology jobs outnumber those qualified to fill them, at least in the short- to medium-term. Meanwhile, for those with the desire to study the subject but without the aspiration to pursue it as a career, the transferable skills it provides are unrivalled in their diversity.

Moreover, contrary to what some might suggest, Archaeology has retained its sense of fun both as a degree subject and as a career. It leaves an indelible mark on those who study it, and in my experience most archaeologists are humane, thoughtful, inquisitive, inclusive, and considerate citizens. They have an active and genuine interest in understanding and improving the world around them, and are tolerant of the many behaviours, practices, and attitudes that have shaped it. They have learnt this partly through their studies – the subject is, after all, the study of all people through the material traces they have left behind, however long ago or recently they were left. Archaeology attracts people with open minds. It is the study of the everyday, not only the exceptional or the iconic – something therefore that everyone can relate to, whatever their social status.

below Excavation remains a core skill, but it is only one of many that characterise a diverse archaeological profession. Not all archaeologists dig or even want to!
Excavation remains a core skill, but it is only one of many that characterise a diverse archaeological profession. Not all archaeologists dig or even want to!

So far, so predictable. This all reflects the tone of my essay in 2012 – but what has happened since? Quite a lot, in fact. In terms of observable facts, the overall number of applicants to undergraduate Archaeology programmes has continued slowly but steadily to decline. From UCAS figures, V4 (Archaeology) shows a 10% drop in applications from 2012 to 2016, from 2,210 to 2,010. However, 2012 was a good year generally, so taking 2011 as a more representative benchmark, the decline has in fact been 27%. The figures for F4 (Forensic and Archaeological Science) are more encouraging, but not all the degree subjects within this code cover archaeology. One reason for this pattern is demographic – the number of young people in our population is declining quite sharply, a trend that will be reversed from 2021-2022.

There is also a move towards other forms of continuing education, such as apprenticeships, combined with the growing reluctance of many to incur debt in exchange for tertiary education. The number of taught postgraduates is increasing, however, as more students take advantage of the provision of loans to specialise, usually with particular career paths in mind. Some come into Archaeology at Masters level, following a first degree in History or Politics, for example. This upward trend may soon also extend to PhD research, as loans for such studies become available, we think in 2018.

Another obvious cause for concern is the Brexit vote: who will be eligible to study or stay in the UK? Will students from the UK prefer to study elsewhere in a more mixed multicultural setting (and maybe for free)? What are the opportunities after graduation, within the UK or for international employment? Answers to all these and other questions remain unclear.

Professional recognition

Archaeology has been a profession for many years, but in 2014 the Institute for Archaeologists gained Chartered status (CA 289), reinforcing archaeology’s place as a ‘proper’ career. Employment in archaeology has bounced back since the 2008 recession, not least in commercial archaeology. A recent Historic England Intelligence Assessment Report (National Infrastructure Development and Historic Environment Skills and Capacity 2015-33: An Assessment from 2016) has estimated that this growth will continue with between 25% and 64% more archaeologists needed between 2015 and 2033 – although this is based on a set of big assumptions, notably that current practices remain unchanged. Particular demands are predicted to include archaeological fieldworkers, specialists, and project/contract managers, noting that capacity issues would also probably emerge in local authorities, meaning demand for more curatorial positions.

Number of applicants to Archaeology degree courses under UCAS codes V4 and F4.
Number of students in their first year of Archaeology courses against the number of archaeologists currently employed (data from Landward), and the projected archaeologists required for infrastructure projects alone. The latter figure is derived from the Historic England (2016) National Infrastructure report. The numbers here are derived as follows: (i) the £ figure at the left-hand end of each row of Appendix 1 ÷ the number of years = annual spend per item; (ii) ‘annual spend per item’ figures added together to give ‘overall annual total’; (iii) each ‘overall annual total’ × average ‘person years of archaeology per £1bn of infrastructure spend’ figure (that is, a midpoint of the two estimates of 18.55 and 24.59); (iv) number of archaeologists currently employed on infrastructure projects (n = 471) is subtracted from the total for 2016, and this figure applied to all other figures as a best-guess estimate.

Despite this, however, the Archaeology A-level has been dropped by its single provider. Although comparatively few students taking the subject at university had previously taken the A-level, it is nonetheless an unfortunate loss for those who only studied the subject because of the A-level, or for whom it was their only exposure to the discipline. For younger people, however, Archaeology is now firmly and effectively embedded in the national curriculum.

A recent British Academy report (Reflections on Archaeology – see CA 327) highlights and assesses the implications of all of these developments, as well as characterising the academic subject, its diversity (encompassing, as it does, arts, sciences, and social sciences), and its relevance for facing and helping mitigate the impact of such issues as climate change, social inequality, food security, poor health and wellbeing, and migration. A long-term perspective, combined with the humane and empathetic tendencies that characterise most archaeologists, can help address these significant global concerns.

A relevant field

Archaeology is more relevant and more necessary than it has ever been, as is the need for the wider archaeological community to advocate its value against the challenges it faces and within the context of apparent institutional apathy (embodied by the loss of the A-level, and threatened cuts to some university departments, for example). An archaeological perspective provides a unique view on a complex, ever-changing, and challenging world. Archaeologists see their surroundings in ways that others cannot – with a depth and breadth in perspective unrivalled in other subjects, and a focus on recognising and understanding diversity, thus promoting tolerance and equality. Archaeologists are a sociable and valued addition to any workplace. In interview settings, archaeology graduates should always feel confident of offering an interesting and distinctive perspective to their future employers, a skill-set that only they can provide.

above Digging and beyond: students in the field are shown (left) learning about commercial archaeology, but many of archaeology’s biggest and most significant discoveries happen in the laboratory (right).
Digging and beyond: students in the field are shown learning about commercial archaeology, but many of archaeology’s biggest and most significant discoveries happen in the laboratory.

It is key for academic institutions to ensure that students are better aware of this unique and wide-ranging skill-set. This approach reflects a wider trend that recognises that higher education is not just about facts, but about developing critical thinking skills, problem solving, and analytical approaches to knowledge. In Archaeology, three key aspects are: ‘hands on’ study – being able to ‘hold’ the past and contribute to research first-hand from primary sources (for example, through excavation); using multiple techniques and perspectives to study material culture, from critical text-based analysis to ancient DNA and the conservation of buildings; and its interdisciplinary blend of key elements of the sciences, social sciences, and the arts. Archaeology produces well-rounded graduates who can write, solve problems, and be confident with data analysis – employers appreciate this.

At open and visit days (as at the inaugural University Archaeology Day on 22 June), we can now for the first time tell prospective students who wish to become archaeologists that this is not only achievable, but realistic. However, to be ‘future proof’, archaeology will need thinkers as well as diggers, archaeologists who understand archives, sustainability, communication, and education. While developer-led projects will provide career opportunities in the short-to-medium term, it may require a different model to be sustainable in the long term, one perhaps requiring key discoveries to come from community-led excavations or from archive research. A good Archaeology degree is one that equips students as diggers, good communicators, and thinkers.

below Many prospective students turned up for the inaugural University Archaeology Day at UCL in June this year.
Many prospective students turned up for the inaugural University Archaeology Day at UCL in June this year. Image: Lisa Daniel.

Equally, if graduates want to follow another career (teaching, banking, the military, the emergency services, marketing, IT, law), then Archaeology is also a great degree – I would say the best degree. However, we have work to do: we need to keep communicating this message to subject heads in schools, who continue to tell children and young adults that Archaeology is not a ‘proper job’, and that the degree is not a helpful foundation for other career choices. Archaeology is a proper job, and the degree provides an excellent basis for most other careers.

All images: University of York, unless otherwise stated.