Don’t underestimate Archaeology

With Sheffield University’s longstanding Archaeology department facing closure, Hugh Willmott makes the case for the discipline’s vital importance as a field of academic study.

On Wednesday 26 May, the Executive Board of the University of Sheffield decided to close the Department of Archaeology after just five days of deliberating a report that they have refused to release. It’s been stated that two very select elements of our teaching in osteology and cultural heritage will be retained and moved into other faculties, but divorced from a relevant department they will surely wither and die. If carried through, this would end half a century of archaeology’s teaching at Sheffield. The decision was made despite the concerns raised by members of the Houses of Parliament and Lords, city councillors, heritage organisations, academics worldwide, and over 40,000 ordinary people who have so far signed an online petition. On one level, what has happened at Sheffield is an entirely ‘local’ event. The University is currently undergoing a highly controversial reorganisation, breaking down the traditional academic disciplines and restructuring them into centres of ‘excellence’ (yes, that awful and extremely outdated buzzword). Apparently, archaeology simply does not fit into this new model.

Dr Hugh Willmott.

But why do the managers at Sheffield not think that archaeology is ‘excellent’? The answer, in part, can again be found close to home. Arts and Humanities at Sheffield are undervalued due to the perception that they don’t make money – after all, student applications in the age of tuition fees are lower, and major research grants are inevitably more challenging to gain than in the ‘hard sciences’. Classics and Biblical Studies have already been axed at Sheffield over the years, Archaeology potentially faces the same fate now, and History appears to be being realigned to focus on modern eras. Meanwhile, it is proposed that the School of Languages will be massively degraded so that soon pretty much only grammar will be taught, rather than any understanding of foreign culture and context.

Another major problem is the wider perception of the discipline from those that run our universities – and we are, to some degree, a little responsible for this. I’m not talking about the TV image of archaeology being a three-day jolly with some colourful characters, although I’m not sure that in the past this helped persuade parents to sail their children off into an archaeological career. What I mean is we, at least in the university world, are not shouting loud enough to our managers about the genuine value of archaeology. Too often, we are seen as ‘people who play in the dirt’ or very occasionally (and fortuitously for their media outlets) ‘finders of secrets’ rather than serious academics. Crucially, university management, in my experience, massively under-estimates the extent to which we all collaborate with other disciplines on truly innovative projects. We need to be telling them that archaeology’s partnerships are with not just with the History department, although of course this is important. At Sheffield we currently have active collaborations with Biomedical Science, Geography, Engineering, Mathematics, and Materials Science to name just a few, and these departments have spoken out against our closure.

You’ll notice I’ve not mentioned the current Government’s stated intention to reduce funding in certain areas of the Arts at university, including Archaeology. This cut will undoubtedly have a very negative impact on academic departments in the future, but to focus on this latest policy change is to miss the point; indeed it provides a further smokescreen for university management teams. Redundancies being enforced at Sheffield and other universities such as Chester predate the government announcement by a considerable length of time. In Sheffield’s case, it is now clear that these have been in train for at least three years – that is, originating at a point when Gavin Williamson was in the middle of his very brief tenure as Defence Secretary, so I cannot blame him for our potential demise now. That is too easy.

The Ella Armitage Building houses the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology department. Photo: User22846758, Wikimedia Commons.

The benefits of archaeology

Many others have articulated far better the benefits that archaeology brings that we should be shouting about. Any readers of this magazine will know them well. But what should we tell the managers at universities such as Sheffield to ensure departments are supported during the lean years that inevitably come from time to time? I admit here the bar is set high – or low, depending on how you look at it. At Sheffield, in every communication to our department by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, ‘archaeology’ has been misspelt. Nonetheless, the answer has been articulated very clearly to me through the literally thousands of letters of support my department has received and read carefully, and with much joy.

We can start with the economic benefits – that always raises the university managers’ interest. In 2019, the heritage sector was responsible for generating £14.7 billion for the economy according to the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group. Individuals trained in Archaeology departments make up a significant proportion of that heritage workforce, and commercial units need Archaeology graduates more than ever with the largescale infrastructure projects currently sweeping the country. Universities could capitalise on this financially too, and although some departments do successfully engage in consultancy and contract work, in my personal experience, whenever I have tried to do so, without institutional support it has been ultimately so frustrating that I have given up the attempt.

One very significant group to cry out upon hearing of Sheffield’s possible closure was our heritage partners in the local community and further afield, and these partnerships range in scale and scope. In Sheffield’s case, it goes from working hand in hand with the city council on the Castlegate regeneration project, to supporting Creswell Craggs in a bid for World Heritage Status, through small scale work with local community groups. For a discipline housed in the Arts, this is ‘impact’ and potential ‘knowledge exchange’ on steroids. Why university managers completely fail to recognise this is baffling, as is their apparent ignorance of the irreparable damage it causes to relations with the communities in which they have the privilege of living. Rather ironically, when a campaign was made to support the founding of the University of Sheffield in 1904, the first pledge on the manifesto was ‘a university for the people’. Times have clearly changed.

At the time of writing, a petition to save Sheffield’s Archaeology department had received almost 47,000 signatures.

Finally, I would make the blindingly obvious point that Archaeology should be supported in universities because it really helps us understand who we are. Again, somewhat ironically, Sheffield’s motto – taken from Virgil’s Georgics – is Rerum cognoscere causas. Since we axed Classics many years ago, the managers may be unaware its meaning is ‘to know the causes of things’ – a perfect motto for a university. Learning should be valued for precisely the fact it makes us a better society by helping us understand the wider human condition.

The fate of Sheffield’s department is not yet decided; the Senate is set to discuss the executive board’s recommendation on 23 June before it is passed to the university council to sign off a month later. Whatever the outcome may be, though, it is essential to remember that a ‘department’ is nothing but a building. Sheffield Archaeology will live on for very many years to come irrespective of the decision. There will always be the staff and students who have passed through during the last 50 years and the mark we have made on the field. They don’t get rid of us that easily…