Science versus The Arts

The heritage sector, which depends heavily on the insights of archaeologists, is central to the UK’s appeal as a tourist destination, which will be crucial in reopening our borders and rebuilding the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.

Follow the science?

It’s official: archaeology has been reclassified for the purposes of Government funding, and is now treated as a branch of the STEM group of academic disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) rather than as a SHAPE subject (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy). The reassignment follows lobbying by the British Academy, the Council for British Archaeology, and the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, among others.

The reason for the change was the announcement by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, of a 50% cut in the amount of money that the Government gives to universities to fund the teaching of the humanities, including archaeology. The Government carried out a ‘consultation’ on the proposals and numerous figures from the arts world described the proposal as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘diabolical’, but their protests were ignored. The Office for Students, which claims to be the ‘independent regulator of higher education in England’ confirmed in July that the funding subsidy for creative and arts subjects will be cut by 50% from the start of the next academic year, and that universities in the capital will lose their London weighting. The Government claims that the arts and humanities are not a ‘strategic priority’, and plans to divert funding for these subjects to the teaching of maths, science, and nursing. The Musicians’ Union said that ‘the UK’s world-leading status in music and the arts was being placed in serious jeopardy by these cuts’, and the British Academy pointed out that this would make the study of performing and creative arts courses an elitist pursuit, which only the well-off could afford. This runs counter to the policy of greater access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – which Professor Frances Corner, the Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, highlighted was more like ‘punching down’ than ‘levelling up’.

Speaking before archaeology was exempted from the cuts, Professor Simon Swain, Vice President for Research and Higher Education at the British Academy, said: ‘The performing and creative arts, media studies, and archaeology are all vital to the knowledge and skills base on which the UK’s 80% service-sector economy depends. The creative economy is one of the most dynamic, productive, and profitable sectors of the UK labour market. Since 2014, the sector has grown at almost twice the rate of the UK economy as a whole, generating around £10m per hour. These industries are now worth £84.1 billion to the UK economy. Meanwhile, the heritage sector, which depends heavily on the insights of archaeologists, is central to the UK’s appeal as a tourist destination, which will be crucial in reopening our borders and rebuilding the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.’

Dating stained glass

The BBC recently carried a story that demonstrated the degree to which science is privileged over the knowledge of an art historian. The report informed us that ‘new research indicates that some stained-glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral may be among the oldest in the world’. The claim was accompanied by a picture of a man holding a device straight out of Doctor Who, which the caption assured us was called a ‘windolyser’. Apparently, this ‘hand-held device can discover the age of the glass without damaging it’.

UCL archaeologists recently investigated some panels from the Ancestors of Christ stained-glass window series in Canterbury Cathedral. The analysis, which used a pXRF spectrometer, showed that at least one of the panels, depicting the prophet Nathan, was made from glass pre-dating the restoration of the cathedral after it was consumed by fire in 1174, which is when it is believed that some of the other panels in the series were installed. IMAGE: Jules & Jenny, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

Archaeologists may well be familiar with such a device, but we call it by its grown-up name: a spectrometer. And forgive me for being sceptical, but I am not aware that art historians are in the habit of destroying the glass they study. Besides, even a novice stained-glass enthusiast like Sherds could tell at a glance that the glass depicted in the report was 12th-century in date on stylistic grounds alone. Nevertheless, the fact that ‘science’ had shown this to be the case was reported to be ‘hugely significant’.

The BBC was good enough to recall, however, that art historian Professor Madeline Caviness had identified the panels as being of mid-12th-century date 40 years ago, but her views were characterised as a ‘belief’ and a ‘suspicion’ – presumably not scientifically valid because Professor Caviness had used personal judgement based on experience, whereas you really do need a ‘windolyser’ to ‘solve the mystery’.

Professor Caviness was graceful in bowing to the superior properties of the windolyser and said she was ‘delighted’ to hear that her assessment had been confirmed. What she was too polite to point out was that the windolyser could only provide a date, whereas her study of the Canterbury glazing had demonstrated that the vigorous and naturalistic depiction of the various Biblical figures in the glass was clearly influenced by Classical antiquity. The figures were drawn at a time when England was at the forefront of what is sometimes called ‘the 12th-century Renaissance’, characterised by the study of the literary and philosophical heritage of the Classical past. The humanistic Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, had purchased Classical statuary on a visit to Rome in 1149-1150 and brought it back to England, and Becket and his circle were fascinated by the works of Aristotle, which were just being rediscovered at this time. Of course, none of that means anything to a Government keen to emulate Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854), the man who is only concerned to teach ‘cold facts and numbers’.

A bridge too far

Just as many students of SHAPE subjects are well informed about the sciences, nor should we characterise scientists as philistines. Proof of this comes from the coverage that has been given in the publication New Civil Engineer to the controversial infilling of historic railway bridges. Several newspapers have recently carried pictures of the devastation caused by contractors working for Highways England when they poured 1,000 tonnes of rubble and concrete into the cavity below the 159-year-old bridge at Great Musgrave in Cumbria. Highways England claims the work was needed to ‘prevent further deterioration of the bridge from occurring and remove the associated risk of structural collapse and harm to the public’.

A group of engineers and bridge restoration experts has disputed the necessity of such work, questioning whether the bridge was in fact unsafe and saying that it could easily have been strengthened for £5,000 – whereas the infilling work cost £124,000. Worryingly, they say that Highways England is planning to infill an additional 115 disused railway structures and demolish 15 others. Highways England disputes this and says it only plans nine bridge demolitions, the removal of six redundant abutments, and 69 full or partial infills. Even one demolition or infill is an unnecessary act of ‘lawless vandalism’, according to the group, which points to the use of steel reinforcement bars as a cost-effective alternative that does not have an adverse effect on the appearance of the bridge and has been used on countless structures already.

Highways England seems not to be interested: ‘infilling’, it claims, ‘is maintenance-free and preserves the small number of bridges where this is required’. It also claims that ‘the infilling process can be reversed if a future purpose is found for the structure’ – an assertion that will now be put to the test because there is a question mark over whether the work was covered by ‘permitted development rights’, as Highways England asserts, or whether they should have applied for planning permission. Eden District Council may yet require the infilling to be removed, though photographs of the work suggest this is not going to be an easy task.

Further infilling

Preparatory work to close the Queensbury Tunnel, the 1.4-mile railway tunnel built in 1870 to connect Bradford and Halifax, was originally estimated to take four months and cost £545,000. So far, it has already taken more than three years and cost significantly more money. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons, Avramescu Marius.

In 2018 (CA 338), we reported on the campaign of the Queensbury Tunnel Society to keep open the 1.4-mile railway tunnel built in 1870 connecting Bradford and Halifax for use as a cycle route and footpath. The authorities claimed that the cost of doing so was unaffordable, and argued that infilling each end and allowing the rest of the tunnel to collapse was a far cheaper option, at a projected cost of £3.6m. Preparatory work to close the tunnel has now begun with the infilling of the ventilation shafts. Originally scheduled to take four months, at a cost of £545,000, the work has already taken more than three years and, according to campaigners, the cost has risen to £7.5m. That figure too is contested: Highways England says that ‘so far £5m has been spent’ (Sherds’ italics). I am sure that CA readers, whether of the STEM tendency or the SHAPE persuasion, will draw the same conclusion.