This week: archaeology in peril

Image: Wessex Archaeology.

The news last week that the University of Sheffield is to press ahead with plans to close its school of archaeology has sent a shiver through the heritage world. It is a ‘devastating’ blow, said the Council of British Archaeology. Mary Beard, the eminent historian, called it ‘worrying in the least’. To date, more than 39,000 people have signed a petition calling for the decision to be reversed.

Established in 1976, Sheffield’s archaeology department is among the most renowned in the UK. The university’s alumni and faculty are at the forefront of research being carried out around the country and abroad. Many fear that some of that work will now be lost.

One of those to have expressed alarm is Mike Parker Pearson, the former Sheffield academic whose Stonehenge Riverside Project has made a succession of groundbreaking discoveries about the monument in recent years. ‘Sheffield is known and respected throughout the world,’ he said. ‘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.’

Others, including the former Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, see the threatened closure as an example of a wider assault on archaeology – following on from the decision by exam board AQA to scrap A-levels in the subject in 2017.  Against this backdrop, Robinson tweeted this week that Sheffield’s decision means ‘not just losing a distinguished centre of excellence’. Rather, it is ‘part of a nationwide attack on the whole discipline’.

According to the university itself, the move was prompted by a significant decline in applications for undergraduate courses – a trend which has been seen nationally since the cap on university tuition fees was tripled to £9,000 a decade or so ago. Certainly, it seems to reflect a world in which degrees have increasingly become ‘marketised’, via the student loan system. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, perhaps gave a clue to the government’s future plans for higher education when he complained recently about ‘dead end courses’ which are a drain on the tax payer’s purse and leave students with ‘nothing but debt’.

So why study archaeology at all in 2021? On one level, of course, the answer is still best expressed in the famous quote from Cicero, the great Roman statesman and historian, who observed, ‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child’. Two thousand years on, his analysis – that historical and archaeological and knowledge is important in itself, for what it teaches us about who we are, where we come from, and how we relate to the world around us – is as true today as it ever was.

But as we discover this week on The Past, there are also many good practical reasons for the study of archaeology in a 21st-century context. Dr Hugh Willmott, Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, makes the case for the discipline’s vital importance as a field of academic study.

As Professor John Schofield of York University has argued in our sister magazine Current Archaeology, the subject’s modern applications are almost limitless – stretching from forensic analysis to environmental science – while major infrastructure projects such as HS2 have created a situation in which archaeologists are currently more in demand than ever.

At the same time, the heritage sector is reckoned (in non-Covid days) to be worth £36bn a year and to provide more than 500,000 jobs to the UK economy. The British Museum, for instance, is the UK’s most visited attraction, drawing 6.24 million visitors in 2019.

Archaeology is also an asset to the community, and a major source of volunteering, while its transferable skills provide benefit to students whose ambitions range from teaching to journalism, law enforcement to management, marketing to the media. To understand more, we asked The Past’s Florence Chilver, a recent prize-winning graduate from the University of Edinburgh, to give her perspective on the subject today.

Elsewhere on The Past, we’ve been investigating what happened in one Cambridgeshire community in the dark period in 12th-century English history known as ‘the Anarchy’. In the new issue of Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable weekly podcast, Julie Franklin, the author of a recent book on the subject, explains what life was really like during the bitter and prolonged struggle for the throne after the death of Henry I in 1135.

Also on this week’s edition of The PastCast, Calum Henderson visits a new museum in Portsmouth to mark the anniversary of the Normandy landings. And if that whets your appetite for more coverage of D-Day, please don’t forget to click on the link to our fiendish Friday quiz (from 4 June), which this week is designed to test your knowledge of the events of 6 June 1944. In the meantime, why not have a go at our previous quiz on hoards? Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you’re an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of June 2021 and pay just £49.99 by entering code June21 at the checkout.