Benefits of archaeology and current threats to the profession and public heritage assets

*Update* [26-05-21] Sadly, the University of Sheffield executive board have decided to close the Archaeology Department. How this will effect ongoing research projects (which make significant contribution toward tourism) – such as that at Stonehenge – is at present unclear. As is the extent to which ‘rescue archaeology‘ will suffer from cessation of the internationally-renowned training & archaeological services provided by the department.

I’m launching an archaeological project (which I’ll say more on soon) at a time when not only archaeology & other historical studies at Universities are under threat, but also the recovery of archaeological remains & data at risk of destruction through changes to planning regulations. The timing is in some ways coincidental – this is certainly the case regarding the decision to be made today as to whether or not Sheffield University’s department (through which I gained my PhD) will close.[1]

In other ways, some of the arguments put forward for such closures also lie behind development of my soon-to-launch project. I was ready to attempt an return to more regular teaching in ways that I could work around my changing circumstances when COVID hit – which has of course affected the fortunes of many businesses, including those providing educational services, big & small. Whether higher education institutions employing & serving tens of thousands of staff & students, or individual tutors working as sole-traders, the necessary restrictions have severely constrained income.[2]

However supportive or otherwise of Government responses to Coronavirus, the situation would evidently have been complex & difficult for whoever charged with running the country at this trying time. And it’s clear that additional funds have been required in attempting to manage the disease – so the prospect of either spending cuts, taxation increases, or both, doesn’t come as a great surprise.

What’s more contentious is the plan to impose 50% funding cuts to University Arts & Humanities – & the arguments put forward in justifying this move. The principal reason given by Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is that studying these subjects yields little return in comparison to STEM studies (particularly with regard to future employability) – despite the numerous analyses that refute this claim & demonstrate that the so-called ‘dead-end’ courses he refers to demonstrate .

Such a move risks making such courses (if any survive the cull) the preserve of the wealthy. And in the light of previous statements by the Government, appears as much or more politically- as economically-motivated, as well as confusing – running counter to statements made by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (acknowledging the value of the Arts). Take, for instance, the much-criticised (& subsequently withdrawn) poster released last Autumn, in which a dancer is positioned as a would-be IT-worker (suggesting those trained in the Arts should retrain). Given the additional costs of such a course of action (& additional debt without any guarantee of employment in a new field among younger candidates), Williamson’s message seems divisive.

This is not the best place for discussing the values of the Arts & Humanities in general (nor for repeating in detail the array of benefits that historical studies – or even archaeology – specifically bring). I’m neither an economist nor Human Resources specialist; & others in my profession have laid these out much more effectively than I might. So I’ll just mention in brief a few important assets that such analyses highlight.[3]

Through historical studies, employees gain valuable transferable skills that enhance any career. It’s recognised that Archaeological studies in particular – incorporating Science, Humanities & Arts – provide a well-rounded education that equips graduates for many & varied situations. The enormous contributions to the economy of heritage tourism (& the associated service, hospitality, entertainment, retail & travel, industries) – which obviously relies on a ready workforce of well-trained & knowledgeable professionals – is also well-known.[4]

But (to slightly adapt an oft-quoted adage), men, women & children do not live on bread alone. Above & beyond the more easily-quantifiable economic benefits are those that distinguish people from the other lifeforms with which we share this earth. Without curiosity – the drive to understand the human condition & our environments – we can’t grow, or adapt to survive whatever life throws at us. And Historical studies are a vital component of this search.

And (as with other resources upon which we rely), as we intensify exploitation of the land, we destroy the yet-to-be known past – in the material traces of what has gone before: not only from which we might learn, but also find enrichment in ways that create the connections & bonds necessary for effectively functioning societies.

In recognition of the many & varied benefits that study of & engagement with these vital resources can bring, safeguards have over the years been put in place that attempt to attain at least a basic level of ‘preservation by recording’ (only very rarely are archaeological sites preserved in situ, in recognition of their national or international significant).

Archaeological investigations are largely carried out in advance of construction work liable destroy historical remains, the required level of intervention (if any) first determined by evaluating risk. This involves appraising what’s already known about a locality (using, among other resources, Historic Environment Records that collate information gathered over decades & in some cases centuries: a valuable resource for anyone interested in the historic landscapes in which they live, work & spend leisure time). If the findings of preliminary evaluations – such as ‘desk top’ assessments & ‘walk-over’ surveys of sites – suggest that significant historical material may be damaged or destroyed, then a programme of archaeological field investigation (such as standing-building surveys, ‘field-walking’ & landscape surveys, watching-briefs, & occasionally excavations) may subsequently take place.

This has been part of the planning process for decades (albeit commonly receiving sufficient resources & inadequate staffing levels) – & it’s led to many important discoveries at a national & international level, as well as seemingly less significant curiosities that nonetheless enhance understanding of & a sense of belonging to local places & communities. Yet these safeguards are now also under threat – not only if & when Archaeology departments close (potentially leading to a dearth of qualified professionals), but also through amendments to the planning process (to which there’s been significant criticism).[5]

Heritage assets – which without recording will be lost forever – belong to the nation as a whole. And, while many might see this resource as irrelevant (an issue that historians must work towards changing), it’s of fundamental importance to all of us. It’s part of ‘our story’ (however long we’ve inhabited the land, & whether as individuals, families, or communities). The past shapes how we live – & so who we are today, & will become in the future. And the adage that we must know where we’ve come from to know where we’re going is of even greater importance at times of crisis – & attempts at recovery.

In answer to the often-asked question of ‘if your house was on fire, what objects would you save?’, a common response is ‘family photos’: objects that embody & evoke irreplaceable memories that define who we are, & might become. Archaeological remains – as material ‘snapshots’ in time – form the national, regional, local & communal equivalents. And flames are now being fanned that may set our house ablaze.

Petitions & Campaign Tools

Save Sheffield’s Archaeology Department Petition

Save Sheffield Archaeology resources: Information and email contacts

Save Archaeology & Heritage at the University of Chester Petition

CIfA Advocacy Toolkit

LHEN Toolkit


[1] Although I’d hoped to post this sooner, & write to all concerned in the decision regarding Sheffield Archaeology Dept., ill health preventing me from doing so: after a burst of tweets on hearing the news last week, & an attempt yesterday to complete work delayed by illness, I was frustratingly forced back to the ‘sick-bed’. Return to text

[2] See e.g. Understanding the value of arts & culture (The AHRC Cultural Value Project); The Value of the Humanities; The arts and humanities play a critical role in the development of vibrant communities (LSE); The Value and Importance of the Arts and the Humanities in Education and Life (Huff Post). Return to text

[3] After much time & effort over the last year or so, I’ve found that an entirely online format doesn’t quite work with the hands-on approaches that I’ve been planning over the last few years. However, I’m not giving up on online teaching, & continue to explore more effective methods than the now-standard format of Zoom.

For the effects of COVID on Education, see, e.g. The impact of coronavirus on higher education (TES); Coronavirus and the impact on students in higher education in England: September to December 2020 (ONS); Achieving stability in the higher education sector following COVID-19 (Universities UK); Coronavirus: Financial impact on higher education (House of Commons Library). Return to text

[4] For example see CIfA response to threats to Chester & Sheffield archaeology departments; RHS statement on the recent closure of UK History departments. Return to text

[5] For criticisms regarding changes to planning regulations, see e.g. CIfA & CBA response to Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, build, build’ speech (CIfA / CBA); Open Letter From Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI); Response to Prime Minister’s Green Recovery Speech (CIEEM) ; ‘Deregulation won’t solve the housing crisis’ – RIBA criticises Jenrick’s planning reforms (RIBA); Briefing: Queen’s Speech debate on affordable and safe housing for all (Shelter); As the government announce major planning reforms, we criticise ‘pitiful’ aims and call for robust legal guarantees (CPRE).

To quote the response made by the Campaign to Protect Rural England campaigns and policy director, Tom Fyans, ‘The Planning Bill looks set to prioritise developers’ needs over local communities, provide no new environmental safeguards and could slow the delivery of genuinely affordable homes in many areas. All in all, it risks creating a free for all for development.’ Return to text