Under Threat? Archaeology in Britain Today

Written by John Strachan

Archaeology as a discipline in Britain is currently in quite a contradictory position. In popular media, archaeologists are depicted as dashing adventurers, and excavations and discoveries are frequently reported upon by the popular press. In the UK, it enjoys a prominent position in the planning and development process, from small extensions to people’s houses to the largest of infrastructure projects like HS2, and new research is being pursued across the country in university departments, commercial units and labs. But for several years now, there has been a growing trend associated with wider issues across the humanities of funding cuts, falling student numbers and a lack of trained professionals in the field. While these are related to economic instability and apathy for the subject from the powers that be, the subject also seems to be unable to cater to many prospective students and workers. How these issues can be solved is not at all clear, but there are positive changes that offer hope that this can be done. 

A superficial example of archaeology’s image problem can be seen in the new film The Lost King. The film depicts an account of the finding of Richard Ⅲ under a carpark in Leicester. The film is likely to cause a legal dispute between the filmmakers and some of the real archaeologists involved in the discovery, who are depicted as being unhelpful, rude, and ableist, as well as being mostly peripheral to the discovery, while the non-academic underdog is depicted as being excluded and belittled by the profession. Whether this is the case or not is perhaps irrelevant as it seems to fit into a trend, also seen in the BBC comedy The Detectorists and Netflix’s The Dig, of professional archaeologists being elitist and out of touch. This cultural depiction can be quite damaging both professionally and personally, as in the case of the academics at the University of Leicester. While this can be chalked up to dramatic license in some cases, the concept does not exist in a vacuum. 

The attempted move to close the University of Sheffield’s archaeology department was a worrying development in the story of academic archaeology in Britain. Despite being one of the best in the world, the department was scheduled to be closed by the board of executives with immediate effect, with some staff kept on in other departments to teach specific courses. This was later reversed due to public outcry, union protest and a petition signed by over 40,000 people – backed by many archaeological institutions – although the department has arguably only been given a reprieve till 2024. In the commercial sector there has been a detectable trend away from sustainable development towards financial viability with increased powers given to developers to decide what is and is not necessary in the planning procedure. While this has always been the case in some ways, the proposed changes in planning law in 2016 and later aim at “streamlining” the development process in order to avoid unnecessary costs, has caused consternation with many archaeologists as they would be among the first to be removed from the process. It has also influenced the work carried out in the field, and on the people doing it, and the speed of publication and the distribution of new research and knowledge. This is important because archaeology and heritage not only belongs to everyone but has been shown to help develop people’s attachment and understanding of the world around them and their place in it. 

This fact has been ignored by politicians in recent years. During the recent Tory leadership debate, the issue of so-called “useless degrees” was brought up by Rishi Sunak, with most of the humanities seeming to fall into this unedifying description. This is perhaps down to ignorance or apathy to the profession, but we should be careful to remember that there are several legitimate and serious issues affecting archaeology in the UK. According to the most recent report by Landward Research on the demographics of the profession, 97% of archaeologists working in Britain today are white, and 30% come from the highest socio-economic backgrounds. This is simply embarrassing for a sector which in other areas is quite able to offer opportunities to traditionally marginalised workers such as women, although even this is imperfect. Furthermore, the rate of pay for an excavator straight out of university is among the lowest offered to those working in “professional” occupations in the country. This is likely to be a barrier for people coming from marginalised backgrounds, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. These twin issues of irrelevance and dwindling funding and applications are connected. If archaeology is viewed both by prospective students and policy makers as irrelevant or unprofitable, then this will lead to fewer applications and less funding, which will be seen as evidence of greater irrelevance in a vicious circle. 

While archaeology is beholden to profit career viability, it is also a quest for knowledge and understanding about people, and archaeologists have a social responsibility to include people in their heritage. Community archaeology projects such as the New Audiences project and the Young Archaeology Clubs organised by Archaeology Scotland, as well as public outreach in the commercial sector, have been successful in engaging local communities and helping them create attachments to the places they live and work in. 

As for professional archaeologists or students looking for experience, a more radical shift may be necessary in how much fieldwork is carried out in the UK. In much of Europe, it is common practice to pay undergraduates who have not yet achieved their degrees and provide them with free accommodation on excavations. Admittedly, the wages are usually very low, and the accommodation not of a high standard, but this would be one way of enticing students and interested people into taking up fieldwork and gaining useful skills, rather than forcing them to choose between voluntary fieldwork (which they often must pay for) or financially sustainable employment. While grants and loans exist, these can often be difficult to access without having prior funds as often they are paid out after the excavations have taken place. 

With the closure of departments, cuts to the funding and difficulty in recruitment, a variety of small-scale solutions may help to improve archaeology’s appeal and relevance to both the general public and funders. Opening careers in archaeology to people from non-academic backgrounds is already taking place in commercial units such as AOC, but there should be an attempt to prioritise different approaches to archaeology be they local fieldwork societies run by members of the public, as well as more top-down approaches from the third sector like Archaeology Scotland. Finally, as in the case of Sheffield University’s archaeology department, direct action, protest and unionisation seem to be just as vital in preventing the decline of the study and practice of archaeology. 


Bibliography

“University of Sheffield archaeology academics will not face compulsory cuts” BBC.co.uk. BBC.co.uk, 21st December 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-59747456. 

Aitchison, K., (2006) “What is the Value of an Archaeology Degree?”, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 17, p.4-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/pia.260.

Aitchison, K., German, P., and Rocks-Macqueen, D.2021. “Profiling the Profession”. https://profilingtheprofession.org.uk/2-10-archaeologists-socio-economic-backgrounds/.

Cunliffe, E., Welsh, J., and Joy, S. 2016. “The Future of UK Archaeology”. Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa. https://eamena.org/article/future-uk-archaeology.

Everill, P. 2009. The Invisible Diggers: A Study of British Commercial Archaeology. Oxbow Books Ltd. 

Phillips, D. 2019. “Archeology, Conservation and Enhancement: The Role of Viability in the UK Planning System”, The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice, 10:3-4, 345-362, DOI: 10.1080/17567505.2019.1684868. 

%d bloggers like this: