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Opinion

Closing Sheffield’s archaeology department is a symptom of something darker

Shutting University of Sheffield’s world-renowned archaeology department is a shocking act of cultural vandalism that should outrage us all, writes Vicky Carroll.

Archaeology: it’s Indiana Jones whip-cracking through exotic locations, or weirdy-beardy boffins “unearthing the mysteries of the past”… Cavemen, bones, bits of broken pot, Stonehenge, a series of small walls. Nothing to do with us bustling through our complicated modern lives.

That’s absolute rubbish. Archaeology is part of all our lives. It’s not just picturesque landscapes, castles, muddy holes and heaps of old stuff. It’s a subject that tells us about who we are now, how we live today. How we got here, what we can achieve. It’s inspiration, aspiration and rigorous investigation. Curiosity about the past that reassuringly tells us we have been doing more or less okay for over 10,000 years on this strip of land.

And that is why shutting University of Sheffield’s world-renowned archaeology department – a respected leader in research for over 30 years – is a shocking act of cultural vandalism that should outrage us all.

The decision to close the department was confirmed on Wednesday and immediately rejected by university staff, who vowed to fight on. Leading archaeologists and academics have expressed disbelief. Dr Heather Bonney of the Natural History Museum (a Sheffield alumni) described it as a “great loss”, The Council for British Archaeology called it “a massive blow” to the UK.

Mike Parker-Pearson, who leads groundbreaking Stonehenge research and was formerly based at Sheffield, said the university would “shoot itself in the foot” closing the department. The Urban Prehistorian, Dr Kenny Brophy, said “archaeology in the UK without a Sheffield archaeology department is unthinkable” and added: “This is not just about Sheffield, it is about all of us.” Even if you have only the most tenuous interest in the past, you’ll have read news stories based on the research carried out by Sheffield, not least their work at Stonehenge.

But Sheffield archaeology department’s closure is a symptom of something much wider and deeply worrying.

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Universities are falling victim to culture wars being waged by the UK government, a baffling attack against the ‘woke Left’. Weaponising funding cuts to arts and humanities subjects, which the government is cutting by 50 per cent this year, slams down the shutters on critical thinking, inquisitiveness, creative ways we question the world – the things that make us human.

The line between sciences and the arts is not immutable. Sure, as an archaeology student you learn about stratigraphy and soil sampling, dendrochronology and taphonomy, geophysics and archaeoastronomy, chironomids and kings. But archaeology is an arts subject, one which embeds science. Heaney knew bog bodies are poetry in motion through time, used to tell the stories of ourselves today.

Education funding should never be a choice between science and arts. We need both, a fully rounded, critical, open and academic and research framework upon which to build the country’s cultural, creative, energetic, economic future.

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Attacks by government on the culture and heritage are especially baffling when their value is unique and enormous. Arts are now worth more to the UK than farming.Culture generates £23bn for the economy while heritage is worth £36bn a year. Past governments identified heritage as a tool for regeneration in less well-off communities, encouraging people to participate in an effort to build social cohesion, health, identity and pride. And those positive impacts were measurable.

I graduated with a BA Honours Degree in Archaeology in 2019, after 13 years faffing about studying in a variety of places and volunteering on community digs. I started as an adult learner in night class at Glasgow Uni and (via the OU and Aberdeen) eventually finished my degree part-time, distance learning through the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Making university education – especially a subject as wide-ranging, engaging and challenging as archaeology – available to adults in this accessible way was life-changing for me. Learning to think, question, critically evaluate information and structure arguments forever changed how I experience the world. And the stuff of archaeology (small walls, big stones, castles, factories, landscapes) are a physical manifestation of those questions.

My studies focused on how communities connect with heritage, and how that is used for myriad purposes. Outreach and engagement were something for which Sheffield Uni’s archaeology department was renowned.

Because archaeology isn’t just about ‘stuff’ it’s about people, all of us. Archaeologist Rachael Kiddey placed homeless communities at the heart of her research, and the Museum of London Archaeology had proposed working with Big Issue vendors to map out their experiences using archaeological techniques (sadly still on hold because of Covid).

What archaeology teaches us is that people, communities, don’t exist in isolation or in a snapshot in time. We are a continuum of creative responses, collective and individual, consciously and compelled, to society and all its cyclical seismic turmoils; to the elements – long-range climatic changes or shocking sudden shudders; to shifty geographical and topographical forces; to disease and depredation. And to politics and policy.

This is why the disastrous decision to close Sheffield University’s Department of Archaeology in a time of overwhelming, relentless news headlines is something none of us should shrug off.

The petition campaigning to Save Sheffield Archaeology is still live. Sign it here.

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