Interest in archaeology has never been stronger – but neither have threats to its future

by Professor Graeme Barker

31 Mar 2017

The discovery of Richard III, the ‘King in the Car Park’, gripped public interest. Driving into Leicester recently I was amazed (and delighted) to see a road sign on the outskirts saying “Richard III Visitor Centre and City Centre”, not the other way around! It makes the point that archaeology also has a huge economic role in terms of heritage tourism.   

But at the same time as public interest in archaeology has never been stronger, a ‘perfect storm’ has been developing in the UK of a variety of threats to the future health of the discipline. This is the reason why the British Academy has launched a review of the strengths and weaknesses of the subject called Reflections on Archaeology.

The first point we make is that British archaeology is recognised all over the world as at the cutting edge of research about the human past – the totality of that past, from millions of years ago to the 20th century. The Richard III discovery was an exception to the rule that the best use of archaeology is not searching for named historical individuals - at its most extreme, that kind of archaeology has led to attempts to find Noah’s Ark or Hannibal and his elephants.  Archaeology can study individuals, but mostly ones without names, like the man known as 'Context 958' buried in Cambridge 700 years ago. He is a good example of how modern archaeology can tell the story of an ordinary person who lived off the historian’s radar (‘denied history’). The analysis of his bones and teeth show that he had bouts of sickness or famine in his earlier life, got his head bashed at some stage, became a skilled tradesman in his adult years with a better diet than poor people, then fell on hard times and ended his days in penury.The work on the cemetery has just begun, and one of the most important areas of science that will be applied will be genetic studies of how prevalent in British populations at that time were  diseases like TB and cancer.  It is an example of how archaeology can both transform our understanding of the past but also contribute to helping modern society get to grips with global challenges like links between diet and disease, food security, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, climate change, inequality and intolerance. Who would have thought that the chemical tests to make sure that the meat in your pie is the same as ‘what it says on the tin’ were developed by archaeological scientists?

Archaeology teaching in UK universities is of tremendous quality, turning out students trained in humanities and sciences approaches to the world, and in the teamwork and project management that make the subject so special. They have great employment prospects whether they want to go on in the subject or develop careers in other professions.  University degree courses in archaeology also have a proud record in widening participation because of the diverse range of students who get bitten by the archaeology bug. But applications are lower than they should be, not helped by the limited opportunities to study archaeology at school beyond the primary years -  now even worse because of the ending of teaching A level archaeology. Media versions of archaeology that show it as a form of light entertainment, a hobby for proper people but a proper job only for eccentrics in beards and sandals, are another factor. The universal undergraduate £9000 fee makes no allowance for the cost of teaching archaeological science and fieldwork, and archaeology is not part of the ‘STEM’ group of subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that gets additional government funding.  

Most archaeological discoveries in Britain are made by professional archaeologists working for commercial units that undertake fieldwork funded by developers as part of planning consent.  Big infrastructure projects like Crossrail in London have employed hundreds of professional archaeologists. The 2008 financial crisis led to a big contraction in this kind of work, with many professionals forced to leave the profession. The sector is returning to health, but there is a real worry that there won’t be enough trained archaeologists for projects like the third runway at Heathrow or HS2. What is also worrying is that austerity measures are forcing some local authorities to cut back on archaeological expertise in planning departments. Political promises to ‘cut red tape’ in the planning process are a further threat.  If this goes on, the framework developed over the past 20 years for protecting, managing and disseminating the archaeological heritage in Britain  – the envy of many countries – will be under increasing threat.

All this means that archaeology needs an effective voice to lobby for its future health, whether in research funding, media coverage, school curricula, university applications and funding regimes, or the planning process. The problem is that we have several voices, variously representing academics, professionals, and the large and important amateur constituency, and combinations of these. Archaeology needs one effective voice, not a chorus, just as geography has the Royal Geographical Society. The All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group recommended this in 2003 and our conclusion is that the need is even more urgent now. The British Academy is willing to help with the process however it can.

Graeme Barker is Disney Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.


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