'Closing the department down would be a travesty'

The University of Sheffield is facing a strong backlash to its decision to close world-renowned archaeology department

By Dan Hayes

In 1966, on a dig that archaeologists still talk about today, a large deposit of animal bones was found at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. The site had been known about since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and bones had been discovered there in the early 1950s, but this dig was a much bigger undertaking. Over the course of two years, archaeologists dug trenches that revealed the presence of timber structures, as well as a ditch and a bank. Abundant bone remains were found in these hidden features of the site, as well as in an elongated oval hollow they named ‘the midden’.

The bone ‘assemblages’ — as they are known — are considered highly significant. The bones had been deposited in a henge, neolithic ring-shaped earthworks thought to be of ceremonial significance to the people who built them. Durrington Walls was determined to be late neolithic, dating from around 2,800 to 2,100 BC. The huge quantity of bones also gave it away as a place which played host to great feasts, where cattle and pigs were consumed in large quantities. Many of the remains were also disposed of in unusual ways, possibly indicating a ritual element to the festivities.

Durrington Walls now sits proudly within the Stonehenge world heritage site, two large strips of land around 15 miles apart in which 700 individual archaeological features have been identified. These include Stonehenge itself which lies two miles to the south west, as well as woodhenge, bluestonehenge and the Avebury stone circle. In addition to discovering the ceremonial use of the site, scientists from the University of Sheffield also led excavations which unearthed earlier houses. It is now thought the site could at one point have had up to 1,000 houses and been home to 4,000 people, meaning it might have been the largest settlement in Europe of its time.

The site’s secrets were discovered by the Stonehenge riverside project, a dig led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, who taught at the University of Sheffield for 25 years. The landmark excavations added considerably to our understanding of our country’s distant past. Durrington Walls would come to be seen as ‘Stonehenge’s support settlement’, the place where those who built one of England’s most mysterious ancient monuments lived while it was being created.

Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge research is considered one of Sheffield archaeology’s most significant contributions to the field. The findings have been featured in countless news articles all over the world and inspired a special edition of Channel 4’s long-running Time Team archaeology programme. The University of Sheffield has mentioned the Durrington Walls discoveries many times in its publicity. And that helps to explain why the university’s decision last month to close its archaeology department has been met with such fierce resistance and criticism.

“The outpouring of grief and outrage is unlike anything I have seen,” says Dr Richard Madgwick, a leading archaeologist from the University of Cardiff. “Sheffield archaeology is a globally recognised mark of quality that really is world class.” While the Stonehenge research is the most well known example of the department’s work, it was just one of many significant contributions Sheffield had made right across the world. “Archaeology is not just about reconstructing the past,” he told The Tribune. “It’s about understanding what it is to be human. Closing the department down would be a travesty.”

As it happens, Madgwick is currently working in Wiltshire looking into human and animal relationships in and around the Stonehenge site, and says his research would be impossible but for the contribution that Sheffield archaeology had made. But he added that in addition to the national and international research the department is famous for, it had also made a huge contribution to the understanding of Sheffield’s own rich history through its work in the community.

42,000 people have signed a petition to save the department, and celebrities like the former Time Team presenter Tony Robinson and the historians Janina Ramirez and Alice Roberts have chimed in with their support. The university blames a ‘difficult external environment’ and a ‘significant reduction’ in the number of undergraduate students for the decision. As well as honouring its commitments to current students, it promises to ‘align areas of strength’ within the faculty to other university departments. In practice, Sheffield medievalist Dr Hugh Willmott says these specialisms would ‘quickly wither and die’.

The political background of the decision is significant. Earlier this year, the Government announced a 50% cut in funding for university archaeology departments. The subject had been a beneficiary of the higher education teaching grant but lost this funding after being reclassified as a ‘high-cost, non-strategic’ area of study. Education secretary Gavin Williamson justified the decision by saying that healthcare, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and ‘specific labour market needs’ were priorities. The university won’t be drawn on whether whether this was a factor in its decision making, but says it will be releasing a further statement next week.

Professor Umberto Albarella has been studying archaeology for 37 years and currently leads the MSc zooarchaeology course at the University of Sheffield. Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains at archaeological sites, the kind of meticulous work that led to the Durrington Walls discoveries. Originally from Naples in Italy, he started working at the department back in 2004, but was aware of its reputation long before that. The world renowned faculty was set up 45 years ago and is now one of the top 50 archaeological schools in the world. Now, as well as his everyday jobs of marking, meetings and research, Umberto is busy organising the campaign to save his own department.

“It is a question only the university's management can answer,” says Albarella, when asked why he thinks the decision to close the department has been taken. He says staff have been given ‘very vague’ explanations that the number of undergraduates is predicted to decrease in the future and that the department is therefore not financially sustainable in the long term. He acknowledges student numbers have been decreasing but says much of this is due to the very high fees that they now pay, particularly those from overseas.

“Archaeology students choose the subject because they have a passion and really like the subject, not because they will make a lot of money,” he told me. “We would expect a university to invest in the long term not to have a knee jerk reaction to fairly natural fluctuations in student numbers.” 

The department currently has around 200 undergraduates and 80-90 postgraduates, many of whom come to Sheffield from all over the world. But a reduction in full time teaching staff from 29 in 2004 to just 11 now is cited by academics as another reason behind the decline in student numbers. Appeals from academics for the course to lower its A-Level criteria in order to attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds have so far been rebuffed. The university has also reportedly declined an offer of a £200,000 grant from an anonymous benefactor.

The row goes to the heart of what universities are meant to be about. The current university was created in 1905 after tens of thousands of ordinary working people in Sheffield — steelworkers, coal miners and factory workers — raised more than £50,000 in penny donations, the equivalent of over £6m today. 116 years later and higher education is now Sheffield’s main industry. In 2019-2020, the University of Sheffield alone had a budget of £732.2m, including an endowment of £45.5m.

But Albarella thinks there is an increasing trend to view higher education as a business rather than appreciating the value of learning in its own right, and he says that thinking will lead to subjects like archaeology becoming taught by fewer and fewer departments. “We have to remember the mission of the university is not to make money,” says Albarella. “The international outcry is damaging its reputation.”

The winds that threaten Sheffield’s department are blowing across other universities too. Experts say a ‘perfect storm’ of cuts, closures and shortages in skilled personnel caused by Brexit is threatening to leave the profession in the UK with a serious skills shortage. According to the i newspaper, as many as 300 of the 3,000 archaeologists involved in fieldwork in the UK have chosen to leave their jobs because of changes to immigration rules after Brexit, leading to an overall shortfall of up to 1,000 people. 

As well as the academics who stand to lose their jobs, the biggest losers from the closure will be current students. One of those is first year PhD candidate Helen Thompson, aged 26, from Vancouver. For her doctorate she is studying the relationship between indigenous and colonial technology in South America from the 15th to the 18th century. Despite the uncertainty, she is still busy at work in the lab most days, photographing Argentinian and Chilean pottery samples with a microscope, looking for signs that European techniques were either adopted — or rejected — by the indigenous South Americans who were exposed to them.

Helen says she chose archaeology specifically because of its immediacy, falling in love with the hands-on nature of the subject and the way it provided students with a direct physical relationship with the past. When looking for a masters, she chose Sheffield because of its international reputation as a centre for high quality research. As well as the landmark Stonehenge excavation, this includes major studies into the history of Sheffield Castle, the archaeology of ancient Greece and the centrality of materials like ceramics, metal and glass to human societies.

“It’s been pretty awful to be honest,” she says. “The department has done their best to give us a heads up that there was a review process going on but when they said they might close the department it came as quite a shock to the system.”

Helen might have up to three years left on her PhD, and is personally worried that with no undergraduates or masters students, the already difficult and isolating process of doing a doctorate could become incredibly lonely. But as someone who believes in the power of her subject to alter our understanding of the past and impact our present, she also desperately wants the students of the future to be given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.

“The university keeps saying we will ‘teach you out’ but they don’t understand how much we care about the subject and want it to continue after we’ve finished,” she says. “I had such a great experience on my masters and want other people to have that chance as well.”

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