The University of Sheffield is considering closing its Department of Archaeology in the latest blow to the field, News Reporter Ellen Knight reports.

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Hot on the heels of Aston University’s plans for closures of its humanities departments, the University of Sheffield is considering closing its Department of Archaeology in the latest blow to the field. 

In early 2020, the University of Sheffield approved three new posts for the department, which were subsequently cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. After the department requested that these posts were reinstated for the 2020-21 academic teaching year due to a lack of staff, the University of Sheffield’s University Executive Board (UEB) placed the department under review.

A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield told Redbrick that the University of Sheffield ‘has undertaken a review of its Department of Archaeology,’ asserting that ‘staff and student representatives participated in the review, and no decisions have been taken.’ However, in an email sent to students seen by Redbrick, the University of Sheffield’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Gill Valentine rationalised the potential closure, stating that ‘the department has been facing multiple challenges in recent years, including a difficult external environment and a reduction of undergraduate students.’ The email went on to say that it had been ‘agreed with the department that it is not sustainable in its current form and that change is needed so as not to risk compromising the future experience of students and staff.’

The email went on to say that it had been agreed with the department that it is not sustainable in its current form and that change is needed so as not to risk compromising the future experience of students and staff

In the interim, the UEB has conducted interviews with staff and students, with a vote set to take place on Tuesday 25th May. According to Save Sheffield Archaeology (SSA) campaigners, the options are as follows:

  • Support and invest in the department to ensure the future of archaeology at Sheffield.
  • Discontinue archaeology as a subject at Sheffield and make all the staff redundant.
  • Discontinue archaeology as a coherent and core subject, but retain aspects of archaeological research and education (human osteology and cultural heritage specifically to be merged into other departments), and make remaining staff redundant.

As has been observed by the SSA campaign, two out of the three options would result in the dissolution of the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield and would leave jobs and livelihoods at risk. Furthermore, the department is heavily involved in outreach projects such as the student-run Archaeology in the City, a programme that runs free talks for the public and free workshops for local primary schools. Professor Umberto Albarella, Professor of Zooarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, told the Sheffield Telegraph that ‘[academics] are concerned on many levels, concerned for our jobs and livelihoods and salaries, but even more importantly we are concerned that all the work that has been done for decades is going to be destroyed.

I call this a catastrophic failure of management.

Professor Albarella observed the international support for the department’s future, saying: ‘The university may have taken whatever decision they like, but the whole international community without any exceptions is up in arms and is absolutely shocked and disgusted.’

This overwhelming support has been reflected in a petition set up by third-year Sheffield archaeology student Liam Hand. As of 21st May, it has amassed over 17,000 signatories hoping to persuade Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor and the UEB to vote for option 1 – thereby ensuring the protection of the Department of Archaeology ‘after a continuous and successful history of over 50 years.’ Hand observed to the Sheffield Telegraph that the closure would not only affect the future of archaeology, but also the education of those students currently enrolled on the course, noting that ‘they won’t get the same education because the staff will be trying to find other jobs.’ 

Charlotte Cooper, a postgraduate Archaeological Science student studying at the University of Sheffield told Redbrick that the announcement has left her ‘scared for the future,’ as her cohort has been ‘reassured that [they] will still get [their] degrees if it closes down, which is the bare minimum you’d expect when you’re paying £10,500 for the course.’

‘It would be devastating to lose this department. The staff are all so brilliant – top in their fields – and genuinely care about your wellbeing.

 The staff are all so brilliant – top in their fields – and genuinely care about your wellbeing 

Even though there’s been COVID restrictions, in the time I’ve been here – since October – I already feel so welcomed and part of and part of a community.’

John Mitchell, President of the University of Birmingham’s Archaeology Society, noted that ‘the potential closure of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield is just another example of a widespread neglect for the arts.’ Mitchell described this proposal from the University of Sheffield as ‘a sign of things to come.’

The lack of value controversially ascribed to the arts by the Education Secretary concerns Mitchell, who observed that ‘the more we continue to undervalue these subjects, the less they will become accessible to the general population.’ 

‘How much will archaeology and similar disciplines need to be gatekept before people realise their value?’’

Describing archaeology as an ‘elitist subject […] built by the upper-class white man’, Mitchell pointed out that ‘disallowing archaeology as a valid subject of further study will only perpetuate this problem,’ leading the discipline to become even more exclusive, emphasising to Redbrick that ‘we need archaeologists. We need archaeology to be inclusive for all. We need archaeology to be accessible for all.’

Moreover, the social and cultural benefit of archaeological study is vastly overlooked, Mitchell believes: ‘Archaeology offers so much: museums you visit for free; the documentaries you watch; the understanding of our history and cultural identity,’ describing the potential closure as ‘heart-breaking.’

Archaeology offers so much: museums you visit for free, the documentaries you watch

‘Preventing the dissolution of the Archaeology department will ensure that we can keep challenging the current issues within the discipline. It will also allow all students, current and prospective, to enjoy studying archaeology. The department’s termination will inhibit all of this.’ 

‘It will set a dangerous precedent for all arts subjects – that we are disposable. We cannot let that happen.’

Like this article? Here are some more stories from Redbrick News:

Plans for 50% Cuts to Arts Funding

Interview: Michelle Donelan.

Aston University Proposes Closure of History and Language Department

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