UK Archaeology Departments Face Sustainability Crisis

As noted here three years ago, UK contract archaeology is in a deep slump where hundreds of archaeologists have been laid off and a number of excavation units have closed shop. Those experienced and well-connected field archaeologists who got the sack didn't evaporate: many of them are still out there waiting for the job market to improve.

Now, in Current Archaeology #268, Mark Horton (prof. arch. Bristol) warns about "an oncoming archaeological crisis in universities". After an all-time high in the 90s and mid-00s, UK archaeology student admittance numbers have declined steadily:

1996: 704
2005: 681
2011: 511
2012: 450 (projected)

This has taken place without the impetus of any changes to the student funding system. The figures basically describe the passing of a media fad, with Horton attributing the peak to Time Team's mid-90s popularity. But starting in October, UK universities will raise their term fees sharply due to a recent political measure. There are currently about 28 archaeology departments according to Horton's estimate. Marginal ones are now gravely endangered, it appears. (For an idea of which ones will close first, check this ranking list that many students use.)

What then is Horton's advice? In his opinion, the best way forward is to market archaeology as a fun subject that will give you useful secondary skills. We should tell students to study archaeology without any expectation of working as archaeologists. He may be right: that might be the best chance those 28 departments have. But it's not a good one. As I always say, employers usually have their pick of people with useful primary skills.

If you take a larger view of these developments, though, you'll find that the upcoming employment crisis in university archaeology is not a major social ill. It affects a few hundred teachers. University departments are not there primarily for the students, nor for the teachers, nor for the well-being of academic subjects in abstract. They are there to serve the societal machine's needs of specialised parts. And making far more spare parts than society needs is poor resource management. From the individual's point of view, meanwhile, it is of course also deeply damaging to be lathed into a part that never gets slotted into its place in the machine – witness my own periodical whining on this blog.

Update 5 July: The Birmingham department is being closed down. So far no explanation has been offered to the public.

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I shouldn’t think that 28 archaeology departments will close. The Russell Group unis on the list won’t suffer much from the decline in wealthy young people wanting to study. They probably accept 1/10 of the applicants who get the grades to study with them. Those universities that will suffer are the less prestigious ones at the bottom of the list whose intake is made up of students from poorer backgrounds.

By Nick Williams (not verified) on 23 Jun 2012 #permalink

If there is only a limited number of archaeological job positions available then why worry if university numbers drop off?

"There are currently about 28 archaeology departments according to Horton’s estimate. Marginal ones are now gravely endangered, it appears".

Ah, yes, I should read more closely ...

By Nick Williams (not verified) on 23 Jun 2012 #permalink

All very measured and rational, but how do you explain that its Birmingham and Glasgow (twelve and eight) that are fighting being closed? If you view life in this way then society needs no archaeologists at all because it has no need to understand itself, explore, grow, dissent, create and that's all archaeology actually has to offer.

Strangely, we can't know the future any more than the past. But drawing on the past, in the 80's humanities actually did quite well for students because people could see that there weren't any jobs put yourself into, and those well educated people did plenty of useful things.

By Sarah May (not verified) on 23 Jun 2012 #permalink

KJP, people who work at universities and/or whose specialisms makes them not very fit to work elsewhere find this worrisome.

Sarah May, I know nothing about the particulars of which UK depts are being closed down.

Society does not need archaeologists any more than it needs film makers. But rich countries can afford such luxuries up to some level.

I don't quite understand what you're saying about the 80s, but maybe you mean that the few archaeologists educated back then got some kind of jobs somewhere? Not very relevant to the current situation after decades of producing several hundred new UK archaeologists a year.

"rich countries can afford such luxuries up to some level"

I recall the 1980s, when a site with a prehistoric circle of wooden (as opposed to stone) posts in Britain was destroyed because the site was used to extract gravel. It was not even a profitable quarry, it got subsidies for extraction. That is what happens when heritage is seen as luxury. Here in Sweden, the destruction of urban centre heritages during the fifties and sixties is another example.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 23 Jun 2012 #permalink

Birger, heritage is part of the set menu of luxuries that Western countries enjoy. Ask whoever's organising Liberia and Somalia at the moment if heritage management is one of their top priorities.

Destroying a country's archeological heritage, or allowing it to be destroyed, is sometimes a political statement. The obvious example is Qin Shihuangde, who ordered the destruction of traces of his predecessors--this is why Westerners call his country China, rather than Zhongguo as the Chinese call it. The destruction of Maya codexes by the Spanish is another example.

This is not an idle worry for someone who, like me, lives in a country with a powerful political faction that believes the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Jun 2012 #permalink

I read Archaeology in the early 80's at Exeter, there were no jobs then either. I'm still glad I did it.

By Norma Parfitt (not verified) on 01 Jul 2012 #permalink