The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 112

Issue 112

May / Jun 2010


Rare prehistoric finds at major Carlisle dig

Hammerwich hoard "saved" – but who for?

Mary Rose studies query science of tracing migration

Surprising age of new-found stone row on Dartmoor

in brief & phase 2


University archaeology

THE BIG DIG: Discovering Bosworth

The Buried Gods of Gogmagog

Three Men and a (Leaky) Boat

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates the archaeological value of encyclopaedic websites and Stuart Jeffrey describes the Grey Lierature Library


A child's gift to science, the human remains debate


Your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth explores the great rewards and challenges of undersea archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


University Archaeology

a thing of the past?

Early in 2009, we reported how commercial archaeology had been hit hard by the building industry decline. The UK economy emerged from recession this January, but the government has to make huge savings. The university budget for England alone is to be cut by £573m. What will become of archaeology teaching and research? James Doeser has been asking the questions.

Higher education has been transformed in the last 30 years. A swelling of income, institutions, departments, subjects, staff and student numbers has created a world-class universities sector in the UK. Britain is home to some of the most internationally recognised research and highest ranked teaching in the world. It is this context, as well as the international prominence of British archaeology itself, that explains why the UK is considered to be one of the best places in the world to study the subject.

But for how long? Lord Mandelson is the first higher education minister in 10 years to cut university funding. Within weeks of his first announcements, students at King's College London were mounting public campaigns to save the threatened loss of the UK's only chair in palaeography and another post in classical archaeology and art. There will be job losses, research will shrink, courses will close and degrees will be shortened – while a minority of universities will see increased funding as a result of higher student numbers. The Russell Group (which represents our 20 leading universities) has called this "a defining moment in our country's history".

Yet the action at King's remains unusual. If they have fears about the future, most academics are largely keeping these to themselves. University archaeology's prospects can only be uncertain, but when staff were asked for this feature about anticipated cuts at their departments, few were willing to comment. Are they hiding from reality, exercising coordinated diplomacy or working in a subject area free of risk – or fearing that talk of cuts would become self-fulfilling? Over the next year, especially as a new government tackles the reality of an economy in crisis, we will find out. British Archaeology will be following developments.

Meanwhile, how does archaeology look at universities now? How big is it, and how important to the real-world lives of commercial archaeologists and a public interested in history and heritage? Archaeology has faced university funding crises before: perhaps its past can help inform its future. A new assessment process that will have enormous consequences for the way that universities are funded, may equip archaeologists with the means to fight for the funding they need to survive.

Museums are an important part of university archaeology. As the director of the Ashmolean at the University of Oxford, Christopher Brown, puts it, "University museums offer the opportunity to teach and learn using real objects. There is nothing more inspiring than learning from the real thing." All scholars and interested members of the public benefit from university museums. "At the Ashmolean we make our collections available for teaching and research, not just to students in our own universities but others around the country", explains Brown, adding, "We have one of the greatest collections of ancient Greek vases in the UK". University museums are funded from a specific pot of money, and although there have been assurances from the funding agencies Brown is keen to stress that, "We cannot afford to be complacent. If our core funding was reduced, that would send out a very worrying message. We have great ambitions here and we need substantial support in order to keep the museum thriving." JD

Student digs

Nearly 50 UK universities now offer courses in archaeology, and around 35 of them offer an honours undergraduate degree. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) there are 1,025 staff employed in UK archaeology departments, represented by the subject committee for archaeology (SCFA).

Archaeology can be taken as part of a joint degree with a variety of other subjects including geography, languages and even performing arts. More commonly it is paired with allied subjects such as classics or ancient history. The combination with anthropology defines the famous "arch and anth" degrees offered by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Alumni from the latter include Prince Charles, Ted Hughes, Thandie Newton, Nick Clegg, Hugh Laurie and Sandi Toksvig, as well as a large proportion of the present academic staff in UK archaeology departments.

At the same time, there has been a steadily growing science focus within university archaeology. This began, perhaps, with the foundation of the Fenland Research Committee in Cambridge in 1932, and the first archaeology training institute in London (now part of UCL) in 1937. HESA lists archaeology as two subjects: within humanities, and within science ("archaeology as a physical science" up to 2001/2, and "forensic and archaeological science" thereafter). Since 1996 there has been a steady rise in archaeology student enrolments, from nearly 6,000 to over 16,000 (as a student can enrol in more than one programme, these figures exceed the number of students). But enrolments for humanities archaeology have been falling since 2002/3, while science enrolments have been rising fast – and in 2005/6 for the first time exceeded those in humanities.

Some archaeology departments are known for their international focus (such as UCL Institute of Archaeology), others for their scientific facilities (such as the University of Bradford) and others for period or area specialisms (the University of Reading is particularly strong on the Roman period). The amount of fieldwork a student is expected to complete as part of their degree varies enormously. As well as giving a student practical knowledge and technical expertise, fieldwork experience has other benefits such as the life skills that come from spending four weeks camping in a muddy field close to your colleagues.

Undergraduate degrees typically last three years, although in Scotland students achieve an MA after four years undergraduate study (having started with a variety of courses and then specialised in their final two years). Strikingly, the majority of students taking archaeology courses do not do so in an archaeology department: instead they are on archaeology courses taken as options in other departments, from history to classics to geography and anthropology.

The number of actual archaeology students grew steadily from the 1970s, peaking around 2000. The globalisation of higher education and the strength of archaeology in the UK are reflected in an increased number of foreign students – attractive to universities as they pay higher fees. Tuition fees and high levels of debt are now a reality for many British students. Means-tested tuition fees of just over £1,000 a year were introduced in 1998, and "top-up fees" of up to £3225 in 2006; Welsh students studying in Wales pay lower fees, and Scottish students in Scotland pay none at all.

Taught postgraduate masters courses (MAs and MScs) are often seen as one way of gaining the vocational skills and knowledge that are missing from an undergraduate degree. Students have turned to masters as a way of differentiating themselves from their competitors for jobs. Postgraduate research degrees (MPhils and PhDs) are offered by almost all UK departments of archaeology. There are a small number of funded research degree places every year. These are supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) or other funding bodies, or sometimes by the universities themselves.

Competition for jobs in archaeology university departments is extremely fierce. A career in academia usually begins as a junior lecturer or postdoctoral research fellow, but the supply of qualified postdoctoral researchers far exceeds the number of vacancies – and like jobs in the rest of archaeology these positions can be poorly paid, short-term and often itinerant.

Don Henson, CBA

Universities play a key role in archaeology in the UK, providing most professional archaeologists with their initial education in the subject. New approaches in theory and many important methodological techniques are pioneered in universities. But they have also played an important role in making archaeological expertise more widely available to the public, sometimes in partnership with field units or heritage services. Government proposals to assess the impact of university research as a funding criterion may benefit archaeology in making such partnerships easier in the future.

Archaeology departments have a long and proud record (dating back to the 1930s) of providing part-time courses for adults in their local area – now called lifelong learning. These courses often led to the foundation of local archaeology societies. Postgraduates could cut their teeth in lecturing to enthusiastic audiences, and volunteer archaeologists had access to the latest cutting-edge thinking. It is regrettable that changes to government funding for higher education (in favour of subjects deemed to be more economically worthwhile) has led to the wholesale closure of most adult education courses in archaeology and local history (feature, Sep/Oct 2009). We must urgently address the issue of voluntary sector training (something actively promoted by the CBA). When we remember that key research into deserted medieval villages was carried out by Maurice Beresford as part of his extra-mural programme at Wharram Percy, we can see just what archaeology may be losing.

Don Henson is Head Of Education at the CBA.

Footing the bill

The government supports universities through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. HEFCE also supports the sector by promoting best practice and sharing information – one way is through the Higher Education Academy. A large amount of government money for university archaeology also comes from the research councils such as the AHRC.

In line with the rest of the higher education sector, the 1960s and 70s saw an expansion of archaeology posts and departments, accelerating a trend begun after the second world war. The 1963 Robbins report paved the way for the creation of new universities. A second large university expansion saw the incorporation of former polytechnics in 1992. Many of these now teach archaeology, and Bournemouth in particular is home to a strong archaeology department.

As a relatively young humanities discipline, archaeology was still growing when cuts to higher education began to take effect in the 1980s. In 1986 senior archaeology academics met to do battle with the university grants committee (UGC – HEFCE's forerunner). The CBA's university committee had been revived in response to threats of cuts at the start of the decade, and in its new guise as SCUPHA (the standing committee of university professors and heads of archaeology – what was later to become SCFA) it also lobbied the UGC against actual and impending cuts.

By then there were some 200 academic staff teaching archaeology in around half of the UK's 50 universities, with a staff to student ratio of 1:13. The late 1980s saw archaeology applications level off, and a number of departments were threatened with closure (including Lancaster, Leeds, Reading, St Andrews and Aberdeen). Some survived while others did not, but archaeology departments at Oxford and Bournemouth expanded. In 1987 the Barron committee audited university departments to see how many staff were needed to teach particular subjects: an ominous sign.

The next 10 years will present archaeology in higher education with a serious challenge. The last 15 years have been a golden time, with greatly increased student and staff numbers, improved quality of research and teaching judged to be almost uniformly excellent. However, a major reduction in government funding to higher education, a decrease in the size of the potential UK student cohort along with the prioritisation of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) will make it hard for subjects like archaeology to compete for resources. Student loans and tuition fees mean that students now think hard about taking a degree subject that is educationally new to them, and that offers uncertain prospects for employment.

We must stress the interdisciplinary and scientific sides of archaeology: our students are taught creative, investigative and analytical skills that give them a more rounded experience than traditional humanities students. Employers must see clear evidence of these skills. We need to think about our curriculum, how it is taught and assessed. The Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre can make a significant contribution here and the introduction of student work placements within our degree programmes would help enormously.

Increasingly, other sciences have taken an historic turn and are capturing the popular imagination with accounts of prehistory from their perspective. We must claim back an understanding of our prehistoric past as the preserve of archaeology. If we are not careful, we shall be left solely as excavators of this time period: handmaidens to evolutionary science, physical geography, materials science and so forth. The impact of research in higher education must be felt in taking renewed ownership of this period in our past.

Anthony Sinclair is subject director for archaeology at the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology.

Although most archaeology departments are found in arts faculties, since the 1960s practitioners have made increasing use of scientific methods and equipment. Expensive survey, dating and laboratory techniques were routinely employed by top researchers, despite their being funded at the same level as classics and history. Since 1997 the government has recognised that archaeology costs more than the traditional humanities.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has recently reduced HEFCE's budget by £65m. As Don Henson writes, funding for continuing education has collapsed in the last two years. But not all is gloom. Julian D Richards, head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, suggests that "the overall pattern is likely to be mixed. In York prudent financial management over the last few years has meant that we're pretty positive about the future. Student recruitment is buoyant, with a significant increase in postgraduate offers, and research income is continuing to grow."

Measuring up

A degree in archaeology sounds exciting: the promise of digging in exotic countries and the lure of discovering amazing artefacts. However, early on my lecturers warned me that most archaeology is done in the classroom and that budget restraints usually take the fun out of excavations. I have first hand experience of some of the less desirable aspects of an archaeology degree, including digging in torrential rain. The burden of tuition fees can cause students to question if university costs more than it is worth.

None of this has dampened my enthusiasm for archaeology. I have been able to broaden my knowledge through assignments and experiences in the UK and abroad. I feel that my time at university is being well spent, and that my fees are being put towards something that I feel passionate about.

The future for every graduate now looks uncertain, but I feel sure that archaeology graduates stand a good chance of gaining employment with the diverse skills that such a degree gives them. Archaeological fieldwork can be wet and laborious, but my time as a student has taken me on excavations, and given me fantastic learning opportunities as well as plenty of excitement. I'd recommend it!

Naomi Russell is a second year student at UCL Institute of Archaeology, taking the BSc in archaeology. She is president of the Society of Archaeological Students at UCL, one of a number of such societies that include popular examples at Sheffield and Bristol universities.

There has been an increasing acceptance that universities must be accountable. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), set up in 1997, is responsible for the administration of the "teaching quality assessment". The QAA assessed archaeology in 2000/01. Peer reviewers were instructed to focus on the experience of students. "Quality management and enhancement" was consistently scored lower than the other five areas examined, which some archaeologists argue reflects the unbureaucratic and unsystematic (but enthusiastic) nature of archaeology teaching staff: they may be of increasing benefit to students but they do not have the paperwork to show it!

The 2000 QAA process led to a "benchmarking statement for archaeology". This detailed the knowledge and skills that a student graduating with a single honours degree in the subject could expect to acquire. They include being able to "gather and appropriately deploy archaeological evidence from primary and secondary sources", and "the ability to demonstrate broad and comparative knowledge of the archaeology of selected chronological periods". The benchmarking statement for archaeology is now used by UCAS (the body that manages student applications) to show potential archaeology students how employable they will be.

Another measure of the student experience is the National Student Survey. It is commissioned by HEFCE and its regional equivalents and administered by Ipsos MORI. The results are published on and are designed to help students and their advisors to choose which university course they should apply for.

Like teaching, university research has been the subject of periodic review. With research assessment the consequences are significant: the grade awarded is used to calculate the research grant for each university department. The first archaeology "research assessment exercise" (RAE) was conducted by the Universities Funding Council (later HEFCE) in 1992, and has been repeated three times since. In the words of one archaeology professor, the initial result of this on the university world was "electrifying".

The RAE is to be replaced by the "research excellence framework" (REF). It too will assess the research strength of university departments according to their outputs. However, the REF will also measure "impact". According to HEFCE, "significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life".

Given that archaeology is one of the most public facing of academic subjects, many consider the inclusion of impact to be a good thing: archaeology could do very well out of this. Graeme Barker, Disney professor of archaeology and head of department at the University of Cambridge, echoes many when he says, "I've never met a university archaeologist who didn't want their work to have a wider impact on society and culture".

But archaeology shone in the RAE, with a large number of departments ranked very highly, and a new system of assessment is being viewed with caution. How will impact be measured? For archaeology, "research users" are the public. Does an open day at an overseas excavation count towards the assessment? How does an archaeologist demonstrate the economic impacts of their research into iron age settlement patterns? Does an appearance on Time Team count? Barker suggests that what "academics most trust is peer review informed by a variety of data like research grant acquisition and the numbers of research students, rather than the simplistic use of citation indices". As for the REF, he says, "nobody is quite sure about the shape of it and we are waiting for the formal guidelines from HEFCE".

Looking forward

Archaeology is a graduate profession, with 90% of the 6,865 people who worked as archaeologists in 2007/08 holding at least one degree. Competition for jobs is fierce: in the same year there were 16,215 people taking an archaeology (or forensic science) degree course. Employers recognise that not all degrees equip people equally well for a career in archaeology. There are a number of masters level courses that aim to support career development, but several of these have closed – Leicester's MA in professional archaeological practice, Manchester's MA in archaeological field practice, and the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education's MSc in professional archaeology no longer exist. Universities are also not yet engaging with the NVQ in archaeological practice, the first of which were awarded early in 2009.

Commercial "units" attached to university departments can be a great crossover asset, allowing unit staff to teach students the realities of commercial archaeology, and academic staff to contribute to applied research. Particularly good examples of this are GUARD (Glasgow) and ULAS (Leicester). Two such units closed in 2009: UMAU (Manchester) and ARCUS (Sheffield). The Institute for Archaeologists is committed to work with the Archaeology Training Forum, and seeks to strengthen connections between academia and other areas of archaeological practice.

Kenneth Aitchison is head of projects and professional development at the IfA.

In continental Europe high profile and high impact research is often undertaken by elite institutions, where academic staff have far fewer teaching or administrative responsibilities. However, the students miss out, as undergraduates are less exposed to cutting edge research. The best UK universities combine active research and teaching in their archaeology department.

A young person enrolling on an archaeology degree in September 2010 will have a fundamentally different experience from somebody taking the same course at the same university 30 years ago. Their lecturers may be under greater scrutiny than ever before, but the student may be better off for it. "Although university staff work extremely hard", says JD Richards, "there is greater accountability now, and the UK's archaeology departments are amongst the best in the world".

The future funding situation remains a cause for concern. Barker draws attention to the 1980s, when "a whole generation of very able archaeologists were lost to higher education... It took a generation to get over those cuts". In the coming months, with a possible change of government and continued pressure on public money, we will discover whether the present arrangement is sustainable.

James Doeser was the IfA workplace learning bursary holder in communicating archaeology, at the CBA.

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