Digging up art
Bronze bog hoard
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Editor Mike Pitts
What has gone wrong at university?
Peter Drewett believes breaking free from traditional courses can resolve a skills problem
In 1937 Sir Mortimer Wheeler set up the Institute of Archaeology in London and gave a course of lectures: ‘the first arranged specifically … to give grounding in actual methods of excavation in the field. All aspects of the work, both methods of attack and the principles of recording results, preparing plans, sections, notes and photographs were covered’. Virtually all undergraduate courses in Britain now have some such course, so why are field unit directors and even the chief archaeologist at English Heritage claiming a skills shortage? Why, if you have a degree in archaeology, do you often have few skills the profession actually wants? What can be done?
A major factor is government pressure on universities to take more students for less money per student, leading to bigger classes and fewer hands-on courses. Theory is essential, but is also easier and cheaper to teach than practical skills. We now have a major shortage of people who can actually identify artefacts.
I do not believe there is a ‘decline in school standards’. Students are better at writing and maths than ever before, but that should be expected given the resources and time directed to these ‘core’ subjects. The problem appears to lie in what has been lost along the way. Some students are not certain whether the Tudors were before or after the Romans, let alone where the Neolithic fits in. More important for archaeologists in the field (the main employment area worldwide) is the apparent loss to most school children of geology and physical geography. Both are fundamental subjects for excavation and landscape archaeology. Why can English and maths not be taught within subjects like history and geography rather than separately?
Then there is the very fast change within archaeology, particularly in field skills, from digital recording or geophysics to integrated databases or environmental archaeology. Much learnt in a first degree is out of date when put into practice in a student’s first job. Hence the Institute of Field Archaeologists’ pressure for CPD, or continuing professional development.
A final problem is the cost. Is it reasonable to expect students who graduate owing more than £12,000 to enter a profession with less than national average salaries – particularly if the degree does not actually teach the skills required to do the job? Maybe this explains why undergraduate admission numbers are down in many departments.
A way out of this is to offer part-time courses with most teaching in evenings, weekends and during school holidays, for people who want the qualifications, skills and experience but not the debts of being a full time student.
Archaeology at the University of Sussex has characteristically been slightly different. There is already open access entry to a certificate in archaeology leading to a diploma in archaeology. This October its first undergraduate cohort launches a new BA in geography & archaeology. Two new MAs will start in 2005, in field archaeology and in landscape heritage management. Taught courses will include project management, artefact studies and archaeological reporting (see Gordon Noble, Opinion, May, on why this is needed!), providing everything, we hope, that an archaeological field officer should be able to do. The right students will be able to proceed to a research degree in archaeology or landscape studies.
All these courses will be available to the backbone of British archaeology, the amateur, closely involving the Sussex Archaeological Society, and for CPD.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005