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Archaeology at the University of Sheffield Under Threat

20 May

There is much to say and much too little time to say it all in, so let me cut to the quick – the world-class archaeology department at the University of Sheffield is at risk of closure and the staff at risk of redundancy. The results of a recent departmental review by the University of Sheffield is due Tuesday 25th May, along with a vote by the University Executive Board on the future of the department.

I found this out last night as a friend alerted me to the following screenshot:

I was guided also to the Save Sheffield Archaeology, which has further details on the departmental review and the importance of the archaeology department to the city and the academic community internationally. Most importantly it is the jobs that are at risk – the academic, postdocs, researchers and administrative staff, who all potentially face the risk of redundancy. As far as I currently understand the department itself is still fragmented physically as both lectures and staff are based across the University of Sheffield departments as the archaeology building itself is (or has been) undergoing much-needed structural repairs. Despite this, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, teaching and research have still continued and student support has still been given.

You can help by reading the links below, searching out what other people and saying and what Saving Sheffield Archaeology are advising. If you are an archaeologist or know the department in any way – used to work there, studied there, are affiliated with it in any way, etc. – and are concerned for its future as I am, then please do sign the Change.org petition, email the VC and the University Executive Board, and make your voice known.

The decision on the future of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield will be made on Tuesday 25th May. Stay tuned.

Bigger Issues

Readers of my blog will know that I attended the University of Sheffield in 2011-12 to study for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology and reveled in the teaching, research and personal development opportunities that the course offered. I have friends who have studied there since and remain affiliated with the department. I am worried, I am concerned, and I will be writing to the VC and the University Executive Board with my concerns at their reviews and the three stated options available to it. I am deeply concerned at what appears to be an unforced and perhaps manufactured issue in staffing (not replacing retiring staff, which has seen current teaching staff drop from 29 to 11) and the longer-term trends of higher education being pulled in two different directions – between the demands of the market and the demands of providing, and supplying, quality education for all and the benefits of this for society and the economy. A third pressure has also made itself know in recent years at the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wrestles control with its own myriad of identities.

HM Government have recently announced that it is considering cutting high-cost teaching supplement for undergraduate arts and archaeology courses by up to 50% in favour of more funding for STEM subjects, this along with the Government’s stated aim of simplifying planning permissions to encourage house building and infrastructure projects, puts archaeology and the archaeological record at possible risk as statutory consents are sidelined. Conversely the archaeology jobs sector has rarely been busier, with many major projects ongoing utilizing a range of archaeological specialisms, from drone operators to archaeological geomatics, from field staff to human osteologists, etc. One only needs to think of HS2 or Crossrail or road infrastructures projects in eastern England to think of how many archaeologists are currently employed in varying roles and positions. In fact archaeologists are on the Skilled Worker visa: shortage occupations for April 2021, the only social and humanities scientists category to make it.

It is a worrying time for ease of access to archaeological courses in higher education, as tuition fees remain high and are climbing for postgraduate study and research. One effect of Brexit is the annulment of EU fees category remaining the same as home fees for students and instead becoming aligned with international fees. This has a severe impact for those nearest and dearest European neighbours. For instance the 2021 MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology tuition fee at the University of Sheffield is now priced at £11,000 for home students and £23,250 for overseas students. This is a staggering sum for higher education and one well out of the reach for many. I raise this point as archaeology in particular has a strong pull for bringing together international students and researchers, and Sheffield’s department is well known for its ties across Europe and the wider world. Fees such as this are just one more barrier to cross.

Archaeology as a topic unto itself is broad, welcoming and diverse – whoever and wherever you are, you too came from somewhere and within that is the story of ultimately both your past and mine. Archaeology is the investigation into the great human story and the department at Sheffield is one such place where we can view it. How sad it would be to see a portal on the past close.

How to Help

Consequence and Obligation: Barry Lopez’s Horizon (2019)

20 Apr

I have to admit that as much as a fan of travel literature as I am, I had not read or heard of any of the Barry Lopez‘s previous writings on culture, anthropology, or ecology, including even his seminal 1986 volume Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. This happily changed recently when I came into the possession of his latest work, the more autobiographically minded Horizon (2019), earlier this month following a cracking review of it in the Guardian newspaper.  I am glad to say that I am now, in part, rectifying this gap in my knowledge and I have spent many happy hours re-reading and pondering his exquisite writing.

Horizon is a hard work to classify – it is not your typical autobiography as Lopez’s life experiences are only alluded to rather than fleshed out in detail, but the depth of his thoughts and experiences of journeying across the earth, uncovering the bonds between both humanity’s impact on the planet and co-dependency with the natural environment, are richly described and expounded upon.  This is further enriched with input from a wide range of friendships with ecologists, geographers, historians, archaeologists and artists alongside inhabitants of the places his visits.

horizon barry lopez

Noted explorer and writer Barry Lopez along with the cover of Horizon (2019, his autobiographical exploration of humanity and the natural world. Image courtesy of Literary Arts.

I am struck by the syntax that Lopez uses to draw in the reader into his way of seeing the world; it is a world not riven by borders (physical or mental) between humanity’s cultural world and the natural world but by the blindingly obvious partnership and balance that is needed between the two.

In an early section of the volume Lopez discusses the material objects that act as his talismans as reminders to, or from, previous expeditions and how they link both memory and experience to inform his guiding values in interpreting the world around him.  It is a particularly moving point in which to provide the bedrock for the rest of book and into Lopez’s own evaluation of his critical thinking over time.  In the passage quoted below an Arctic artefact linked to functionality is heavily imbued with a sense of place within the give and take of humanity’s survival:

‘Next to my bed is a sand-cast silver harpoon tip, a stylized replica of a toggling implement that Eskimo hunters have used for centuries to secure and retrieve seals.  A gift from my wife.  To provide food for one’s family , whether it is seal meat or a sack of grain  or the flesh of an avocado, is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life.  To act here is to face one’s own complicity, to choose to take life in order that one’s own kin might continue to live.  When I lie down to sleep far from home, I place this small work of art close by on a folded scarf.  It was crafted by a man named Jimmy Nagougugalik, an Inuit artist and hunter from Baker Lake, in Nunavut, Canada.  It reminds me of the centrality of the symbolic in human life, and of both the consequence of providing and of the obligation to provide.’

– quoted from Lopez (2019: 40).

The volume is laced with an undercurrent of worry for the future generations of the world, in both the political and physical sense, as we head to unprecedented population numbers and increased stresses on the environment leading to resource depletion, unsustainable economic growth and ecological damage.  Yet there is a hint of hope, that if a balance can be achieved and stability in how we manage our resources then we can live more harmoniously in sync with each other and the natural environment.

If you are looking for a volume to read that will challenge the way you think about humanity’s impact on the earth and are curious to read about far-flung places with an anthropological slant then this may be the book for you.

Bibliography

Lopez, B. 2001. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. Vintage: New York.

Lopez, B. 2019. Horizon. London: The Bodley Head.