National outcry as University of Sheffield’s world-renowned archaeology department faces threat of closure

University of Sheffield's world-renowned Department of Archaeology is in danger of closure following an institutional review that could see its staff made redundant and ultimately prove the end of an era.

By Rahmah Ghazali
Thursday, 20th May 2021, 6:40 pm

In a meeting that took place at the university yesterday between key staff and the University Executive Board, the university is now looking at three options, including a complete closure of the department.

The three options are first, to invest in the department with new posts and the development of new programmes and second, to close the department but to honour commitments to existing students.

The third option is to retain Archaeology as a discipline but not as a department where key programmes will be retained but realigned to other departments in the university along with associated staff while commitments to existing students would still be honoured.

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However, according to Professor Umberto Albarella, who has been with the university since 2004, the university is inclined to go with either a second or third option.

Details of the meeting have also been making their rounds on social media, prompting an outrage from the archaeology community around the world.

"Based on their language and their attitude, it seems to indicate that they are much more inclined towards closure.

"In terms of students, I think we have about 70 to 80 post grad students and maybe a small number of undergraduates.

"There are many uncertainties, but clearly this basically means the university is telling us we are not making enough money," he said.

He said since he started working two decades ago, the number of the teaching staff has reduced to 11 from 29 - with many people leaving and not being replaced.

"We are currently reaching out to the Archaeology international community and getting them on our side.

"The reaction has been amazing and the students are totally on our side and we are totally outraged by this because Sheffield has trained archaeologists who are now all over the world holding important positions. This is a great historic place," he said.

He said the university is expected to decide on the department's fate next Tuesday, which he hopes will be in their favour.

Council for British Archaeology has also expressed their objection, saying any kind of closure would be a “devastating blow” to the country.

“The University has a very high profile in the archaeological and academic world and has made huge contributions to the country's higher education profile.

"We are extremely concerned about the teaching of archaeology at a time when the country needs qualified archaeologists to support key government agendas - Covid recovery, development and levelling-up.

“Loss of this expertise to the local community would be a devastating blow,” they tweeted.

A MSc and PhD graduate from the Department of Archaeology Dr Kirsty Squires said a closure would mean leaving "a void within the world of archaeology."

She said: "If the Department of Archaeology was to close it would leave a void within the world of archaeology in terms of outstanding research and teaching, and the University of Sheffield would lose an incredible department that puts the university on the map."

A member of community has also expressed her concern over the possible closure, saying the department itself is surrounded by some of the most interesting landscape and heritage assets in the country.

Penny Rea, a member of Friends of Wincobank Hill said: “Wincobank Hillfort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and there are two Scheduled sections of the Roman Ridge nearby and one identified, but unscheduled section in the care of Sheffield City Council.

"There is also a disputed section still at risk of development. These are monuments of national significance that have hardly been investigated. They are just some of the important heritage assets in the city and a potentially invaluable educational resource.

“How can a University with such an extraordinary resource on its doorstep close its Archaeology Department? This is clearly a cold financial decision but one that will impact badly on individuals, communities and our heritage.

“Joined Up Heritage Sheffield has also been working with the University of Sheffield to develop a Heritage Strategy that is now recognised and valued by Sheffield City Council.

"There are many examples across the city of heritage projects that have welcomed the university's archaeology students who in turn enrich the local community with their knowledge and enthusiasm and inspire the next generation of archaeology students.”

In 2013, the Department of Archaeology carved its name in the history book for inventing a new 10-second sourcing technology that could be used at archaeological excavations – dozens of times faster than the previous methods.

In 2020, the department was given a top award thanks to the immense contribution to the field by one of its long-time members of staff Emeritus Professor Keith Branigan, who was awarded the Landscape Archaeology Medal.

The British Academy had made the award in recognition of Prof Branigan’s achievements in the study of the Outer Hebrides, Roman Britain and the prehistory of the Aegean.

The medal was also in honour of his work an ambassador for archaeology, promoting its study in schools with regular weekend conferences in Sheffield for teachers.

In the same year, archaeologists from the university had pulled together all the largely unpublished archaeological work on Sheffield’s medieval castle, dating back to the 1920s and including the latest dig which started in 2018.

They said the structure, which was covered by the former Castle Market that was demolished in 2015, deserved a place in English history alongside well-known landmarks like those in Warwick, Dover and the Tower of London – and strong evidence that more substantial parts of the castle walls may still be in place.

An online petition has also been launched amid the possible closure of the department, calling for the Vice-Chancellor and the board to choose option one instead.

A university spokesperson said: “The University of Sheffield has undertaken a review of its Department of Archaeology. Staff and student representatives participated in the review, and no decisions have been taken.”