Weathering (ano)the(r) storm

It’s been a long time since I last wrote. Forgive me; there’s been a lot going on. But this is something that matters to me. The University of Worcester has decided to cease the teaching of archaeology, and to make its archaeologists redundant.

For nine years, I’ve worked for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, in The Hive: a hub that houses the University of Worcester’s library. There’s rarely been a time during that period when our service hasn’t been under threat. There will, no doubt, be further hard times ahead once the financial impact of COVID is felt by local authorities, a year or two down the line. But right now, higher education is the canary in the coal mine. It is the university staff who face redundancy, and Worcester’s woes are not unique.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the University of Worcester’s staff and students. Statistically, their results are impressive: a student satisfaction rate of 100%, and one of the most impressive graduate employment records around. But I believe that the best measure of the success of a department is the quality of its students. Many have passed through my door, eager and willing to learn the rudiments of finds work. Plenty of my colleagues began their careers at Worcester, and I have encountered many more of their graduates elsewhere in the sector. I can honestly say I’ve never met a bad one. And that is entirely down to the passion and care of their brilliant staff; their level of personal investment in their students should be the envy of larger departments.

Looking back, is there cause for regret? Undoubtedly. Our input into the department dwindled to a trickle over the years, a casualty of austerity. The Council could no longer subsidise teaching work, and the Uni wouldn’t pay. My own aspirations for closer relations were often dashed against twin cliffs of University and Council bureaucracy. But in the last few years, a new appetite for collaboration has gathered pace, centred around an interest in the unremarkable: projects to peel back the layers of life in and around Worcester across millennia, through the domestic detritus recovered from fieldwalking and test-pitting. The sort of deeply unfashionable work through which a university could, if it so wished, become enmeshed in the lives and stories of the city it calls home.

But Worcester, it seems, has little time for such niceties. In its boundless ambition, wrapped up in a programme of acquisition and expansion, and of gleaming new facilities, archaeology has no place. Enrollment had been suspended, pending a restructure of the courses. But only a week ago, I was chatting to two of the staff about their efforts to mould a programme that the university could support. Now the axe has fallen. No right of appeal, no lengthy consultation, no redeployment.

A demographic dip notwithstanding, there has been no long term decline in the numbers of prospective students. Looking ahead, recruitment will be more challenging. But the closure of Worcester is not an indication of a subject in terminal decline. Rather, it is the result of a market-driven approach to Higher Education that is bent on weeding out the less profitable. Between them, Worcester’s staff have dedicated more than a century to teaching and researching archaeology. A market that cannot find a place for that expertise is not a market that is functioning effectively.

The loss of archaeology at Worcester has bigger ramifications for the sector than student numbers alone suggest. It has always been a department that attracted a much more diverse demographic than most. It was a haven for mature students; for local people with caring responsibilities; for the first in their families to enter higher education; for those with huge potential but fewer academic qualifications; for the neurodiverse; and for anyone who longed to learn more about how the world beneath their feet shaped the world we inhabit today. In a profession that is unhealthily homogeneous, it has been a force for social mobility. And for a profession that struggles to train and retain staff, it has been an invaluable source of passionate and capable archaeologists. Our subject is all about understanding human behaviour: Worcester has consistently taken the life experience of its students and spun it into a web of expertise that has enriched our sector.

It is often argued that archaeology is important because it underpins the planning system. No archaeologists = no-one to complete the requisite surveys or excavations in advance of development. This argument is predicated on acceptance of the existing system. If your aim is deregulation of the planning system, then a shortage of archaeologists is no longer an issue to be tackled, but a means to an end. Much is also made of archaeology’s STEM credentials, in efforts to cater to the government’s stated preference for such qualifications, but to my mind the beauty of archaeology is its position at the crossroads between science and the humanities, with all the resulting tension. Staff shortages and STEM credibility have their place in the list of arguments for the importance of archaeology degrees like Worcester’s, but they’re not enough.

So why is archaeology worth fighting for? Well, it’s enormous fun. Honestly. There are few more rewarding things than digging a hole and finding stuff in it. Or piecing together clues to unpick the history of a house. Or pulling together all the evidence to make a map that reveals a landscape in a whole new light. But beyond that, none of the challenges that humanity faces can be solved by shiny tech alone. Archaeology is about understanding how people respond, change, adapt. How they react to crises. How they persist, endure, or thrive.

Much of the University of Worcester’s rapid property acquisition in recent years has been on the northern outskirts of the Roman town. It’s driven welcome regeneration of a tired area, but the University should remember that its growth is — quite literally — built on the city’s archaeology. Excavations on its City Campus site showed that the site was occupied as the town grew in the later 2nd century, buoyed by the flow of revenue from Imperial coffers in exchange for Worcester’s iron. But a century later, it was abandoned. The town shrunk, as the empire descended into a 50-year economic and political crisis, born of its own hubris. There’s probably a lesson in there.

Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site
Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site

Archaeologists: be more visible. Share what you do, hot off the trowel or straight from the screen. I’m rubbish at this – I get so consumed by the work I fail to step back for 5 minutes and share it. I know permissions are a pain, but get it sorted. If it’s too much hassle, hire an outreach officer. Oh, and above all, treat your staff well. Show people there’s a future in this. Otherwise, if this decline continues, we’ll all be pushing wheelbarrows til our knees give out and we’re carted off to a museum ourselves.

And right now? Sign the petition. Make a noise. Show the University of Worcester that you care about the future of our discipline. #SaveArchaeologyAtWorcester