A student involved with the Sheffield University Save Archaeology Campaign spoke to us.
Back in February, a few students were emailed, asking us to attend an “informal chat” with the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Only a few of us were chosen and around a dozen or more of us turned up. She asked us for negative views as well as positive views about the department – she only received positive views.
At a follow-up meeting, the Deputy VC laid out the conclusions from this “consultation”: they would close the Department of Archaeology and move two of its “areas of strength” into other departments. These include Osteoarcheology – which strictly speaking includes Human Osteology and Zooarchaeological (animal) studies, and Sheffield holds the largest collection of zooarchaeological remains in the country, but we don’t know if Zooarchaeology is a part of what management is calling “Osteoarchaeology” or what will happen to the collection if not – and Cultural Heritage. But the rest of the Department would go.
Why is the university doing this? Management says: the department is in debt; recruitment is becoming more difficult and there is a “decline in interest” nationally. But we went from being the best department in the university five years ago – to where we are now. For the last ten years, vacancies have been going unfilled. We have gone from 25 full-time staff in 2010 to 10 full-time staff in 2020. The holes have been plugged with part-time staff, and many programmes can no longer be run. The department has been calling out for more staff, and they’ve been told: no, because you’re not making enough money. So now management are holding us to account for the decisions which they have made. That has made this an emotional issue for many people in the department as they have been fighting a losing battle on this for over ten years.
This closure will lead to the loss of research in the field. We undertake research locally and globally. We study climate change; the effects of urbanisation; of pollution; of colonialism. But we will also lose a touchstone in the local community. The department goes into schools and teaches about local history. It goes into communities and acquires historical accounts of what the community used to look like. That captures a changing image of society and helps newcomers to orientate themselves. Sheffield City Council asked to meet with university management to discuss this loss, but management refused to meet with them. This is a touchstone for local identity.
One of the first things we did was to launch a petition. It was started by an undergraduate. It got thousands of signatures within 24 hours. We are now at about 45,000 signatures. We hope to get to 50,000 by 12 July. We have also been getting local people to write letters into the management to explain the significance of the department locally and globally. We have received 2,200 letters so far. But there are only 7,000 archaeologists within Britain. That gives you an idea of how many people have signed the petition.
This decision has a global impact, not just for archaeologists. We have written an investigation into how management’s review process went against the university’s code of research ethics. But the Research Ethics Committee wrote back to us saying that this was an HR issue and not covered by the code of research ethics – which makes us wonder if management is actually beholden to any code of ethics. We have had two rallies, addressed by [former Lord Mayor] Magid Magid and archaeology TV personality Chloe Duckworth. Next, for coronavirus reasons, we plan an online, international event.
Mental health has been a big issue for students. The fact that management chose to conduct a departmental review during a pandemic really underlines that they didn’t take ethics or students’ mental health into consideration. We have all been going through a period of uncertainty – as has everyone in the world – but we have been supported by our department. To have management declare that they will pull away that supportive touchstone has had a very bad effect on many of us. Management essentially told us: yes, this might mean the end of your research, the end of your PhD: but we don’t care.
One of our members has been working very hard to create a strong Zooarchaeology centre in Lebanon, and organising for students to come and train here before going out to do that work for Lebanon. And the entire basis for this person’s whole focus and whole future career has crumbled. But management doesn’t understand such things: they just see it in terms of moving a few students around, they don’t see the human impact.