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Saturday, 22 May 2021

Sheffield Archaeology Dept under threat?

There's a strange article in The Guardian about the threat of closure hanging over the Sheffield University Archaeology Dept:

It looks like a bit of a rearguard action initiated by Mike Parker Pearson and other "experts" (don't you just love that word?) who have -- or who had in the past -- links with the Department. Of course one is sad to read of the closure -- or possible closure -- of any university department. But as we know, the Sheffield Archaeology Dept has not helped itself through its association with some very dodgy "bluestone" research at Stonehenge, "Bluestonehenge" and in West Wales -- demonstrating rather too much interest in perpetrating elaborate myths of bluestone quarrying and transport, and rather too little interest in sound science. 

"Important research on Stonehenge could be put in jeopardy if the threatened closure of one of the UK’s most renowned university archaeology departments goes ahead, leading experts on the prehistoric monument have warned."

Parker Pearson directed the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has made some of the most impressive discoveries about the monument of modern times, including finding evidence of a second Stonehenge a mile away from the great stone circle.

He said: “Colleagues at Sheffield are working right now on material from my project at Stonehenge and if they lose their jobs it jeopardises completion of this project which has grabbed the world media’s attention over the last 15 years.”

There, in a nutshell, we have it.  A second Stonehenge?  Well, "Bluestonehenge" was claimed ten years ago to hold fragments of bluestones in its supposed stone sockets -- and that was shown to be incorrect. But it is still marketed by MPP and others, regardless of the dodgy nature of their claims.  And as for grabbing the attention of the world's media,  that's something MPP knows all about -- promoting completely outrageous theories and myths that are essentially unsupported by any evidence that can withstand scrutiny.  If that is still one of the priorities of the Sheffield University Archaeology Dept, with myth making in the foreground and sound science pushed into the background, how sound is its claim that it should be taken seriously, and spared from the axe?

Of course, the size and success of a university department can always be measured by the size of the student demand for its courses and its degrees.  This is a more effective measure than the size of banner headlines in the tabloid press.

Reputations are hard to come by, and are all too easily destroyed.........

See also:

PS.   27 May 2021

It looks as if the department's fate is sealed.  The real issue was clearly the lack of student demand.  Without students, no university department can survive, even if it specialises in developing elaborate myths and capturing the attention of the media........


Helen said...

I hadn't realised "one of the world's leading Stonehenge experts and a former member of the Sheffield department" had hitched his wagon to the sad news, but I suppose it comes as no great surprise.

As an aside, the hashtag #SaveSheffieldArchaeology was all over Twitter yesterday, with supportive comments from the great and the good of the archaeological world. Plus, of course, the inevitable online petition - - as I write this, there are now over 25,000 signatories, although I haven't looked to see if the esteemed "Stonehenge expert" is among them. Life, as they say, is too short.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

MPP = maestro pied piper

Tom Flowers said...

A lorry backed into my car while waiting to enter a late-night stop-over.
My insurance paid for the repair of my car, and so I forgot the whole thing. After all, it was one man’s word against another.
A month or two later, some post arrived telling me to attend court in Hereford.
The lorry driver, a clear liar, lost the case because he made conflicting statements.
After that, the court would not believe another word he said. Simple!
So, who can we blame for corrupting archaeology as Professor Mick Aston claimed?
Who is at the top of the tree? English Heritage or the Society of Antiquarians of Piccadilly, London?
We should not blame MPP alone, for he is caught in the same trap as are all archaeologists. But MPP attempted to destroy the megalithic yard some 16 years ago, so Sheffield Uni is best off without him. Such Lies are endemic to Stonehenge and have been for many years past.
I know, and can prove, that things got particularly nasty sometime between 1957 and 1965. This was when Professor Alexander Thom was cajoled into corrupting his plan of Woodhenge for the sake of a not-so-little dirty profit.
What we are left with is that nothing coming out of an archaeologist’s mouth since 1964 can be trusted: not a single thing!

Mr Truth said...

Society of Antiquaries

The Devil is in the details.


PeteG said...

Archaeology has now become a thing of the past.

Dave Maynard said...

I have to declare an interest. I graduated from Sheffield with a degree in Prehistory and Archaeology in 1981. I enjoyed my time there and wish I'd gone on further. Ever since, it has stood me in good stead meeting many people who had been on various courses. I've come across many people during my international work which has helped me get to know the detail of their countries.

I've had the term 'archaeologist' in my job title for over 75% of my working life, although much of that has been far from the stereotypical view of what an archaeologist does. Job security has been minimal and there are only a handful of years that I've earned enough to have paid back a student loan. The big difference is that I had three years of grant, which was a one-off payment with no lifetime burden of administrative costs. Have the taxes I've paid since, covered the cost of the grant?

The loss of Sheffield's archaeology department is not the only one under threat. Chester is also likely to go and I'm sure others are suffering. The reasons are multiple, but include student fees and probably over-supply. Covid has shaken everything up as with everything in society and it will take a few years to settle down to the new normal.

Just one sign of what that may look like can be seen at Aberystwyth University. They are offering reduced fees for post graduates, 20% off for 1st class first degree candidates and 10% for 2nd class. Is this the start of a bidding war by universities chasing students? What will be the effects on the quality of those courses?

The Sheffield department has had a wide impact on research. In Pembrokeshire, the involvement in the Stonehenge work (I'm not sure there is direct involvement) and St Patrick’s Chapel, Whitesands, St Davids , where the human bone is being looked at from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust excavations. I see that the osteology work may be saved by moving it to another department, but I guess it will only remain there if it achieves heavy commercial sales.

When full student fees came in, I was working in Azerbaijan, an environment where they know all about payment structures. I knew a student who was studying post graduate mathematics. Her fellow students said 'why was she working hard at the assignments? Just pay the tutors some quiet money.' Her response was 'Maths is already a hard subject, that you have to work at to understand, why pollute it by paying money to succeed.'

So where do universities go? What does it say for 'global Britain' that is now to be our saviour? In Azerbaijan, a businessman asked my advice on where to send his son to finish his education? UK or Germany? He knew it would cost money, but which was the best? He had obviously researched it and knew his stuff. The answer was Germany. Many of the Azeri BP staff I knew had been on short courses on things like quality assurance, to various UK institutions, because they follow international standards. Will they stop as Britain diverges from these standards and we lose our soft power base and those institutions lose their revenue streams?

Mortimer Wheeler said that archaeology should not be taught as an undergraduate course because the subject covered so many fields that a more general education was needed to understand it. That may be the case, perhaps Brian's website exemplifies it with the broad range of subjects covered. Is this one of the directions that archaeology is headed?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Sensible points, Dave. Universities have to make brutal judgments sometimes -- if student demand is low, and dropping, in a particular department, nobody can afford the luxury of keeping it open, even if there are petitions and big-name defenders. My own feeling is that since the rise and rise of "post-processualism" Archaeology has become a story-telling subject which has lost its respect for science and the scientific method. So what's left ? Does Archaeology really deserve to be a university discipline at all when some of its most well-known practitioners spend their time fantasising and inventing myths? If i was a student looking for a degree course I think I might go for something rather more substantial........

Ou Teacher/researcher said...

like geography?????

BRIAN JOHN said...

Over the years there are ebbs and flows -- no subject or discipline is immune. Geography departments have closed in some places -- probably a sign of over supply and under demand. Not so long ago several universities closed their Chemistry departments.... nothing is for ever.....

Ou Teacher/researcher said...

In the 80s the gov wanted to amalgamate physics and chemistry depts but decided to try out with geology ones first (small to smallish and poorly publically regarded and 'cheap to do') Smaller depts, often more applied were axed, and their staff redistributed and arranged marriages were forced. It turned out not to be cheap and the idea was later dropped but after the damage was done. Of course later, any tec. that wanted could itself a uni and many had small geology depts so really nothing changed but a couple of rather specialised depts were buried- it was the splitting of teams that was the main harm.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sometimes departments are closed for pragmatic reasons -- eg small student demand or a poor ranking on the research / productivity criteria -- and sometimes there is heavy politics at work. A colleague of mine was once enticed away with a very attractive offer to set up a completely new Geography department in a smallish university, only to find when he got there that the promised funds did not materialise -- and that the department had been set up in order to fail. There was some machiavellian plot involving the University vice chancellor and other senior figures who were looking to reorganize the university into new and trendy "schools" and who were prepared to play with millions of pounds (and the careers of honest academics) in pursuit of their objectives........... Sometimes academic life is anything but cosy!