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In Defence of Archaeology

Amie Kirby | Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery

A sign reading 'It's Our Past, Not Your Profit'
Umberto Albarella, 2021 (via Twitter).

“Archaeology has a very special role to play in our understanding of who we are,” says Professor Umberto Albarella, who has taught Archaeology at the University of Sheffield since 2004.

Last summer’s shock announcement that the University of Sheffield will close its world-leading Archaeology department brings a dangerous precedent for the field as an instrument for understanding the past.

The sadness Umberto, like many academics, feels towards the detrimental impact of this on student mental health is furthered by his fears about the impact of losing the archaeological discipline and what this represents. Such fears are only exacerbated by seeing other universities, such as Worcester University, follow suit by announcing the imminent closure of their Archaeology departments.

Today I wish to emphasise a few of the key losses that the demise of Archaeology as a discipline presents, both within and beyond academia.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

The loss of collaborative thinking and fluid historical study

Archaeology is inherently interdisciplinary. In its academic context, this is vital to recognise. Its study is about far more than just ‘old buildings’, ‘bones’, or any other misconceived stereotype you may have encountered. Being a former Archaeology student myself, I have had to reckon with well-meaning family and friends who assert my degree is about “old stuff”. In fact, it is far more about living, breathing people – past and present – than any object found in the field. In its most exciting and innovative form, Archaeology brings together complex scientific analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking, and historical study.

In weaving between and transcending different disciplines in theory and practice, it provides its students with a curiosity – an imagination. It is this imagination that best positions Archaeology to enable us to understand the past in nuanced and dynamic ways, indeed conceptualising the ways in which people may have lived previously in accordance with what we know about life now.

With all of this said, one of the most promising factors about the academic study of Archaeology is the increasing self-criticality and awareness the discipline seems to be developing. Like any field of study, Archaeology is not static – it is fluid and ever-changing. Our collective understanding of the past evolves as our perspectives change and we encounter a series of epistemic shifts. This has vital implications for our conception of the past. We may have previously believed that certain narratives simply did not exist in historical societies, but the fact of the matter is these stories have always existed and have deserved to be told. It is only with new, critical eyes that this can be recognised.

Moreover, this critical reinterpretation of the discipline extends to understanding the ways in which research was conducted by previous archaeologists and how any researcher is inevitably shaped by their own life experiences and worldview. Think of your favourite childhood book: would you read it the same today compared to when you first did?

By studying the ways in which the archaeological discipline has evolved and given shape to new lines of academic thought, particularly in reinterpreting the past through centring marginalised and untold histories, Archaeology cements its place as a tool for us to become more considerate and intuitive members of the present whilst having an entirely different outlook on the past.

The closure of departments nationwide, therefore, threatens us with a future that fails to reinterpret histories – in turn, reinterpreting our present.

Loss of community engagement with historic spaces

For Dr Rachael Kiddey, an activist and community archaeologist, Archaeology is uniquely placed for its ability to deconstruct the past in order to give “an appreciation of quite how nuanced everything is”. Kiddey, whose work centres around community archaeology

projects as a means of collaboration and relationship-forming, asserts that the ability to deconstruct the past in such a complex and nuanced way proves that it is indeed constructed – and can therefore be reconstructed to understand the past from the position of marginalised histories that have previously been ignored. As we chat over a phone call, Rachael tells me that although the principles of multivocal archaeology, the “idea that there’s different ways of approaching the past”, have been around for at least 30 years, this hasn’t transferred successfully to the public’s popular imagination of the past. For this, she cites various reasons, most saliently the shaping of History curricula even in earlier school stages and the agenda of the government, which involves selectively politicising parts of history to suit the stories that are deemed acceptable to be told. Here, it is clear that the public understanding of the past, at least through teaching, is undivorceable from contemporary political agendas. Interestingly enough, it is political activism that led Rachael into community archaeology, demonstrating the subject’s strength as a tool for solidarity and relationship-building.

For example, Rachael discusses the work she undertook in 2010 at Bristol’s ‘Turbo Island’, a homeless encampment in Stokes Croft. Here, the site was excavated alongside homeless people that knew the site; as Rachael describes, “if you’re going to document the city according to different perspectives, it makes sense to include them”. When asked about the outcomes and legacy of the project, it is clear that the act of undertaking archaeology communally and collaboratively was actually a form of placemaking for people whose histories were largely invisible to the ordinary public eye:

“Everyone in the city now, if you say Turbo Island, it’s a place – the process of doing an archaeological project with the people that used the space was placemaking. I think that had a broader impact in terms of humanising homeless people”.

A poster for Turbo Island
Crea et al 2014: 137

Here, it is clear that ‘community archaeology’ is not just undertaking archaeology with the community – it is using the archaeology to build a community of solidarity, care, and consideration for one another. It is worth mentioning that this project formed a large part of Rachael’s PhD research and would not have been possible without the support of Rachael’s Archaeology department at York. Indeed, she relayed to me that Archaeology departments across the UK are pushing boundaries and emphasising multivocal ways to see the past.

The only way results as valuable and unique as those from the Turbo Island excavation can come to fruition is, as Rachael says, “if you have vibrant, diverse, well-funded departments where people can take risks”.

Loss of international solidarity and intersectional understanding

In understanding the scope of community projects such as the Turbo Island excavation, the public perception of archaeology’s ability and its place in society can radically shift. It is also possible to see this in projects occurring across the globe, with international partnerships between different academic departments.

The EAMENA Project, established in 2015, involves academics from the Universities of Oxford, Leicester, and Durham and works to respond to the threat of destruction facing archaeological sites in the Middle East and North Africa. Academics within these universities work with local people in order to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and resources to preserve and protect endangered heritage sites. Similarly, the Nahrein Network, based at UCL, supports the partnership between the university and Iraqi archaeologists, providing funding and scholarships to support Iraq’s five most vulnerable groups at risk of being ‘left behind’.

Archaeologists working together
EAMENA 2021, via Twitter

Schemes such as these demonstrate the power of archaeological research to facilitate international relationships, whereby Western academia can tangibly provide opportunities to regions that have a long history of archaeology which was enabled by and functioned to support colonial exploitation.

Being so interdisciplinary, Archaeology is also extremely important for dissecting the past in more intersectional and holistic ways. Pertaining to gender, for example, Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector provide an influential account of how traditional gender roles have dictated the ways in which archaeologists undertake certain roles in archaeological fieldwork and also of how previous theoretical interpretations can become biased by a predominantly male world view. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that archaeological practice should be conducted by a variety of people with different life experience in order to contribute to a robust and holistic understanding of the past. Where gender is concerned, as the Black Trowel Collective highlights, this includes supporting and making space for trans archaeologists in order to “centre the fluidity of gender” in their practice.

Thus, Archaeology departments become a vital vehicle for solidarity action – empowering marginalised communities to understand their own past and their ownership of it. As archaeologist Albert Glock said, speaking on the archaeologies of the colonised, “…what real difference it makes to the archaeology of a region when its own people do the archaeology.”

It is for reasons such as this that the closure of Archaeology departments or even the disappearance of archaeology from the public imagination would be so grave.

Bridging the gap between people and time

This article merely scratches the surface (or indeed, the stratigraphy) of why Archaeology is so vital to our understanding of the past, present, and future and, consequently, why the threat of its obsolescence is so horrifying.

Archaeology makes an imperative case for deconstructing the past, both to improve our understanding of it and to use this understanding to reflect upon our present. The perspectives of Umberto and Rachael, two Archaeologists well-versed in its academic context, were invaluable in demonstrating the collaborative nature that is at Archaeology’s core. Both highlighted the underlying hostilities of the current university business model, which sees a large divide in senior management and teaching and prioritises profit over the lives of staff and students alike.

Indeed, Archaeology is at its best and most vibrant when it is conducted collaboratively, with and for other people. The ability to share and discuss thoughts whilst undergoing fieldwork as a cohesive team, as Rachael’s work shows, bestows a unique power to transform everyday conceptions of people and place. Archaeology can build communities.

Similarly, and most saliently, both highlighted the importance of providing Archaeology as an option for study in order to foster critical thinking and a reconstruction of the past – to point towards a better future. In a ‘post-truth’ society built upon consumer culture and a fascination with conspiracy (no, aliens did not build the pyramids), Archaeology is uniquely positioned to combine historical, scientific, and socio-political disciplines to make us interrogate the beliefs we hold of the past – and how they both shape and are shaped by contemporary agendas.

As Dr Rachael Kiddey summarised to me:

“I think that’s the point in doing past-facing disciplinary work. The point is not to fully understand or ‘prove’ the past, but to look to the future and imagine better, happier, more equal, more sustainable futures. I can’t see any point in doing it without that.”

Neither can I.


Further Reading

Amie Kirby is an early career professional in the museums and galleries sector. She completed a BA in Archaeology at Durham University and an MA in Art Gallery & Museum Studies at the University of Manchester. An active member of several political organising groups, she is interested in the intersection between archaeology, heritage, and politics, seeing the museum as a space of care-centred activism where relationships can develop.

Twitter at @_amiekirby


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