Archaeology degrees stuck in the (far distant) past

Curricula ignoring modern professional needs and UK's industrial heritage. Matthew Reisz reports

October 6, 2011

Archaeology students face a growing disparity between what they are taught at university and the skills they need in the modern profession, an academic has warned.

Marilyn Palmer, emeritus professor of industrial archaeology at the University of Leicester, said she was unhappy that pressures on academics had in many cases led to reductions in fieldwork, since this tends to be what gets students "hooked" on the subject.

But her main concern is that much of what is taught on archaeology courses, however intellectually challenging for those who go on to work in unrelated sectors, is "not relevant to the needs of the archaeological profession" in the UK.

Since the early 1990s, Professor Palmer said, most archaeologists in the country have worked for contract units, whether independent or attached to university departments.

"They are largely paid by developers that are obliged to seek guidance from archaeologists wherever there are presumed to be remains," she said. "In the case of brownfield sites, they inevitably uncover industrial material.

"Similar issues apply to the curatorial archaeologists employed by local authorities to brief the contract units."

While all this has fundamentally altered the work of British archaeologists, Professor Palmer argued, "courses have not changed their emphasis to the extent that they should have. Archaeology departments have been slow in taking on and teaching post-medieval and modern archaeology."

It is perhaps symptomatic that no successor has been appointed to her own post, which she believes to be one of only two in the world labelled with the words "industrial archaeology".

The other major area that requires archaeological expertise is the preservation of heritage, where activists and enthusiasts often devote considerable time and energy to saving local canals, docks and mills.

Professor Palmer sees a problem here, too: "Public archaeology, as represented by English Heritage and similar organisations, has embraced industrial archaeology as one of Britain's great contributions to world heritage. Universities lag behind."

In March this year, English Heritage announced a project to find out how much of the country's industrial heritage is at risk of neglect, decay or even demolition.

The results will be announced in its Heritage at Risk Register on 18 October.

To coincide with the launch, Professor Palmer has written an article in which she argues that while changes in planning policy "have created a greater need for specialists trained in building recording who can understand the significant features of industrial structures, courses in buildings archaeology often tend to focus on earlier periods".

It is such "disparities" that Professor Palmer would like universities to address.

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