Government agency English Heritage is threatening to withdraw almost £1 million in funding from ten English universities as part of its financial review. Twenty-one university research posts could be lost, causing serious damage to England's reputation as a leading force in archaeology.
Archaeologists were said to be "very upset" at the cost-cutting exercise, which forms part of a review of English Heritage's conservation activities. As The THES went to press, the Association of University Teachers was set to condemn the move at its annual conference.
English Heritage has funded 19 research posts at seven English universities, worth about £900,000 a year, since the mid-1970s. But chief archaeologist David Miles told The THES this week that that the funding is likely to be reduced and posts lost.
English Heritage sparked outrage when it announced that it would withdraw funding and that posts would be terminated by September this year. But it said that it was consulting with the universities involved before firm decisions were made.
"We are in discussions with our university partners," Dr Miles said. "Archaeological science in England is one of our greatest achievements. It has a world-class reputation and we do not want to see that undermined. But it is essential to keep the situation under review."
He said there "could well be" a reduction in annual funding. "English Heritage is £20 million worse off than it was ten years ago. Archaeological science is just a part of what we do. There are pressures on our budget," he said.
The research posts are at the universities of Durham (two), Sheffield (one), Liverpool (one), Birmingham (two), Oxford (three), East Anglia (one), Bristol (one), Central London (two), Southampton (five) and York (three).
David Peacock, head of the archaeology department at Southampton University, where five posts are funded, said: "We are very upset. We think we have a system here that is unique in Europe, possibly the world."
He said the interface between the government-funded posts and the academic community was essential and would be "a tremendous loss" to the field.
Professor Peacock said that it appeared that English Heritage hoped that universities would be able to retain the researchers, "but most universities are in such a financial state they are in no position to pick them up".
Dr Miles said that there had been a shift towards commercially funded scientific archaeology, traditionally paid for by the government, which could offset cuts. Planning rules demand that commercial developers "mitigate the impact" of their developments. This often means those companies pay for their own archaeologists to excavate sites.