"Invaluable" - Sheffield heritage leaders unearth value of university archaeology department as decision made on its future

Community heritage groups in Sheffield have unearthed the crucial local value of a world-renowned city university department – as campaigners pledge to continue their high profile bid to save it from extinction.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 6:00 am
A rally to save the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells

More than 34,000 people signed a petition calling for the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archeology to be retained after it was placed under institutional review – and concerns were raised globally due to the department’s world renowned reputation.

A large rally also took place in the city on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting to decide whether the department should be closed, invested in, or that the university should retain key areas of archaeological interest and teaching.

Yesterday it was confirmed that the university’s executive board had recommended ‘ key areas of strength are aligned to other university departments, with enhanced investment for excellence.’

Staff say this means the department will close, that they will be made redundant and that they reject the decision, vowing to continue their fight.

Medieval archaeologist Hugh Willmott said on Twitter that it would “move only two small elements of our teaching into dispersed departments where they shall surely wither and quickly die.”

While the department is renowned on a global scale, producing a significant number of archaeologists and researchers all over the world and being linked to international projects, its archaeology staff and students have also been involved with important local projects over the years.

Martin Gorman, of the Friends of Sheffield Castle, said the group had been working with the department for around eight years.

A rally to save the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Picture: Chris Etchells

He told the Telegraph: “It is fair to say without them I don't think our group would have got the amount of information that we've managed to get hold of.”

A major excavation project began at the castle site – where the city of Sheffield itself originated - in 2018 and students from the university were among those involved.

This work uncovered parts of the castle that had never been seen before, including of the original motte and bailey castle structure. And last year the department released a book on the history of the castle as well as an online archive.

Martin added: “They unearthed some amazing things that we could never have known about.

“But it is not all about the castle. They do tremendous work around the city with the community. It is invaluable because without them a lot of the findings that have been found in the city in the last 20-30 years wouldn't have come to light.”

Heeley City Farm has also worked alongside the department on a variety of projects including excavations at the farm and projects in Wincobank and Tinsley.

Sally Rodgers, community heritage manager at the farm, did her masters with the department from 2005-2007 and has worked with them ever since.

She said: "It is just heart-breaking to think that we could lose a fantastic resource that's been here 50 years, is world renowned and that benefits the city so much. It's one of the things that the university does which directly benefits the people who live here. It is so short sighted.

"I have known young people be involved with a project when they were at school, gone on to study at the university and now they work in archaeology which is amazing."

Sally said the department had made a ‘massive contribution to community heritage’ in Sheffield, including via the Joined Up Heritage Sheffield group and Sheffield Young Archaeologists Club.

Staff have loaned equipment to the farm and provided support on matters such as funding bids.

Sally added: "There's also been lots and lots of informal support and that's the big thing I will miss if they go, we will really struggle without them. I can't really believe this is happening.

“Community heritage is about connecting people to to their history and the university is a really important part of that. Its about people coming together to do something exciting and there are lots of other health, wellbeing and community benefits.”

Manor Lodge, where Mary Queen of Scots was famously held captive, has also benefited from the department’s work.

Kate Hughes, assistant visitor services manager at the Green Estate community interest company which manages the site, said: “They have played a part in Sheffield Manor Lodge’s history and recovering a lot of the foundations of this site which may not have happened without them.”

The decision on Tuesday followed a review of the department.

The recommendation must now go before the university’s council and senate.

A University of Sheffield spokesman said: “The University is committed to retaining areas of strength in archaeology teaching and research at Sheffield.

"The University’s Executive Board is recommending that key areas of strength are aligned to other University departments, with enhanced investment for excellence.

"We will continue to play a role in our local communities and honour our commitment to all current students who will receive high-quality teaching and support.”