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UK’s shared history will be lost

Brexit and university cutbacks are fuelling a crisis in recruitment of skilled workers

An archaeologist excavates the Saxon ‘Prince of Prittlewell’ grave site before developers move in. Photograph: Mola

Brexit has led to a serious shortage of senior archaeologists, sparking fears that controls on developments could be lifted and undiscovered treasures and untold stories about our past will be lost for ever.

“There’s a hiring crisis in archaeology,” Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures, an archaeology social enterprise, told the Observer. “We’ve lost a tranche of skilled workers from Europe and [there’s been] the instability of the pandemic.”

“One of our real terrors is that the government is going to use the shortage of archaeologists as an excuse to reduce our role in the planning system, just as it’s being redesigned with a white paper, paving the way for development at the expense of our history. Imagine this country without finds, such as the Viking and Roman discoveries at a development at Hungate in York. That is terrifying to me.”

Under planning regulations, developers fund excavations ahead of construction work. It has led to discoveries as significant as the so-called “Prince of Prittlewell”, a royal Saxon grave in Essex, which might never have survived if it weren’t for archaeological work ahead of a road scheme.

Drinking vessels in situ at the ‘Prince of Prittlewell’ grave excavation. Photograph: Mola

The Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), whose excavations have included Iron Age and Roman settlements in advance of the building of the A14 in Cambridgeshire, is among organisations that have been “deeply impacted by Brexit in relation to matters of recruitment”.

Sorina Spanou, Mola’s director of infrastructure, said: “Diminishing numbers entering the profession in the UK has been a crisis in the making for years. This at a time when the demand for archaeological expertise to service major infrastructure projects has grown. Brexit has undoubtedly exacerbated this crisis.”

She added: “The loss of European colleagues is keenly felt in the skills and knowledge they offer. Their diverse perspectives on our methods and understanding of archaeological remains is essential for our thinking to remain fresh.”

Exacerbating the problem is Sheffield University’s decision last week to close its archaeology department, regarded as one of the UK’s finest, meaning even fewer graduates will enter the profession.

Hugh Willmott, a senior Sheffield lecturer now facing redundancy, said “The official line is that some bits of archaeology will be moved into totally unrelated departments – human osteology, for example, will go into the biomedical school. They will effectively cease because why would you apply to do a Masters in archaeology, but not in an archaeology department?”He added: “Brexit has had an impact on our recruitment across the university sector. If we start closing down domestic training, that’s going to cause even more of a shortage.”

Other university departments are similarly under threat, condemned by one archaeologist as “a roll call of shame”. Chris Gerrard, professor of archaeology at Durham University, said that the sector is “suffering”, with Brexit among various factors, “in spite of the extraordinary success of the discipline and UK university departments occupying the top four places in the world rankings and archaeology graduates being the backbone of the tourism and heritage industries”.

Spanou warned that government proposals to cut university funding for archaeology will undoubtedly worsen this situation: “A decline in professional archaeology will impact our ability to study and protect archaeological remains. But this isn’t just a dilemma for the profession, it is an issue for all in our society. This is our shared heritage.”

David Connolly, director of British Archaeological Jobs & Resources, which represents the industry, estimates that up to 3,000 field archaeologists carry out contract work in developments: “For all the infrastructure projects the government is pushing forward, such as the A303 and HS2, I would say the country is anywhere from 500 to 1,000 archaeologists short. It’s a significant amount.”

He expressed alarm over Brexit’s impact: “We’ve lost a lot of the Europeans … it’s become almost impossible to get anyone here.”

Although archaeologists are on the government’s list of “shortage occupations” for skilled workers, there are serious barriers to recruiting from Europe, including additional financial costs. Connolly fears that archaeology will be taken off that list, downgrading its importance and allowing its removal from the planning process, “which is seen as an annoyance”.

A government spokesman said: “We know that our archaeological treasures are irreplaceable and we are determined to protect them. Our planning reforms will build on the strong protections already in place. Our deal with the EU means archaeologists can make short trips to the UK without work permits, and their qualifications will be recognised.”

Westcott Wilkins said public interest in archaeology had never been higher, with thousands wanting to get involved with excavations: “Our online events are outstripping our capacity. But at the same time there is this massive shrinkage.”

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