Saving A Level Archaeology is Possible and Necessary

 

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Sarah Cattell of Salford University showing sixth-formers the basics of levelling at Etherstone Hall, Wigan, in 2012 – part of the Dig Greater Manchester community archaeology project.

Next Wednesday morning (14 December 2016) at 11am, there will be a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament on the future of the Archaeology A Level (see http://calendar.parliament.uk/calendar/Commons/All/2016/12/14/Daily).

The debate has been secured by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, Tim Loughton MP, and at the end of the half-hour debate a Government Minister will be expected to respond.

It is important to encourage as many MPs as possible to attend the debate and speak, in order to show widespread support for the subject and the future of the A Level. Write, email, tweet – whatever is the easiest and most comfortable way to contact your democratic representative (see my recent blog ‘A Burning Issue’ for links on how to do this).

It seems very strange that a social sciences’ subject that has spent 30 years increasing in popularity amongst the general public should be withdrawn from study at school level.

In 1985-6 a report by the Council for British Archaeology noted that there were around 100,000 archaeology volunteers spread across roughly 450 societies (British Archaeology News 1987, 29). When Dr Suzie Thomas of the CBA surveyed the voluntary sector again in 2009-10 these figures had grown to around 215,000 volunteers who, annually, undertook archaeological work across roughly 2,030 organized groups/societies. Thomas noted a particularly sharp increase of 30% in the numbers of active societies between 2000 and 2010.

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Understanding the context of artefacts like this 19th century stoneware jar, from Moston in Manchester, is central to the archaeological approach to the past.

Voluntary activity in archaeology and the wider heritage sector has continued to grow since 2010. A 2016 survey for Historic England by Worcester County Council estimated that the number of voluntary societies active in England and interested in some aspect of archaeology had grown by just over 1% (around 1600 groups in 2016 compared to 1563 groups in 2010; see the Historic England website for details). Though a slower growth rate than the decade before, this covered a period of recession in the archaeology sector and cuts to local government voluntary outreach and education services. This rise in engagement with the past by the wider public can also be seen through several other data sets. Thus, since 1989 there has been an increase of 39% in the number of visits to historic properties in England, and since 2009 a rise of 3.2% amongst adults. The membership of the two largest voluntary heritage organizations in the UK have also risen significantly in the last ten years, despite the recession: for the National Trust up by 8% to 4.3 million and for English Heritage up by 10% to 932,000.

This interest in the past supports the value of A-Level Archaeology because the subject is about viewing the human past from a unique angle – its physical remains. Only archaeology does this in a way that straddles the sciences and humanities. To deny students the opportunity to use, interpret and understand this kind of time-depth physical evidence verges on the anti-science. It also increases the divide between the humanities and the sciences, whilst narrowing our understanding of the past.

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