"Holding an object, resurfaced for the first time in hundreds (or even thousands) of years, made and used by someone long since deceased, is a uniquely addictive feeling."Evie Carter

I love my degree. I really love it. Soil science and bones might not be your thing, and that’s understandable, but ask my friends and you’ll hear how I manage to bring every conversation back to human culture and adaptation.

Unfortunately, it’s not the most welcoming time to be facing a career in archaeology.

Since the beginning of 2021, Sheffield, Hull, and Worcester Universities’ Archaeology Departments have announced their closures to future undergraduate applicants. Classified neither as STEM or SIVS (Strategically Important Vulnerable Subjects), funding for archaeology and biological anthropology departments is scarce. Student applications are falling, and jobs in academia provide increasingly little security. Following each closure, pockets of outrage spring up on Twitter or in student protests, but it is difficult not to feel disheartened when hearing university staff describing their short notice and sometimes disrespectful dismissals.

Additionally, changes to local planning permission are threatening commercial archaeology. Current legislation requires developers to pay commercial archaeologists to conduct fieldwork as required by the local authority. In this way, the developers who stand to make financial gains from constructions that could harm archaeological deposits invest in preserving local heritage through the archaeological process. The new planning bill, proposed at the opening of the current parliament, does not allude to this local arrangement.

“Residing on the border between science and humanities means daily (and sometimes even hourly) u-turns”

If this legislation is overlooked, developers who regard Archaeology as slow and costly will not face consequences for cutting corners - putting both careers and heritage at risk. It’s demoralising to see Archaeology erased like a footnote from the white paper. The progress of the new bill has been paused by the government, but it is still uncertain if future iterations of the legislation will protect the archaeological process.

Meanwhile, in the heritage sector, proposals for a road tunnel underneath Stonehenge were narrowly averted for the fourth time this July. Since 1995, transport secretaries have attempted to dig a bypass underneath the landscape of this UNESCO world heritage site, destroying valuable archaeological contexts. Thanks to judicial review, the construction has been narrowly avoided, but when the security of globally recognised monuments isn’t guaranteed, it’s easy to feel a little helpless.

Take it from popular history giants Dan Snow, Alice Roberts, and Tony Robinson – British archaeology is under attack on the ground and in the lecture theatre.

Passionate archaeologists do an excellent job of mounting a worthy defence based on the innate value of cultural heritage; the importance of exploring human identity; and the economic value of historical tourism: all completely valid and important justifications. But defending ‘doing’ archaeology and biological anthropology at a societal level rarely convinces people in day-to-day life that your £40,000 student debt, poor career prospects, and slightly intangible skillset are things to be desired. Residing on the border between science and humanities means daily (and sometimes even hourly) u-turns; from excavation to coding, heritage studies to lab work, translations to artefact conservation.

Anyone taking an unconventional course will know that your passion is often met with unsolicited opinions, which may have been brought into uncomfortably close proximity for those living at home during the past few lockdowns.

From an uncle who tells me archaeologists ‘do nothing productive’ and cost him an arm and a leg; to a younger cousin who believes in ancient aliens; and a grandma whose church teaches young-earth creationism – we’ve all got a monopoly of opinions on human history. To the extent that even my partner’s dad asks me how my ‘little hobby’ is going whenever I see him.

When it feels as if the outside world (read: government) is mounting an offensive, the little things can be grating.

In their desire to be taken seriously as a ‘hard’ science (alongside a healthy dose of classism - see The Dig), academics have attempted to distance themselves from perceived ‘hobbyists’ and, to an extent, the sector of commercial archaeology. But gatekeeping who can ‘do’ archaeology and ranking research archaeology as more ‘valuable’ only damages science communication and community engagement. Projects such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme aim to remedy this disconnection. Widening participation is a vital part of fighting future cuts.

I have learnt that enthusiasm is infectious, and usually, people are less apathetic than they think they are. Holding an object, resurfaced for the first time in hundreds (or even thousands) of years, made and used by someone long since deceased, is a uniquely addictive feeling. Lockdown has physically removed us from this experience, the touch paper for my route towards this degree.

“Heritage is deeply personal; that’s what makes it so hard to convince others that it’s important”

Recently, on a walk with my family, an unexpected encounter with some metal detectorists transformed us briefly into a 20-person strong field survey, spotting buckles, bells, sherds, and thimbles as we scrutinized a ploughed field. At home, a little cousin washed her finds in the sink while another told me about her history teacher, Adrian Targett, who made headlines in 1997 after being identified as a maternal descendent of Cheddar man - a 9,000-year-old hunter-gatherer from Gough’s cave in Cheddar Gorge.

I talked to my grandma about the transformation of the fenland landscape of her childhood and how this continues to affect wildlife and archaeological preservation today. Despite our dramatically different outlooks, she appreciates the value of researching who our ancestors were and how they lived, and she always meets my enthusiasm for my degree with genuine support and interest.

Heritage is deeply personal; that’s what makes it so hard to effectively lobby against detrimental legislation and convince others that it is important. I believe outreach is the only way to combat the threats archaeology faces – giving people places, objects, and stories they can relate to. Old, broken, discarded things don’t seem engaging until they illuminate an individual’s life, and archaeology is fundamentally about people – a time-worn cliché, but a true one.

Living and studying in an area so close to my personal heritage is a privilege few people have and not one I take for granted. After two missed years, walking through the fields our ancestors inhabited was a perfect way to reconnect with family: past and present.

Digging isn’t for everyone, but heritage is.