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A Danish bog body looks at us still from the Iron Age – the kind of corporeal evidence that A-level archaeologists can investigate as evidence for life and death in past societies.

Over the last week, as with many in the archaeology community, I’ve been dismayed that AQA have decided, without consultation, to axe A-level archaeology. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Council for British Archaeology, Historic England, universities, A-level archaeology college tutors, and almost everyone who has been engaged in archaeology as a hobby or a profession, has come out in criticism at the decision to scrap its delivery in the UK at A-level. The great Sir Tony Robinson – incidentally an honorary graduate of my university – has come out a vocal critic of this decision.

This is one of many, many contemporary political and education issues that this Archaeodeath blog might comment on, but this is a clear, tangible and direct threat to our education system’s diversity and character, and the future of my profession in particular.

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Artists’ impression of an early medieval funeral by artist and archaeologist Dr Aaron Watson – mortuary archaeologists theorise the process, variability and changing character of mortuary practices in societies from prehistory to the present day

Already, I’ve tweet support, signed petitions and been vocal about the end of students (mainly 16-18-year olds but also those coming back to education at other times in their life) to have the opportunity to study archaeology at FE colleges.

Why keep it? Well, it isn’t essential to have an A-level in archaeology to study archaeology at university or enter the profession. However, it is an important starting point for those who previously have not engaged with the topic, and those coming back to study as mature students.

But why archaeology? Not only should archaeology be seen as a versatile, innovative subject feeding into universities and supporting the archaeology and heritage sectors, it should be regarded as a key way in which students learn about the origins and diversity of the human past and present, and the range of scientific techniques and archaeological theories and methods, that can be applied to its investigation. It offers appreciation of the built environment, art, and the landscape itself. It offers perspectives on global, long term changes in human interactions with the environment, and detailed appreciation of artefacts, materials and subjects in the fabric of human societies. Understanding state formation, state collapse, diasporas and conflict, subsistence systems, perceptions of the cosmos are all dimensions of archaeological enquiries. The AQA have said this themselves. For example in 2010 they stated:

Archaeology – the study of past human societies from the investigation of material remains – is one of the most exciting subjects in the curriculum. It is the ultimate subject for an ‘all-round’ student, in that it combines elements of many other academic disciplines, such as Science, Art, Technology, Geography, History, Sociology and Religious Studies.

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A Roman-period mummy portrait from the Fayum, Egypt – mortuary archaeology brings us face-to-face with the past on an individual and a community level – (c) British Museum

The Death in A-level

Now among these many reasons why axing A-level archaeology is a disaster, there is another. Archaeology is about the historic environment, it is about understanding settlements and material culture, but it is also about tombs and cemeteries and the human remains they contain. Archaeology is about people, and the dead are themselves evidence for understanding the past – their bodies, coffins, tombs, cemeteries and memorials. This is often called ‘funerary archaeology’ or ‘mortuary archaeology’.

Together with the planned demise of Art History, Classical Civilization and Anthropology at A-level, the scrapping of A-level Archaeology robs A-level students of yet another forum in which they can encounter and explore mortuary practices and death more broadly in the human past. Simultaneously, it sheds us of respect and understandings of other faiths and cultures and their diverse and historically embedded understandings of mortality.

The question must now be posed: with the end of anthropology, ancient history, art history and archaeology, where can A-level students learn about death? Where can they encounter the complexity, variability and varied corporeal and material traces of dying, death and the dead across different societies and communities from prehistory to the 20th century? Where can they learn about art created to mourn, honour, valorise or denigrate the dead in past times? Where can the learn of past tragedies revealed in the archaeological record, of natural disasters, battles, warfare, mass killings, human sacrifice and judicial processes? How do they learn about the physical evidence for the human suffering of slavery, of the history of disease, the complex evidence revealed from ancient DNA about the very origins and mobility of the human species itself, about the variability and social complexity of past societies, about the origins and development of death rituals by today’s world religions and many other faiths, cultic practices and afterlife beliefs that have not survived into historic times? How can we learn about the ways cemeteries, tombs and cenotaphs operated within historic landscapes, how death and the dead were investments of time, labour and resources that influenced, sometimes directed, past economies and involved ritual specialists and specific kinds of craftspeople and artisans?

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18th-century skull on a tomb, Morton Corbet church, Shropshire. Mortuary archaeology teaches us the significance of places of worship, churchyards and cemeteries both long abandoned and extant.

Death is not just about the past, it is a contemporary issue. It is about our past, present and future, and archaeology continues to be central to its study.

It affects us all, because when and how we die involves faith and aspirations and beliefs in various afterlives, but it transcends faiths. It is about being human, and about human relations with the non-human. This is one of the key dimensions of contemporary archaeological research.

Therefore, the end of this slew of humanities subjects, denigrated as ‘specialist’, robs A-level students of investigating not only our humanity, but also of our mortality. To disclaim these subjects is not only stupid, it is abhorrent and morally repugnant.

In short, the death of A-level archaeology – together with a range of other subjects that directly engage with human mortality – is an act of negligence with ramifications for our society that extend far beyond archaeology itself and way beyond A-levels. It represents a concerted effort to deny and denigrate the study of humanity’s mortality. It is about killing death itself in our education system.

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