Brexit: What Britain leaving the EU could mean for British and European archaeology

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The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum came as a shock for many, while others saw it more as a wake-up call. Voices were being raised that the EU would have to work on its concept and it also became increasingly obvious that other EU-countries were also struggling with Euroscepticism in politics and among its people. So far, it does not look like the EU is facing mass-egression, but it remains to be seen how negotiations between Britain and the EU will conclude. For now, there is no concrete information on this, but the different parts that now have to disentangle offer some sort of prognosis as to how and if there can still be a form of cooperation after Brexit. One of the fields which will be hit very hard by Brexit is archaeology. As a cultural science, it is a discipline based on many different other sciences such as anthropology, geology, biology, or chemistry and physics, and is traditionally dependent on cultural exchange and international funding.

Archaeology in general requires communication regardless of national borders, since prehistoric cultures seldom respected borders that are established today, and to allow the development of unbiased and complete pictures of different cultures and periods, different countries must work closely together. Britain leaving the EU means that a realisation of these international collaborations will be a lot more difficult in the future. At the moment, 22% of the people employed in archaeological institutes in the UK are non-UK EU nationals, their future is uncertain. Another example for this form of collaboration is a project at the University of Southampton called “Rome’s Mediterranean Ports” (ROMP). It consists of a total of twelve organisations from Britain, Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Spain which are working on more than 30 different excavation sites in the area of what was once the Roman Empire. Freedom of movement inside the EU forms the perfect basis for all excavators to work relatively unbothered on most sites. In the case of Brexit, Britain will lose this privilege and those kinds of projects will be more difficult to realise, especially for British archaeologists who will face more obstacles when entering the EU, which means there won’t be an easy exchange of knowledge and skills. Additionally, ROMP is sponsored in large parts through an advance of €2,5m from the European Research Council (ERC), and therefore through the European Union. This financial support enables the employment of researchers, post-docs and PhD-students from the University La Lumière Lyon 2 the coverage of all excavation costs for the Universities of Cologne and Kiel, and the Istanbul-department of the German Archaeological Institute.

Therefore, Britain leaving the EU means a great loss of funding through EU-committees for British archaeology. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the number of students studying subjects such as archaeology, which are generally considered to be less profitable and offer less secure jobs, has decreased substantially. There are few permanent positions for archaeologists and often no guarantee for financial stability; many students therefore decide to study subjects that promise a more secure future. Those low numbers in of students led to serious cuts in university programmes. However, there is a high demand for trained archaeologists at the moment because of a recent rise in major construction projects, such as a third highway for Heathrow airport. These projects need to be monitored closely by skilled archaeologists, since unknown and hidden sites could always be discovered on construction sites. As noted before, the principle of freedom of movement has so far helped with employing the necessary number of people from other European countries, and the much-needed financial support was also provided by the EU on many occasions. There are several EU-sponsored programmes for the funding of cultural heritage, for example the 7th framework, the Research and Innovation fund which has supplied €170m for research purposes between 2007 and 2013. Other programmes like this one are the Creative Europe programme, EUROPEANA, or Erasmus+ in European universities that promotes cultural exchange between students.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 38% of research funding for archaeological research in Britain comes from EU-grants, approximately €8,7m. Since 2014/15, British archaeology very much depends on those grants because the British support for research from the British government and industry has been cut substantially between 2006/07 and 2014/15. In concrete terms, this means that while in 2006/07 43% of the overall budget (£6,8m) was provided by the British government, in 2014/15 only 26% (£5,9m) came from there. Similarly, the support from other government offices such as local governments or health authorities, was reduced from funding 21% of the overall budget (£3,4m) in 2006/07 to only funding 6% (£1,3m) in 2014/15.

2006/07 2014/15
British central government £6,8m £5,9m
Local governments etc.. £3,4m £1,3m
British industry £4,8m £3,9m

This redeployment of research grants has happened primarily because British archaeologists were able secure EU-grants for their own research projects and the government was therefore able to cut back on funding. As an example, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge obtains 70% of their total budget from EU funds, that means around £7,5m of a total of £10,5m.

Besides the loss of much-needed financial funding, Brexit also means that regulations and protocols determined by the EU will not be in place anymore and will have to be re-decided by the British government. There is no legal basis for the protection and care for ancient monuments and landmarks on an EU scale, but some EU-regulations. Archaeologists fear that if there are economic advantages in a construction project or in the expansion of infrastructure, then cultural heritage preservation might have to wait. Especially since there is not enough money available anyway. Technically, every construction project, whether it is the construction of a house or a street, needs to be preceded by an archaeological survey to determine any finds of importance beforehand. If archaeologists do find something, the project could be stopped or cancelled indefinitely, and archaeology is therefore sometimes said to outmanoeuvre economic profit. If there are no existing regulations to preserve the importance of archaeological research, then preservation of historical monuments could be pushed into the background. Furthermore, Britain leaving the EU also means that financial support for Britain through regulations such as the Common Agricultural Act will stop. This act supports environmental protection through for example non-invasive farming. Farmers that profit from funding now might switch to cheaper methods that ultimately damage the ground and possible archaeological finds hidden beneath it.

Counting in all these factors, then it becomes clear that Brexit will bring disadvantages especially to British archaeology. The lack of financial support through the EU will have negative repercussions for general research and teaching at universities, and the loss of access to the European job market as well as the loss of freedom of movement will limit the scope of action for British archaeology. Equally, the absence of British money in the overall budget of the European Union means that other archaeological projects might not be funded. Therefore, it is expected that Brexit will have a big impact on European archaeology, impeding international collaborations and possibly making certain research projects impossible. British archaeology will be dependent on government funding again, and only the future can tell how far the government will be able to fund seemingly unimportant disciplines such as archaeology, in midst other political and economic problems that will arise after Brexit.

Lea Hüntemann
Translated by Lea Hüntemann

Foto © Eva W. Maciejewski 2018

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