The future of archaeology at Sheffield

I recently learned that the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield is facing closure. I once considered studying for my PhD there (but the Rocky Mountains lured me to Colorado instead), and I am distraught at this possibility. I therefore wrote at once to the university’s leadership to explain why I think archaeology at Sheffield is so important, and I reproduce my letter in full below:

I am very distressed to learn that the University of Sheffield is contemplating the closure of its archaeology department. Indeed, the only reason I know that this university exists is because of the prominence of its archaeologists!

For several decades Sheffield has been the leader in the field of Mediterranean prehistory. Its staff have revolutionized our understanding of ancient agriculture, trade in the Mediterranean and prehistoric administration, to name only a few examples. The department has also made major contributions to the development of archaeological theory, including the use of postcolonialism, postmodernism and globalization in archaeological interpretation. Several essays and books by the Sheffield archaeology faculty are already considered classics in this field, and are mandatory reading for many doctoral students around the world.

I myself am trained as a classicist and art historian, and my research interests hardly overlap with the two fields I have mentioned above. Additionally, other than an undergraduate degree from St. Andrews, I have no connections to the UK, let alone to Sheffield. Yet despite this I have been aware of the university’s prominence in these fields for most of my career and I know the names of a third of the department’s faculty from their scholarship. This is a staggering figure, unmatched by other universities, such as Oxford or UCL.

I therefore urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider any decision to reduce or eliminate archaeology at Sheffield. That an obscure scholar like me knows this department from its intellectual merits alone demonstrates its importance and global reach. Focusing on more conventional fields of study at the expense of archaeology would make the university indistinguishable from the multitude of plate glass universities in the UK. In short, to eliminate archaeology would be to remove what makes Sheffield special.

I will be very surprised if anyone seriously considers what I have to say on this subject, but I feel it had to be said nonetheless. Archaeology departments in the UK are truly wonderful, and we cannot afford to lose any of them!

There is a petition at to save the department. I urge everyone interested in the future of archaeology to sign it.

The invention of the Chicken Dance

Today I would like to report on a startling new discovery (made in collaboration with my wife, Dr. A. M. Belis of the Metropolitan Museum): the Chicken Dance did not originate in Switzerland in the 1950s as is commonly believed, but in ancient Greece. The evidence is provided by an Athenian black-figure hydria in the Met, attributed to the Circle of Lydos and dating to ca. 560 BCE.

Terracotta hydria, ca. 560 BCE; attributed to the Circle of Lydos; H. 50.1 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1988.11.3 (The Bothmer Purchase Fund).

These figures probably represent the chorus of a Greek comedy, but they are clearly doing the Chicken Dance to the accompaniment of a flautist.

Howard University’s Classics Department

Locke Hall at Howard University, which currently houses the university’s classics department.

Last month Howard University in Washington, DC announced plans to eliminate its classics department. I myself believe that it would be best if most classicists were employed in other academic departments, such as history, Romance languages, linguistics, art history, etc., so as to make them intellectually accountable to a larger field than the echo chamber of classics. But Howard is the only HBCU with a classics department, and given the important role that the classics played in the education of, for example, Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, not to mention its role in modern white supremacy narratives, I think that if any school needs a classics department it’s Howard.

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Anika Prather made an interesting suggestion which I think is a brilliant way to deal with Howard’s specific concerns and a good model for classics departments more generally. She suggested creating a department encompassing Africana studies, philosophy and classics that “continues this focused study of classics within the narrative of the Black experience.” I think this is a wonderful idea that would build on Howard’s strengths and put the classicists teaching there in a more meaningful setting than a traditional classics department would provide.