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The Impact of Archaeology on an English city: Sheffield Castle.

The teaching and research of archaeology in British universities has passed through a fifty-year golden age and now appears to be in full retreat. Student numbers are down, teaching faculty are being reduced, and with this research is living off the energy of years past. All this is happening as archaeology plays a larger role in society. Until the pandemic, cultural heritage tourism was rising massively as was a digital interest in the discipline. Salvage archaeology, though subject to the vagaries of the market-place, has also lost its innocence and appears to have hit a sustainable path forwards.

There are many reasons for the apparent schism between the academy and the place of archaeology in society at large. Perhaps the most obvious reason is the fissioning of the discipline into many sub-disciplines and as a result the absence of a will to make an impact upon society at large. Impact is now a key measure in the academy, but it is too often cast as nebulously wishful. This is why John Moreland and Dawn Hadley’s Sheffield Castle. Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration 1927-2018 (White Rose University Press 2020) matters.

Sheffield Castle is a rare archaeological treat. It is about a place that has topographical and historical meaning given exceptional shape by recent excavations and truly extraordinary digging into myriad archives. More than this, it is a book which lends a new and, in these times, much needed identity to a city that has been struggling to come to terms with its post-industrial history.

The book is beautifully illustrated to define the origins of its great but largely enigmatic castle, its form, its estates and, for all Tudor buffs, a celebrated episode when Mary, Queen of Scots was ‘in residence’. No less fascinating, though, is the role of local archaeologists and museum staff in helping to make sense of this history. (The chapter on the ‘gifted amateur’, Leslie Armstrong’s investigations in the later 1920s is surely one of the most original pieces of research on British archaeology in years.) As such, Sheffield Castle is principally a social history of the later industrial city when the city was the steel capital of the world.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Looking positively towards the future – in regeneration – the book closes with the bold plans to explore new media to situate the castle’s story in the mind of local citizens. Most of all it is being tied to business ventures and new community action groups. The authors conclude: ‘we very much hope that the knowledge of the past, and the lessons to be learned from it …will help to fill that space with an iconic development that contributes to the future vitality and identity of the city, as the castle itself once did.’

This book is a masterpiece. It illustrates how archaeological research can impact not only a great city, but give it cause for hope as it seeks a viable future in post-industrial times. Were prizes offered for impact in archaeology this project and the book would be a winner, giving all schools of archaeology a scintilla of hope for an otherwise uncertain future.

John Moreland & Dawn Hadley with Ashley Tuck & Milica Rajic, Sheffield Castle. Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration 1927-2018, York, White Rose University Press, 2020.

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