Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Archaeology cuts 'tragedy' for Southampton

Southampton's city walls
Image caption Southampton's city walls date back to the 14th Century

The proposed closure of Southampton's archaeology unit has been described as a "tragedy" by heritage campaigners.

The unit's experts have been custodians of the city's historic sites and artefacts - including the medieval city walls and vaults - for more than 50 years.

As a non-statutory service, which the council is not legally required to provide, the unit is facing closure as the authority attempts to make savings of more than £20m.

The economic slowdown, affecting the archaeology sector nationally, has meant the unit has struggled to win contracts from the commercial sector.

About 10 people currently work in the Southampton unit, which was among the first professional archaeology departments to be set up by a local authority in the 1950s.

Many councils followed, responding to the growing interest in protect historic sites threatened by post-war development.

'International importance'

The council's archaeologists have worked on excavating the Saxon trading town of Hamwick, located in modern-day St Mary's and maintaining the city's medieval wine cellars.

The city also boasts its Westgate, through which Henry V marched his troops to Agincourt. and the remains of the Roman town of Clausentum located in the Bitterne area.

The unit has been involved in education projects as well as developing the city's historic sites for tourists.

Arthur Jeffery, from the City of Southampton Society, which campaigns on heritage issues in the city, said the loss of the unit would be an "absolute tragedy".

"From the community point of view we wouldn't know our own city and our own heritage and every schoolchild has a right to know that heritage.

"We want to invite tourists to Southampton as it a wonderful place to see."

A council spokesman insisted "in the overall proposals there is a mechanism to look after our ancient monuments".

University of Winchester archaeologist Dr Paul Everill said the unit had a "pioneering" role in British archaeology and played an important role in the council's planning decisions.

"It's a relatively small team but you have a collective experience of a couple of centuries between them. You can't replace that expertise and their in-depth knowledge of Southampton.

"If that knowledge is lost, development in Southampton could go unchecked, critical sites could be lost and ultimately the people of Southampton will be the great losers here."

Image caption The archaeology team have carried out excavations in St Mary Street

He said the Southampton situation reflected a "bleak" outlook for archaeology in the UK.

A combination of watered-down previous requirements for developers to employ archaeologists ahead of construction projects and the general slowdown in the building industry has led to job losses across the archaeology sector.

Southampton City Council says the archaeology unit is projected to lose £65,000 this year and is struggling to attract work outside the council.

Dr Everill said: "Southampton has a great heritage value of international importance and you need someone to stand up for that and help the council develop those areas for local people and for potential tourists.

"It would be a great loss - once it's gone, it's gone."

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