What’s This About Archaeology Being Soft???

This morning my Twitter feed was filled with people protesting over an exam board’s decision to drop A-Level Archaeology. One phrase which keeps coming up is that ‘soft’ subjects are being dropped.

I may just be ignorant, but I’m not really sure what a ‘soft’ subject is. ‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘hard’, so are they saying that archaeology is not hard? Is not scientifically rigorous? Is an easy option?

Let me just reflect on some things I have done and seminars that I have been to over the last few weeks. What is soft or easy about…

  • Understanding the origins of the human species through the analysis of hominid fossil remains, as was discussed by our first research seminar speaker here at Cardiff, Dr Mana Dembo?
  • Analysing the chemical composition of bone to reconstruct past diet, as we are doing in our project on the dietary impact of the Norman Conquest?
  • Dealing with the emotional trauma brought about through the study of human remains, particularly in relation to the study of the archaeology of modern conflicts, as has been highlighted in recent debates about ‘trigger warnings’?
  • Pulling together disparate sources of information, critically understanding how they relate to each other, dealing with inconsistent data and building arguments and interpretations from them?
  • Weighing the public benefit of heritage against conflicting economic, environmental and political pressures, as my former colleagues at Historic England do every day?
  • Analysing archaeological data to reveal stories about people marginalised by mainstream history?
  • The hard toil of archaeological excavation and the detailed recording of changes in soil texture or colour to reveal vital clues about environmental change or human activity?

Archaeology is certainly a strange subject. It is part science, part humanity. It is difficult to fit in to conventional subject silos, it inevitably cuts across them. But it is also one with wide appeal – be that the lure of finding something out through rigorous research or simply the romance of reflecting on the past. It is an essential discipline for understanding what makes us human and understanding how our society fits into the world.

Yes, it involves a lot of reading. Yes, there are areas of archaeology which may appear irrelevant or even pointless from the outside. And yes, an A-level may not be the place where students get to engage in the practical elements of archaeology which might make the powers that be identify it as ‘hard’.

But soft archaeology is not.


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