Blogs > Cliopatria > When medievalists go bad, hard times edition

Feb 12, 2009

When medievalists go bad, hard times edition

A shorter post from me this time, about a worrying thing in the world of museums and heritage research. You may have read in various places of the University of Pennsylvania's decision to axe 18 research staff at its Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in order to make its budget more sensible, and you may have seen the petition that's being raised against it, which even has a blog. That isn't what I'm writing about now: what I'm writing about is my reaction to seeing who had ordered these cuts.

To most early medievalists the name Richard Hodges is probably familiar. A disciple of the well-known archaeologist of the prehistoric Mediterranean Colin Renfrew, now Lord Professor Renfrew, Hodges took Renfrew's system theory into medieval Europe and in his Dark Age Economics created a genuinely new picture of a vibrant North Sea economic zone in the sixth and seventh centuries redounding from the collapse of the Roman economic system with its own new network of developing polities. Others had done work that contributed to this but Hodges's was the theory-informed synthesis that made it all into one book, and the obvious impact on the Pirenne thesis led him to co-write another that substantially reset the paradigm, at least for archaeologists. At the same sort of time he was leading digs at San Vincenzo al Volturno in the Romagna that greatly deepened our understanding of this site where the new Carolingian rulers of Italy dug into local power and culture after the conquest of Lombardy in 774. In more recent years he has been leading digs at the important late Antique and Byzantine site at Butrint in Albania, bringing this almost-lost area back into the European understanding, and in the meantime he's worked on the Orkneys and at least one other place in Italy. He apparently has a new edition of Dark Age Economics in preparation, taking into account the twenty-five years' development since he first wrote into account. This man is, then, a major figure, and has arguably reshaped early medievalists' understanding of several parts of their period.

So the first and most obvious question, what is he doing cutting the salaries of 18 research staff behind whose work you'd expect him to be 100%, is perhaps not the only one. It may even be easier to answer than the one that struck me: after all, endowments are shrinking the world over, the money presumably just isn't there. And while I can manage some sympathy with the point of view of one commentator at Inside Higher Ed who wondered how many researchers one of the University's senior adminstrators' $300,000 salaries would pay for – after all, in a UK situation where the standard research wage is £20,044 stlng, and the cost to the institution of employing such a person is estimated at twice that, I calculate that that money would hire at least five such people if the costs of employing the administrator are the same – we have to face the fact that we in the humanities are no more (and no less) entitled to a job than someone in any other profession, and that everywhere people who are brilliant at what they do or who have been in post for twenty years or both are losing their jobs. Our sector is not economy-proof, however much we may argue for a higher value to research. What the value of research really is is perhaps where the real question lies here.

All the same, the question that I can't help asking is not that but this. Richard Hodges is one of the most stimulating minds in medieval archaeology the UK has produced for a long time, leaving a permanent mark on his sector and being as informed by theory as by the raw data of digging. He should be teaching future medieval archaeologists their trade. How has the world of archaeology failed to hold him? Never mind how he's cutting 18 staff of a world-famous research institution still busily producing ground-breaking research even as their jobs disappear; why is he in a museum in the USA with no significant medieval presentation in the first place? Why hasn't the medieval studies sector managed to retain one of its more important contributors in employment? For a medievalist, I think that might be the most worrying question in this episode.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 2/13/2009

Well, Matt, I think there are two answers, and both are money. To wit, I believe Dr Hodges has had trouble getting funding for projects that he wants to do in Europe, Butrint coming after some time `in the wilderness' and a short spell as Director of the British School at Rome, and that lack of support is a problem with British and European funding structures. Also, after as many years in the business as he's had I can imagine Dr Hodges wanting the luxury of a permanent post, of which there are worryingly few in archaeology, as indeed his staff have just found out....

Then, even where posts exist, of course you can get far more money for being a Director than you can for being a Lecturer. I don't usually have much care for academics complaining that their wages are poor compared to their commercial equivalents, because compared to, for example, schoolteachers we're rolling in it (I say 'we': maybe I mean 'you'...). However, it is unquestionable that if an academic can get a job in a commercial sector without dropping a level (and indeed even dropping some; I could earn far more as a technical writer than I do in my current post) he or she can command a far higher salary. So in both directions the answer is `academia doesn't have the money to retain people who can get jobs outside it'. But in this case I think it could have tried harder, and that's a cultural/governmental problem not a financial one.

Matthew Gabriele - 2/12/2009

Nicely put, Jon. Do you have an answer? Does it have less to do with "Medieval Studies" than it has to do with "Archeology"? (But does that make it any less worrisome?)