EnglishBritain’s heritage sector vulnerable to Brexit

Amy Hetherington27 novembre 20188 min

Archaeologists in the UK fear an inhospitable climate could drive skilled EU workers away, at a time when they are more in demand than ever. 

Since the referendum in 2016, concerns over the future of the NHS, economy, and business have dominated Brexit discussions. Meanwhile the effects of Brexit on the heritage sector, a significant and cherished part of British culture, have been overlooked by both politicians and the public. This is a worrying oversight, particularly for the archaeological sector which has made a considerable impact on British identity and played a vital role in the construction industry.

British origins

Our past shapes us, as the well-worn phrase goes, and archaeological studies have formed Britons’ perception of their past and national identity. Different cultures have conquered, or, been conquered by, the British throughout history, resulting in an assortment of customs and traditions seeping into British culture. Many British cities stand on the remains of old Roman towns; the modern English language has its roots in Anglo-Saxon English; and the Normans built many of the castles, cathedrals and monasteries still standing in Britain today.

Furthermore, many people are interested in studying their origins. According to the British Museum’s annual report 5.8 million people visited the museum in 2017/18 and, at its height, popular television show Time Team was pulling in 3-3.5 million viewers each episode. For the public, it seems, archaeology is one of the most popular ways of understanding their past.

A job vacuum

Many British people are concerned Brexit will force skilled EU workers, such as those in the NHS, to leave the country, creating a job vacuum that cannot be filled by British workers alone. The archaeological sector is equally vulnerable to this. According to a 2017 survey carried out by Landward Research, 15 per cent of the British archaeological workforce is made up of archaeologists from other EU countries. Now March 29 is in sight, more and more of these archaeologists are moving out of Britain and back into Europe.

Jeremy Mordue, a senior archaeologist at Headland Archaeology, said: “On my site, about 75 per cent of the workforce is from overseas, most of them from other EU member countries. Since the Brexit vote, I think many of them no longer feel welcome in Britain and are moving away as a result. With a decreased workforce, archaeological projects will take longer to complete and be more expensive.”

This reduced workforce has coincided with a high demand for archaeologists in the construction industry since archaeological survey became a required element for all construction projects 25 years ago. The construction industry is booming, and there are not enough British archaeologists to complete all the work.

MHI Neolithic henge Brexit Britain Archeology
Neolithic henge monument being excavated on the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon scheme.

Archaeologists are concerned that fewer European experts will travel to work in Britain. Due to the peripatetic nature of archaeology, professional archaeologists frequently move around the world to sites where their skills are required. But now Britain has become more isolationist, there are fears foreign experts will not come to work on British sites, and British archaeologists will lose out on specialist skills and knowledge that is otherwise unavailable.

Though the government has set up plans for future migrants and current foreign residents in Britain these conditions are not favourable for archaeologists. EU workers wishing to enter the country will likely need to prove they have a permanent job contract, they are a highly skilled worker, and have a suitably high income. Few archaeologists have permanent job contracts, most last only a few months and rarely more than a year, and though often well-educated and highly skilled, archaeologists are poorly paid with most in supervisory roles earning approximately £19,000-£21,000 (€21,400 – €24,000) per annum.

Daniele Pirisino, a project officer at Headland Archaeology who moved from Italy to Britain five years ago, said: “I think a lot of younger archaeologists who do not have degrees or have foreign degrees will move back. This will have the biggest impact on large-scale projects such as HS2.”


The government has described projects such as HS2 – a High Speed railway line linking London to key northern British cities – as essential for improved connections and services across Britain, but archaeologists are forgotten despite being a vital element on these construction projects. Without archaeologists, these projects cannot take place, and the industry will come to a standstill. Is it any wonder then, that Brexit is unpopular in the archaeological community ?

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Amy Hetherington

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