19 December 2022
Dear Mr. Watteeuw,
I am writing to you today in my capacity as the current President of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA), Europe’s largest society for the study of the archaeology of the period AD 1500 to the present, to express our concerns over the proposed changes to archaeology provision in Ghent.
It is SPMA’s understanding that the proposals entail reducing the city’s archaeology service to two administrative posts. The archaeological projects that would previously have been undertaken by the city’s excellent in-house archaeology team will instead be undertaken by private contractors. The apparent intent behind these proposals is to save money by cutting back on the city’s financial support for in-house full-service archaeology provision by reducing the overall number of archaeology projects and inviting external contractors to undertake those projects that do take place.
While SPMA fully understands the difficult financial pressures currently faced by local governments across Europe (at present we have Council members based in the Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom), I regret that we cannot support these proposals. We believe the proposed changes are a mistake because:
- The overall quality of archaeology provision will decline by breaking the link between in-house local expertise on the city’s heritage and the delivery of archaeology projects.
- By cutting the strong links between the existing archaeology service and the University of Ghent, research outputs on the city’s internationally significant heritage (some of which have previously been published in English in our journal Post-Medieval Archaeology) will be undermined.
- Using external contractors is unlikely to save the projected amount of money as these contractors will be working on a for-profit basis.
- In-house archaeological expertise can play a proactive role in urban planning and development, whereas external contractors can only proceed once a permit has been granted; this proactive in-house expertise can therefore save both time and money.
- The volume of work for the two remaining administrative staff members will be difficult to manage effectively.
These points are particularly important given Ghent’s regional, national, and international importance as an important centre of Flemish, Belgian, and European heritage and culture, as symbolised by the presence of several UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city (the Belfry of Ghent and two of the Flemish Béguinages). There is also a danger that the negative impact of these changes may ultimately threaten the city centre’s place on the UNESCO tentative list and undermine Ghent’s enthusiastic bid to be designated a European City of Culture in 2030.
I would also like to add on a personal note that, writing as a former resident of Belgium, the rich history, heritage, and archaeology of Flanders, the Brussels Capital Region, and Wallonia have had a profound influence on my own career and love of heritage. My childhood visits in the 1970s to the rich historical urban fabric of Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp, the extraordinary setting of the Grote Markt in Brussels, the battlefield of Waterloo, and the citadel of Namur all played an inspirational role in my developing interest in heritage and archaeology. I would therefore be personally saddened to see the city council’s support for archaeology in Ghent scaled back so dramatically.
I therefore hope, writing both on behalf of SPMA and as an individual, that Ghent’s city council will rethink these proposals.
Alasdair Brooks BA MA DPhil