From Belgium: Urban archaeology, the pioneer now in peril

Ewoud Deschepper & Johan Hoorne

Forum Vlaamse Archeologie (Association for Archaeology in Flanders)

In 1973, the city of Ghent founded its own urban archaeological service. It was the first city in Belgium to do so. Since then, the service has built up unrivalled and internationally-recognised expertise in terms of both urban archaeology in general and of the archaeology and history of Ghent and its boroughs in particular. Important achievements include the construction of an atlas of medieval stone architecture in Ghent, multiple publications on the city’s history, and the carrying out of large-scale archaeological research related to the urban renewal of Ghent’s historic centre. These projects transformed our understanding of Ghent’s history and of its central importance during the medieval period in the context of northwest Europe. The medieval County of Flanders (of which Ghent was a part since the principality’s earliest history) is known for an urban network the density of which is only rivalled by northern Italy. During the later Middle Ages, the city was known as the second largest agglomeration north of the Alps, after Paris. These facts are representative of the paramount position of Ghent in medieval history, not only that of modern-day Belgium, but also of Europe.

Besides carrying out archaeological fieldwork within the historical city and its modern boroughs, the urban archaeological service performs several other essential functions. It acts as a centre of expertise for other city services and departments, scholars and private archaeological contractors working in Ghent. Because of this network, the service plays an essential role in communications between private actors, government bodies and civil society organisations, such as universities and local heritage groups. The service also communicates its findings to the public through exhibitions, guided tours, lectures and publications. In so doing, the service has built up broad support for archaeology among the citizens of Ghent. As such, Ghent’s urban archaeological service occupies a key position in the study and dissemination of archaeological research. In 2023, the service was to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

However, on the last day of November 2022, news came out that the city council planned to transform the service into a purely administrative body. This was framed as part of a larger round of budget cuts, aimed at saving the city 21 million euro. Yet, the amount projected to be saved by the transformation of the service totals only up to € 220,000 after considering extra subsidies by the Flemish Government. The council believes that outsourcing fieldwork to private archaeological contractors will result in lower costs. However, experts and the private sector have both refuted this idea. Furthermore, the city plans to become a credited heritage municipality. This involves the delegation of a significant workload of administrative tasks (e.g., the administrative follow-up of the archaeological trajectory) from the Flemish Government to the city.

As part of the service’s transformation, three out of five current archaeologists will be ‘reoriented’ to other departments. The remaining two will no longer carry out trial studies or excavations, nor will they analyse and communicate findings to the wider scientific community or – even more importantly – to the wider public, including the citizens of Ghent. Their job will now only involve the administration of the credited heritage municipality. When questioned, the city council did not answer how they envision the service to carry out more work with less archaeologists.

This news came as a real bombshell. Apart from the personal impact, which involves the reorientation of archaeologists to functions for which they are not trained, the council’s decision also has huge practical and scientific impacts. Together, the three archaeologists to be reoriented represent decades of local expertise on the city’s archaeology, history, and immovable heritage. This expertise will be lost forever. Anyone that has the slightest notion of the reality of archaeological research understands that this sort of personal experience, developed over years of fieldwork, is essential. What Ghent’s city council is doing is equivalent to throwing away all its archives; it is an attack on its own shared heritage. It also plants a time-bomb under the foundations of Ghent’s cultural future. Indeed, the dissolution of the scientific component – embodied in these three archaeologists and in the transformation of the archaeological service into an administrative body – will result in the loss of any coordinated and integrated vision regarding archaeological research in the city and its boroughs. In terms of heritage management and urban planning, one of the service’s strongpoints was exactly its embeddedness within the wider organisational structure of the city’s administration. This allowed the proactive follow-up of upcoming projects and the wide-ranging communication of archaeological knowledge to Ghentians as well as to the 3 million tourists that visit Ghent each year. Without this service to take up the coordinating role, each archaeological excavation risks becoming just another piece of a jigsaw puzzle, without anyone available and able to integrate it properly into a whole.

Figure 1. Flanders’s heritage sector marches united against the dissolution of urban archaeology in Ghent © Dieter Jehs.

Opponents of these austere measures mobilised quickly. Local and regional interest groups, university professors and the previous director of service published open letters and opinion pieces in which the arguments of the city council were refuted (e.g., Laleman 2022). Two demonstrations were organised, the second of which – a march on city hall – drew over 200 supporters. See Figure 1. This was also the first time that the archaeological sector in Flanders marched united against government plans. An online petition drew over 2000 signatures in less than ten days. Nevertheless, all these efforts fell upon deaf ears. Just before Christmas 2022, the budget cut was officialised by the city council. No golden jubilee for Ghent’s archaeology.

The dissolution of Ghent’s urban archaeology speaks to the city council’s stark repudiation of its own heritage. This is not a one-time event. It is part of a wider problem both in Ghent, Belgium, and abroad. In 2021, (art) historians and archaeologists had already been pleading with Ghent’s city council to build up a qualitative, coherent, participatory, and sustained vision on the city’s heritage (Dumolyn et al. 2021). In Flanders, the urban archaeology services in the cities of Ypres, Mechelen and Leuven had already been dismantled completely. Interestingly, Leuven became a credited heritage agency and decided to — again – build up its own urban archaeological service. The future of unique archaeological remains such as the medieval cog of Doel, discovered during the construction of a new dock in Antwerp’s port, remains uncertain (Vermeersch 2022).

More than 120 heritage professionals have already raised the alarm regarding the lack of investment in archaeological and heritage research in Belgium’s Walloon region (RTBF Opinion 2022). These are not isolated incidents. In the UK, the renowned Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield was dissolved in 2021 (Collis 2022). In Norway, the unique Viking ship collections of the University of Oslo were put at risk due to similar administrative short-sightedness (luckily, the Viking ships were saved thanks to massive public outrage; see Amundsen & Pedersen 2022).

While this all might seem disheartening, the more than 2000 signatures and 720 reactions to the petition to save Ghent’s urban archaeology show that archaeologists and other heritage professionals are not alone in their struggle against those that do not understand or appreciate the importance and value of historical research and preservation in their broadest sense. Every year, the Archeologiedagen (The Flemish version of the European Archaeology Days) draw larger crowds – 15,000 in 2021 (Archeologiedagen n.d.). The wider public has a broad and shared interest in archaeology and heritage. This, of course, is scant comfort for the three archaeologists that will be sacked in Ghent. Nevertheless, it should hearten every professional that fights for the support of cultural heritage, history, and archaeology. Let it strengthen our convictions to keep up the fight, and let this perseverant attitude be the ‘heritage’ of Ghent’s urban archaeological service!


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