Twelve University of Kentucky employees will lose their jobs— and the state will lose numerous archaeological resources— amid a restructuring of the Department of Anthropology.
Under a plan announced by the College of Arts and Sciences, UK will eliminate the Kentucky Archaeological Survey and the Program for Archaeological Research, which work on numerous public and private archeological projects around the state. Those programs are currently under the anthropology department’s William S. Webb Museum, which houses archaeological collections and artifacts at a building on Export Street.
The affected employees — seven full-time and five part-time — were informed last week of the changes by Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh.
“We have a hard time understanding why he’s doing this and he’s never been able to give us an explanation that is sufficient,” said David Pollack, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. Most of the salaries are funded through outside contracts and grants, Pollack said.
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The survey program primarily works with non-profits and private landowners to protect archaeological sites and educate the public about Kentucky’s archaeological heritage. The Program for Archeological Research works more with state agencies and private companies and developers on excavation, analysis, and technical studies required for projects, such as construction or new roads.
Kornbluh is currently out of the country and unavailable for comment. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said an external review of the anthropology department recommended that university stop doing contract archaeological work that can be done by private firms and that the university take steps to better maintain its archaeological collection at the university.
To that end, UK has ended the programs and will use those resources to hire two new faculty members. One, a bio-archeologist, will be tasked with maintaining the collection, in addition to teaching and research. The other faculty member will be hired to teach and research on African-American archaeology in Kentucky.
George Crothers, the museum director, will continue to operate the Office of State Archaeology, which maintains the official archaeological site records for the state and issues permits for archaeological excavations or the collection of artifacts on land owned or leased by the commonwealth.
UK officials declined to release a copy of the external review under the state’s open records law, saying it was “preliminary” and exempt from disclosure. Blanton said the reorganization has been discussed for several years.
“These moves are in no way a criticism of the work, but a way to better align with the mission of research and educating students,” Blanton said. “We think hiring additional faculty will allow us to enhance educational services.”
Undergraduate students can still major in anthropology, which includes archaeology as a sub-field. Blanton said the department will also hire an education director to do community outreach.
Lisa Cliggett, chairwoman of the anthropology department, said the new hires will expand archaeology faculty from six to eight, which “better positions us to conduct vibrant, publicly engaged archaeological training and research,” she said. “The reorganization of the archaeology units was not a money saving endeavor — it was an alignment with research and teaching.”
However, the moves will hurt non-profits that have depended on the survey, said Eric Brooks, curator of the Ashland Estate in Lexington. Employees of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey have worked at Ashland for 20 years, excavating numerous important finds, such as the gasworks and the remains of slave quarters.
“They have provided us with material to interpret and expand our interpretation of the slave story, which is incredibly important,” Brooks said. “There is no question that what we know about Ashland has been greatly expanded by the work they have done and continue to do.”
It’s true that private companies do similar work, Brooks said, “but if we had to pay a for-profit company to do all the things that have been done, the overwhelming majority would not have been done.”
The Kentucky Archaeological Survey works in partnership with the Kentucky Heritage Council.
“We are in discussions with the University of Kentucky during this transition as the college determines the future direction of the Department of Anthropology, and we hope the great work of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey will continue,” said Craig Potts, Kentucky Heritage Council executive director and state historic preservation officer.
David Morgan, former chief state preservation officer, helped found the Kentucky Archaeological Survey 20 years ago with archaeology professor Tom Dillehay, a world-famous archaeologist who left UK for Vanderbilt in 2004.
“We put it together as a vehicle to provide affordable archaeological services to non-profits and communities, and to provide students opportunities to work on projects,” Morgan said. “It’s really about outreach, archaeology is not cheap in the private sector.”
The program has often opened its digs to K-12 students at places like the Jack Jouett House in Woodford County or Portland Wharf in Louisville. It has also worked on digs at Eastern State Hospital, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and at numerous distilleries. It won a national award for its work in Davis Bottom, a traditionally black neighborhood in Lexington that was redeveloped in recent years.
Morgan said he was shocked because UK didn’t appear to have gotten any public input into the plan to eliminate an important part of its land-grant mission. UK President Eli Capilouto frequently refers to UK as the University FOR Kentucky.
“It didn’t even cost UK much money,” he said. “The people had to generate their own salaries.”
Blanton said typically a department’s review and reorganization is not open to public input. The anthropology department is still committed to the land-grant mission of UK, and “the recent organizational changes allow us to better develop faculty-driven public engagement as part of that historic mission.”
Janie-Rice Brother, an architectural historian for the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, said there have been discussions about the reorganization, but the final decision came unexpectedly. The survey works with numerous UK students who want field experience in archaeology on sites around the state.
“I wish we’d have the chance to make our case for the value of the services we provide to the university and to the larger public,” she said.
Ashland’s Brooks said if a university like UK won’t provide archaeological services, “it’s going to create all kinds of problems.
“This is a true loss for the state, (these programs) have provided a lot of really important work in a variety of capacities.”