FOR more than 54 years it has unveiled Southampton’s illustrious Roman, Saxon and mediaeval past.

But the city council archaeology unit now faces becoming consigned to history.

Council bosses want to axe it because they say it lost the city £128,000 last year and is forecasted to lose £65,000 this year.

This comes as the council needs to slash £20m from its budget next year.

For council leisure boss Warwick Payne, it all boils down to hard cash: “If the archaeological team was even close to turning a profit there is no way this saving would put forward. Unfortunately it’s not even close.”

So the council now plans to bring in outside archaeological services when required instead.

But heritage bodies are fuming. Diana Friendship-Taylor, chairman of The British Archaeological Trust, said: “If Southampton is serious about its aspirations to become an international city of culture, which places great emphasis on the city’s internationally unique heritage resource, then the closure of the unit and the loss of local expertise is very much a backward step.”

The city’s archaeology unit can trace its origins back to the first appointment of a professional archaeologist in 1958.

Mrs Friendship-Taylor added: “The current staff of the unit have amassed a wealth of expertise on the history and archaeology of Southampton that is unparalleled and is irreplaceable.

“The proposed closure of the unit would be a significant loss to the people of Southampton, and to those developers who seek knowledge and expertise for the efficient investigation of archaeological remains within the city.

“There will also be a knock-on effect for the management of the city’s council’s large portfolio of legally protected ancient monuments as this function is also carried out by the archaeology unit.”

Arthur Jeffrey, acting chairman of the City of Southampton Society, said he understood that the council coffers were under strain but said the city’s heritage would suffer without its own team of archaeologists.

He said: “Things will crumble literally.

There would be wear and tear that the city council cannot maintain.

“I just hope this is closed for the short term and in open again in the long term.”

Eric Payne Danson, Southampton Tourist Guides Association general secretary, said: “What happens when rare and valuable treasures like Above Bar are allowed to decline without upkeep, until they can no longer be conserved?

“We have the Bargate which is probably the most important gateway of its type, in the whole of England, with the exception of York. The list of rare or unique things that Southampton has to offer goes on and on.”

The council’s nine-strong archaeology team, which provides briefings to developers and excavations of sensitive sites to ensure no archaeology is damaged during construction work, face redundancy. And a monthly meeting of the city’s young archaeology club, which has 15 m e m b e r s , and is run by the archaeology team, could now fold.

Most recently the archaeology unit has helped bring to life the city’s history at the new £15m SeaCity Museum and has overseen a restoration of the city’s 15th century Tudor House, now reopened as a popular visitor attraction.

The council is considering all its cuts proposals up until February when the city budget is set.