A major change in human evolution

The phrase “industrial archaeology” is 50 years old. Technology? Social relations? The world since the industrial revolution, or industry since the first stone tool? Michael Nevell considers the nature of an increasingly popular branch of archaeology.

darbysIt is 50 years since the term industrial archaeology was first used in a modern sense. This was in a 1955 article entitled Industrial archaeology, in The Amateur Historian, by Michael Rix, then teaching with the Workers Educational Association at Birmingham University.

Today roughly 30% of all professional archaeology done in Britain examines archaeological deposits that include material from the industrial period (however that is defined). Yet in recent years industrial archaeology as a term has been seen as just one of many bewildering descriptions of the era of industrialisation, from post-medieval and historical archaeology to later historical archaeology and the archaeology of the late second millennium AD. The Post-Medieval Archaeology Society publishes articles on 19th century pottery kilns whilst Industrial Archaeology Review prints articles on the social archaeology of 18th century market towns.

So what has happened to “industrial archaeology”? Has it run its course as a useful term or is it emerging as a coherent period discipline ready to take its place alongside medieval and prehistoric archaeologies? In order to understand its current role and future potential we need briefly to review how it has developed.

Amateur and professional museum-based archaeologists quickly adopted the term industrial archaeology in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Council for British Archaeology set up an industrial archaeology research committee in 1959 – the world’s first. The first national journal was founded in 1964 supported by the Newcomen Society, although the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) was not created until 1973.

gidlowFrom the very beginning the term industrial archaeology was applied to the physical remains of the Industrial Revolution, although there was, and continues to be, a recognition that the industrial archaeology of the manufacturing process applies as much to neolithic stone axe quarries as to steam engine production. The early decades of the discipline were spent arguing as to which of these two intellectual strands would predominate. However, the decline of many of the classic 18th and 19th century industries in mid-20th century, and the growing recognition of the historic value of textile mills, iron works, and transport networks, led to a general acceptance that industrial archaeology meant the archaeology of the industrial revolution.

During the 1980s the study of industrial archaeology in Britain diverged from that in North America. There, a strong tradition of social archaeology was applied to the study of society during the 18th and 19th centuries under the broad heading of historical archaeology. In contrast, British industrial archaeology remained focused on manufacturing processes, although the discipline was far from stagnant. For during this decade there was a significant shift towards the thematic studies of monument types. This was led by the various royal commissions and key figures such as Keith Falconer, and initially resulted in the founding of three textile mill surveys in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, and eastern Cheshire. This thematic approach remains one of the key ways of studying industrial period monuments. Over the years it has been applied to planned farmsteads, hospitals and warehouses.

By the early 1990s much industrial archaeology research still leant towards studies of the mechanics, or physical character, of individual industries or structures – what we might term a techno-centric approach, with a consequent lack of synthesis. This trend amongst British archaeologists was understandable given the volume of the available archaeological database and the historical record. Yet, as the AIA observed in 1991, and English Heritage again in 1997, this trend meant that the contribution of archaeologists to the debate on the validity and origins of the Industrial Revolution as a concept had not been as great as it should have been.

In particular there was a lack of discussion about one of the key features of industrialisation: the rapid shift from a rural to an urban-based society with a consequent change in working and living patterns. As the 1990s progressed this began to be addressed by a more theoretical approach. Initially, this was led by historical and post-medieval archaeologists, creating a split between the study of the archaeology of consumption (post-medieval archaeology) and the archaeology of production (industrial archaeology) – the issue of urbanisation was not discussed. By the end of the 1990s Charles Orser, in reviewing the progress of historic archaeology in Britain and America, could argue that post-medieval archaeology was now part of a wider historical archaeology which itself had become centred upon four main concepts: a global view, an emphasis upon past social relations, the study of social relationships across space and through time, and a willingness to comment upon today by drawing from the recent past.

As far as the industrial archaeologist is concerned, however, such concepts seemed to avoid the crucial issues of why and how industrialisation occurred. Was it a regional, national, or international phenomenon? Was it represented by a rise in mass production and a rapid growth in urbanism? These research questions were directly addressed in 1998 in Marilyn Palmer and Peter Neaverson’s academic study Industrial Archaeology: Principles & Practice, which set out an intellectual and methodological framework for the discipline. This focused firmly on the industrial transition and the changes that the process wrought on society, the landscape and above all the archaeological record.

workshopSince 1998 a new generation of industrial archaeologists has started to reclaim the debate as its own, by attempting to reunite the two sides of this argument. In particular Garry Campion on domestic working, Shane Gould on industrial period buildings, David Gwyn on the issue of landownership, Colin Rynne on urbanisation and Jim Symonds on the social context of industry, have put the role played by industrialisation and its landscape and social consequences at the heart of their research. In part this has been spurred by the revival of urban excavations, particularly on “brownfield” sites in cities such as Birmingham, London, Manchester and Sheffield. In many cases these sites included both the remains of manufacturing processes and workers’ housing from the 18th and 19th centuries.

This fresh approach is characterised by an ability to develop new methodologies, or to adapt and use existing models and methods from other branches of archaeology, without compromising the traditional emphasis on the detailed recording and analysis of manufacturing industry. Yet the theme of industrialisation is not exclusively concerned with changes in technology and consumption. Important also are the new social relations of the period as expressed through buildings and the use of space, landscape change both in the countryside and through urbanisation, and the control and ownership (two different things) of monuments and landscapes and how these might reflect the movement of capital.

This new way of looking at industrial archaeology is rooted in the survey and excavation techniques of British archaeology. It thus emphasises the primary nature of archaeological evidence drawn from monument types and material culture, whilst relating these back to the contemporary documentary, photographic and oral evidence: the production, consumption and urbanisation aspects of post-1500 archaeology in Britain are reunited. This is an archaeological concept of industrialisation which is not chronologically constrained, but is culturally specific, and can thus be applied to any industrialising society around the world. It is what we might call the “archaeology of the industrial period”. A summary of these methodological and theoretical approaches, and some of the more specific research topics related to the theme of industrialisation, were published in the summer of 2005 as part of the AIA’s research agenda, under the title Understanding the Workplace: a Research Framework for Industrial Archaeology in Britain [to be reviewed in the next issue].

Industrial archaeologists can now demonstrate a great change in both the material culture remains and the range of monument and landscape types associated with the industrial transition from the early 18th century onwards. Furthermore, industrial archaeologists now have a range of methodologies and theories which allow them to chart and explain the different rates of change in specific localities and regions across Britain.

These changes reflect the industrialisation process – the switch from a rural, agrarian-based culture to an urban, manufacturing-based society. The transition ranks as one of the major changes in human evolution alongside the development of language, agriculture and urbanism. It is a process still working its way around the globe, and can currently be seen in operation in China and India. The landscape and social processes involved in this transition demand a coherent period approach from archaeologists, and are best articulated by those archaeologists dealing directly with these issues: in other words, the industrial archaeologist. We may ultimately come to see both post-medieval archaeology and industrial archaeology as distinctive stages within the emerging concept of global historical archaeology. Yet industrial archaeology is a period discipline within its own right, with its own methodologies, theoretical framework and research agenda. Those who deny this are denying the centrality of industrialisation in Britain, and around the globe, as a social and landscape-changing force over the last 300 years.

Michael Nevell is director of the University of Manchester Archaeology Unit and a Council Member of the AIA.

This article is reproduced from British Archaeology, No 86 by kind permission of the Editor and of the author.

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