Do we need an Industrial Archaeology?

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Cromford Canal

Cromford Canal. Click for lar­ger image.

It’s easy to take a World Heritage Site for gran­ted when it’s on your door­step. I had thought of shoot­ing a short port­fo­lio of Cromford for a com­pet­i­tion. They required ten pho­tos. After look­ing into the pro­ject I’ve decided that the com­pet­i­tion isn’t going to hap­pen for me, but a short photo essay on Cromford, or pos­sibly the Derwent Valley Mills, remains an inter­est­ing idea.

Industrial Archaeology can get short shrift from other archae­olo­gists. Often there’s writ­ten records, plans and for some places oral accounts of work at a site. Is Archaeology neces­sary? Mark Henshaw, the Archaeology Dude, makes a good argu­ment that Archaeology can draw mul­tiple lines of evid­ence to inform his­tor­ies of the past. I wouldn’t dis­count that, and I think his point, Archaeology isn’t just about dig­ging, is very import­ant from an American per­spect­ive because there Archaeology is seen as a branch of Anthropology. In the UK you’re more likely to see Archaeology paired with History or Classics. So do we really need Industrial Archaeologists when there so many Early Modern Historians.

I think another factor Archaeology brings is spa­tial think­ing. Looking at the early days of the pro­fes­sion­al­isa­tion of Archaeology in Britain, one of the fea­tures is an attempt to dis­tin­guish Archaeology from History by tak­ing on ideas of Geography. People like OGS Crawford were keen to emphas­ise that Archaeology stud­ied human activ­it­ies in space as well as time. Again, in the UK, when Processualism was tak­ing off in the USA, the British aca­dem­ics took inspir­a­tion from it, but also from the ‘New’ Geography.

The Manager's House, Cromford.

The Manager’s House, Cromford.

Applying this prac­tic­ally, it’s easy to say what the pos­i­tion­ing of the Factory Manager’s house, oppos­ite the main gate of Arkwright’s Mill at Cromford, means by its loc­a­tion. There are other more subtle ques­tions though. What did draw­ing a second water chan­nel through the Derwent Valley mean for land use and access­ib­il­ity? Why was Willersley Castle, a grand house that Arkwright built for him­self, placed where it was? How did it relate to the church he built? If you want to know why a mill owner would want to build a church for his work­ers then, as Mark Henshaw says, you have to look at his­tor­ical records too.

You can write a his­tory purely from his­tor­ical records and archives, but if you want to exam­ine the human exper­i­ence, espe­cially of humans that weren’t writ­ing much, then an Industrial Archaeology can yield a richer, more four-dimensional exper­i­ence, than Anthropology or History alone.