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.
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.