Do we need an Industrial Archaeology?

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.

Survey: How do you know you’re doing it right?


Archaeological sur­veys tend to be samples of a site. How do you know you’re doing it right when you can’t see the arte­facts you’ve missed? Couldn’t you be miss­ing large chunks of inform­a­tion because it’s not what you’re expect­ing to see? David Pettigrew guest blogs at The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World,

Theorising Space Archaeology


The future archae­olo­gical site of Spaceport America. Photo (cc) Jared Tarbell

There’s a thought-provoking post on Space Archaeology about how you define the term Space Archaeology. I’ve gen­er­ally just thought of it as the archae­ology of remains asso­ci­ated with space­flight, but I’ve never seen the need to give the defin­i­tion any ser­i­ous thought. It’s a small enough field as it is without draw­ing up bound­ar­ies. Steve Wilson (I assume, the blog is uncred­ited) has given it more thought, and he’s come up with a much more inter­est­ing way of look­ing at it. He sees Space Archaeology as being made up from Aerospace Archaeology (the bit I was think­ing about), Xenoarchaeology (the mater­ial remains of alien civil­isa­tions) and Exoarchaeology (any mater­ial remains that are offworld).

My first reac­tion was does this add any­thing? Adding in Xenoarchaeology is awk­ward as there are no known alien arte­facts. There’s crank mater­ial of ancient astro­nauts and vari­ous forms of SETI which are anthro­po­lo­gical con­cerns and not spe­cific­ally archae­olo­gical. Adding Exoarchaeology only adds fic­tional mater­ial. Things like the archae­ology of ter­ra­form­ing would fit in this cat­egory. As it stands it only adds an archae­ology of things that don’t exist. The dia­gram also excludes Space Heritage and Space Junk, which do exist. As a defin­i­tion, I’m don’t think it helps. However as an ana­lyt­ical tool, I think it could be very clever.

I’ll start with Xenoarchaeology, because that’s the field that’s easi­est to dis­miss as barmy. What’s the evid­ence of palaeo­con­tact? There isn’t any really. But think­ing about how people do Xenoarchaeology, and what would be neces­sary to show the pres­ence of alien mater­ial on earth could be use­ful. Tools developed in this area can then be applied to ‘crash sites’ like Roswell in the dia­gram where Xenoarchaeology and Aerospace Archaeology inter­sect. You won’t learn any­thing about alien civil­isa­tions by study­ing Roswell, but you could learn about how humans react to per­ceived alien vis­it­a­tion. Such research could have helped at Carancas. Likewise a ser­i­ous study of how xenoar­chae­ology is prac­ticed could give genu­inely use­ful insights into the assump­tions in SETI programmes.

Similarly Exoarchaeology poses its own prob­lems when look­ing at inac­cess­ib­il­ity. Thinking about these issues could high­light how the archae­ology of space­flight in orbital space makes demands and chal­lenges that we simply don’t have on the ground. Thinking about it this way Space Heritage and Space Junk could straddle every zone between Exoarchaeology and Space Archaeology. It depends on whether you class the human waste mat­ter on the Moon as part of Aerospace Archaeology or not. I’d include Space Junk / Exogarbology too, because a lot of ter­restrial archae­ology is the study of junk.

While Space Archaeologists might not need bound­ar­ies, draw­ing up defin­i­tions can high­light what makes a field inter­est­ing and also throw some basic assump­tions that need ques­tion­ing. The one that both­ers me is the idea of Xenoarchaeology.

Oddly, it’s not the Xeno bit. I could be pedantic and say archae­ology is the study of the human past through mater­ial remains. Still, the stick­ing with human is a throw­back to the early nine­teenth cen­tury when Man (prefer­ably with a mous­tache and stovepipe hat) was a cre­ation apart from the anim­als. Early palaeo­lithic archae­ology, palae­on­to­logy and prim­ato­logy are sim­ilar enough that it’s look­ing more and more like an arbit­rary dis­tinc­tion about where human ends. It’s the archae­ology bit that troubles me. The study through mater­ial remains when, so far as is known, there are no known mater­ial remains of extra-terrestrial activ­ity near Earth. I think study­ing the human reac­tion to pro­posed alien inter­ven­tions is an inter­est­ing research prob­lem. We study ancient faiths, so why not study mod­ern faiths too? It’s just that archae­ology isn’t always the best way of doing it. Sometimes a bet­ter approach is anthropology.

Thinking about Space Anthropology could have two advant­ages. One is that it recog­nises the inter­est­ing work done by eth­no­graph­ers. Alice Gorman has poin­ted out that indi­gen­ous peoples have a rough enough time as it is get­ting any recog­ni­tion in their sac­ri­fices for space explor­a­tion. Taking American-style four-field anthro­po­logy as a model also points to some other inter­est­ing research top­ics. For example is there any­thing bio­anthro­po­logy could con­trib­ute, and how do bio­anthro­po­lo­gical con­cerns integ­rate with research that is already being done?

I real­ise that by now my response is a bit longer than the ori­ginal post, which was flag­ging up an idea and not inten­ded as a fully formed model of Space Archaeology. Even so I think it’s an inter­est­ing way of think­ing about what archae­olo­gists of space explor­a­tion do. I’d love to see it developed further.

World Archaeoastronomy

Does every­one see the same Moon around the world? Photo (cc) Luz A. Villa

Last week I put up a review of Ed Krupp’s Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings, which was a book about archae­oastro­nomy around the world. Next week or the week after, I hope, it’ll be Anthony Aveni’s People and the Sky, which is a book about the vari­ous uses people had for the sky using vari­ous examples from around the world. I’m also try­ing to get my hands on Giulio Magli’s new book, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy. The sub­title is From Pre-history to Easter Island, which should be a hint that he looks at prac­tices around the world, though he has a twist in the second half of the book. It’s an approach you could all World Archaeoastronomy.

Martin Rundkvist has said about Archaeology that it’s a heav­ily region­al­ised dis­cip­line. His view is that if all Japanese archae­ology dis­ap­peared overnight, that really wouldn’t have much effect on Viking archae­ology. While there may be sim­ilar interests like farm­ing, build­ing and burial, you don’t need to know about Japanese farm­ing to under­stand Viking farm­ing. In fact the dif­fer­ence in food­stuffs means that Japanese agri­cul­tural prac­tice tells you noth­ing of use for Scandinavia. I’d cer­tainly be very wary of a notion of World Archaeology (though I should note that oth­ers would cer­tainly not, like a former uni­ver­sity where I got an MPhil in the sub­ject). I’m not sure what com­mon theme could mean­ing­fully tie Palaeolithic Europe, Mayan Guatemala and Modern Africa without being some­what super­fi­cial. It raises the ques­tion: Does it make sense to pur­sue a World Archaeoastronomy view? Isn’t a book which draw on lunar mark­ings on Palaeolithic bones, the Mayan Calendar and Mursi mark­ing of time going to be equally shal­low? How can you jus­tify tak­ing a global per­spect­ive?
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Creating Prehistory by Adam Stout


I could draw up quite a list of people who won’t like this book. Adam Stout pur­ports to be an unapo­lo­getic relat­iv­ist (more of that later). His his­tory of archae­ology in Britain, mainly in the inter-war period, comes from this pos­i­tion and is allied to his interest in altern­at­ive pasts such as druidry and earth mys­ter­ies. If you think the his­tory of archae­ology is primar­ily a story of how our know­ledge of the past came to be more accur­ate, you’ll struggle with this. If you think the suc­cess of people such as OGS Crawford and Mortimer Wheeler was down to employ­ing sci­entific meth­od­o­logy you’ll struggle with this. If you think the only sane response to mod­ern druids is mock­ery you may struggle with this. I cer­tainly dis­agree with a few of the author’s char­ac­ter­isa­tions of archae­ology. Despite (or even because?) of this it’s a chal­len­ging and enga­ging view of the devel­op­ment of archaeology.


The first point of dif­fer­ence between myself and Stout is a mat­ter of how Political with a cap­ital P archae­ology is. I accept that archae­ology is a polit­ical action, but so is going down to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. I might be reify­ing abstract ideo­lo­gies and rein­for­cing eco­nomic roles in soci­ety, but if I want to cri­tique those ideo­lo­gies and roles, I don’t think I’d start by ana­lys­ing my shop­ping list. Adam Stout starts with an account of writ­ing against the back­drop of the Occupation of Iraq. He states that the cover story for May 2003 ‘PREHISTORIC WAR’ was cash­ing in on the war fever in the USA. It might, but as a counter-example I’ll offer a quote from the intro­duc­tion to Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin’s new book:

A war is raging in the Middle East as you read this intro­duc­tion or, at least, one is immin­ent and the world is on high alert. We can assert this with some cer­tainty, regard­less of the shelf life of this volume, because this con­di­tion has char­ac­ter­ised the region for most of the last 1000 years.

Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin 2008:11

I can’t say Archaeology magazine wasn’t using the war to boost sales. I sus­pect it wasn’t an openly cyn­ical ploy to use the deaths of thou­sands of people as a sales drive. Equally I wouldn’t be sur­prised if someone wanted to put war in a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive but didn’t think about what the upcom­ing event would mean for many people’s lives. It’s hard to say because if you want to pub­lish on war when the USA isn’t either con­tem­plat­ing invad­ing some­where or else actu­ally invad­ing some­where you have a very small win­dow to aim for. One dif­fer­ence between us then is that I think the interest in war reflec­ted pub­lic opin­ion rather than led it. This mat­ters because it shows how Stout works from the pos­i­tion that archae­olo­gists are largely work­ing in the ser­vice of the state. This is point of depar­ture for most of the book, the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical authority.

The first part is most expli­citly about the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical author­ity. It’s fer­tile ground for any­one who wants to find evid­ence of self-congratulation amongst aca­dem­ics. It’s the strongest sec­tion of the book because it’s most clearly here that Stout mar­shalls the evid­ence to demon­strate his point. He’s able to draw on let­ters from vari­ous prot­ag­on­ists to show that polit­ical mach­in­a­tions were a major part of the aca­demic archae­olo­gical pro­gramme of the the 1920s and 1930s. I was fas­cin­ated to see how a group of motiv­ated people effect­ively col­lab­or­ated to take the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia and take it for their own use as a national soci­ety. Yet while Stout is mak­ing a point, it doesn’t come across as axe-grinding.

The second part is, for me the least sat­is­fy­ing of the four. It tackles a fight against dif­fu­sion­ism as propsed by anthro­po­lo­gists. Again the hand­ling of the polit­ics is very good, but I’m not sure how well it squares with the con­tent. Stout’s argu­ment is that archae­olo­gists were eager to show inex­or­able pro­gress to the mod­ern era, and that dif­fu­sion­ism was a threat to this. In the case of someone like Childe, I’d argue that dif­fu­sion was the means by which pro­gress occured.

The third sec­tion is a case study of Stonehenge. If you’ve wondered where the mod­ern Druids came from and how they decided to claim Stonehenge, then this is essen­tial read­ing. Once again the polit­ics are covered well, as are some of the beliefs of the 20th cen­tury Druids.

The fourth sec­tion is about The Old Straight Track and the chal­lenge from other inter­pret­a­tions of the past and the chal­lenge to archae­ology. It provides some inter­est­ing examples of how unwanted inter­pret­a­tions could be neutered and the emphasis of archae­ology as some­thing voca­tional. Stout hints at the chal­lenge being in part that ley-hunters were con­tex­tu­al­ising sites into their place within the wider land­scape and fact-obsessed archae­ology was less the­or­ised at this time. It is fair com­ment, though I doubt it would be pop­u­lar amongst many archaeologists.

My biggest con­cern with most of the sec­tions is that the con­flict is seen as polit­ical rather than fac­tual. Possibly for reas­ons of space there’s little exam­in­a­tion of the archae­olo­gical con­tent. In the case of ley-hunting, to what extent was the stat­ist­ical like­li­hood of leys occur­ring known at the time The Old Straight Track was pub­lished? What were the archae­olo­gical objec­tions? The second sec­tion in par­tic­u­lar would have bene­fit­ted more from a dis­cus­sion of the con­tent as well as the context.

Another con­cern is that Stout never goes bey­ond pre­his­tory. To some extent this is cri­ti­cising him for not writ­ing a book which he didn’t intend to write, after all the title is Creating Prehistory. At the same time the reader could come away with the impres­sion that archae­ology in Britain was almost entirely the archae­ology of pre­his­toric Britain. Romans are occa­sion­ally men­tioned, but the effects of Roman or Medieval archae­ology on the devel­op­ment of pre­his­toric archae­ology aren’t really tackled.

This may be where the dif­fer­ence between his relat­iv­ist pos­i­tion and my own mat­ters. He sees his­tory and archae­ology as a mat­ter of telling stor­ies. Even if this is the case, stor­ies have forms. The Iliad is not going to be rendered into a lim­er­ick. Similarly sci­entific explan­a­tions have forms, and there is no real tack­ling of meth­od­o­logy or the­ory in Stout’s book. If you think coher­ence to real­ity played a part, even if it not the sole part, then there’s a big hole in the his­tory. It can­not be dis­missed simply as a mat­ter of incom­men­sur­able epi­stem­o­lo­gies as Stout him­self shows.

Stout argues that bet­ter is not neces­sar­ily more accur­ate, using the example of Maiden Castle. On page 235 he uses Niall Sharples’ account of Maiden castle to show how Wheeler was cap­able of spin­ning his own tales based on his own pre­ju­dices. This I agree with, but I would also ask how we can accept Sharples’ explan­a­tion as more cor­rect. The answer lies in the meth­od­o­logy of archae­ology which has developed, in part from Wheeler’s own work. The method Wheeler used gave some of the tools to under­mine his work. In con­trast I don’t see that pos­sib­il­ity from Iolo Morgawg’s work. Even if sci­ence were only story, it’s clearly a dif­fer­ent sort of story.

Another mat­ter I’d like to see Stout explore would be the devel­op­ment of archae­ology as an anti-religious sci­ence. Archaeology as Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin (2008:20n1) say tends to shy away from reli­gion. Certainly archae­olo­gists are happy to dia­gnose any­thing they can’t under­stand as being ‘ritual’, but once it’s in that box study is often closed. They put this down to sci­ence and reli­gion being com­pet­it­ors in claims for dis­cern­ing truth in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. In chapter nine The Esoteric Revival Stout attrib­utes the neg­at­ive view many of the inter-war archae­olo­gists had towards early reli­gion as being due to their athe­ism. Perhaps more could be made of the con­flict between sci­ence and reli­gion at the time, and hence the ant­ag­on­ism to the reli­gious claims of con­tem­por­ary druids, which then fed back into views about the past.

Nonetheless while it’s clear that I don’t agree with some of Stout’s con­clu­sions I still think there’s much to like about the book. For a start it’s read­able. It’s clear that he’s writ­ten the book because he wants to be under­stood and make a dif­fer­ence rather than pad out a CV. It’s also well-argued. I might not agree with the argu­ments, but it’s not a mat­ter of pluck­ing ideas from the air. Stout clearly has done the read­ing, got the ref­er­ences and uses them to back up his claims. Hence while it is pos­sible to dis­agree with him, it’s not a good idea to simply dis­miss his work. It’s also a genu­inely novel piece of work. There are many books which take to a greater or less extent the whole of the his­tory of archae­ology as their sub­ject. Quite a few a clearly attempts to pro­duce the­ory text­books in a very dull way. In con­trast the more focussed approach Stout takes enables him to look more closely the pro­cesses that cre­ated aca­demic archae­ology. If any­thing I’d like to see an tighter focus still. There are the seeds of four inter­est­ing books on the devel­op­ment of archae­ology. Most import­antly it’s the least telel­o­gical his­tory of archae­ology I’ve read. Many his­tor­ies of archae­ology could be sub­titled How did we get to the won­der­ful state we’re in today?. This book in con­trast is focussed on the inter-war years rather than the even­tual out­come. This puts him smartly out of step with any­one who mis­takenly believes his­tory of archae­ology is a branch of archae­ology rather than his­tory of science.

It’s not the one book you need if you’re study­ing the his­tory of archae­ology in the UK, but it is per­haps the one book you need to read as a com­pan­ion to a his­tory of archaeology.

See also:
Whiteley, D.S. and Hays-Gilpin, K. 2008 ‘Religions bey­ond Icon, Burial and Monument: An Introduction’, Belief in the Past: Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion. eds. D.S.Whiteley and K.Hays-Gilpin, Left Coast Press:California, 11–22.
Find it at WorldCat or LibraryThing.

Indiana Jones and the Post-Processual Archaeologists


Everyone else is link­ing to the trailer, so I’ll link to a paper from The Norwegian Archaeological Review, ‘Why Indiana Jones is Smarter Than the Post-Processualists’ by John Bintliff.

The most remark­able fea­ture of this latest con­fer­ence was the way in which speaker after speaker, British and Continental, dis­played a total dis­reg­ard for affil­i­ation to ‘Processualist’ or ‘Post-Processualist’ fac­tions, and deployed an eclectic atti­tude to the vari­ous object­iv­ist and sub­ject­iv­ist approaches debated over in the last 20 years. Yet equally con­sist­ently, this mer­ger of formerly oppos­i­tional tra­di­tions within a new prag­mat­ics of prac­tice, saw the speaker ground­ing his or her feet on evid­ence, an archae­olo­gical record, test­abil­ity.

It dates from 1993, but has stood up well. The per­sist­ence of pro­ces­sual and post-processual camps in archae­ology and earn­est dis­cus­sion of them says much more about the social rela­tion­ships between archae­olo­gists than it does about the past.

I need to read more Wittgenstein.

Postmodern scepticism


How do you get a hun­dred people in tin foil hats to queue out­side your door? Easy — you stick a sign like this one outside.

Ufology sign
Made with txt2pic

I men­tion this because Bing McGandhi has asked what a Skeptical Humanities Journal would look like. He ima­gines it as a journal against post­mod­ern­ism — except that wouldn’t work for a few reas­ons, three of them being attrib­utes three, four and five of a New Theory. I’ll dig them out so you don’t have to traipse back to the ori­ginal post.

  1. Whatever it is you’re study­ing will provide the per­fect example of the bold insights that New Theory can bring to a topic.
  2. Any praise of another New Theorist’s work is also praise of your work as it recog­nises the import­ance of New Theory.
  3. Any cri­ti­cism of another New Theorist’s work does not apply to your work as your work will be sig­ni­fic­antly dif­fer­ent in at least three import­ant aspects, and the cri­ti­cism does not recog­nise the vibrant diversity of New Theory.
  4. Any fail­ure of New Theory to solve any ques­tions people were ask­ing before its arrival simply illus­trates that people were ask­ing the wrong questions.
  5. Old Theory is the product of the polit­ical pre­ju­dices of the time. Awkward ques­tions from Old Theorists can there­fore be dis­missed. The same would apply to New Theory, were it not for the fact that New Theory is far too new to be cri­tiqued in the same way.

I can sym­path­ise with Bing, a lot of self-consciously post­mod­ern writ­ing hits these fea­tures head-on. The prob­lem I have is that I’ve also read some awful wannabe-science papers which do exactly the same. In archae­ology there are some good papers on com­plex­ity, but at the same time there are some aston­ish­ingly bad papers too. A new cliché which is catch­ing on is that an indi­vidual is a fractal of soci­ety. It’s an appeal to homo­lo­gies from the math­em­at­ics of com­plex­ity and dis­cov­er­ies in phys­ics. It’s very pro-science and pro-modernity. It’s only flaw is that it’s utter rub­bish which actu­ally removes mean­ing from what it being said. If you dis­agree read the pre­vi­ous link, or give me the Hausdorff dimen­sion of the Church of England.

The exist­ence of bad post­mod­ern­ists isn’t an argu­ment against post­mod­ern­ism any more than some awful meme paper­backs are argu­ments against social evol­u­tion. Postmodernism, being the main­stream since the 1980s has been the safe choice for bad aca­dem­ics. As fash­ion changes and agency or memet­ics become pop­u­lar then these growth areas will attract light­weight schol­ars of their own and we’ll have some really atro­cious papers based on other ideas to look for­ward to.

I’m actu­ally quite com­fort­able with a lot of ideas which are post­mod­ern­ist. I simply have grave doubts about whether post­mod­ern­ism, as a philo­soph­ic­ally mean­ing­ful term, exists. It helps if you think about what post­mod­ern­ism is and Bing is spot on when he says a lot of self-proclaimed post­mod­ern­ists really don’t want to do that. Indeed if you hold to point 3 it’s impossible, or is it? I think post­mod­ern­ists are like lions.
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