Industrial archaeology

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Industrial archaeology, like other branches of archaeology, is the study of material culture from the past, but with a focus on industry. Strictly speaking, industrial archaeology includes sites from the earliest times (such as prehistoric copper mining in the British Peak District) to the most recent (such as coal mining sites in the UK closed in the 1980s). However, since large-scale industrialisation began only in the 18th century it is often understood to relate to that and later periods. Industrial archaeologists aim to record and understand the remains of industrialisation, including the technology, transport and buildings associated with manufacture or raw material production. Their work encompasses traditional archaeology, engineering, architecture, economics and the social history of manufacturing/extractive industry as well as the transport and utilities sector.

The term 'industrial archaeology' was coined in the 1950s in Birmingham, England by Michael Rix (academic) although its meaning and interpretation has changed. Its development as a separate subject was further stimulated by the campaign to save the Euston Arch. Palmer and Neaverson (Industrial Archaeology Principles and Practice, 1998) defined it as: “the systematic study of structures and artefacts as a means of enlarging our understanding of the industrial past.”

Initially practiced largely by amateurs, it was at first looked down upon by professional archaeologists. However, it has now been welcomed into mainstream archaeology. Since the timeframe of study is usually relatively recent, industrial archaeology is often (but not always) able to achieve a more reliable and absolute recording of past behaviour than is possible for the more remote past.

Like other branches of archaeology, industrial archaeology involves painstaking analysis of physical remains, albeit with a strong emphasis on industrial processes. For instance, in studying a medieval lead smelting site, one would want to identify the transport links which brought in the raw lead ore; the place where lead ore was crushed or processed before smelting; the processes and materials used to smelt it; and the places where lead was stored or further processed. An example of an industrial archaeology site is the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, site of the first integrated iron works in North America which dates to the 17th century.

One of the first areas in the UK to be the subject of a systematic study of 'industrial archaeology' was the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, UK. This landscape developed from the 17th century as one of the first industrial landscapes in the world, and by the 18th century had a range of extractive industries as well as extensive iron making, ceramic manufacturing (including porcelain and decorative tiles) and a series of early railways. The significance of the Ironbridge Gorge was recognised in 1986 with its designation as a World Heritage Site, and work by the Ironbridge Archaeology unit over recent years has revealed a great deal about both technological and social developments during the post-medieval period.

Following the pioneering lead of Ironbridge, other areas have been subject to often innovative studies. Recent work in Manchester, UK, by the university field unit have led to new approaches. Sheffield, UK, is one of the world's most intensively studied industrial archaeology localities. Over the last decade a concerted effort by ARCUS and the University of Sheffield has led to Sheffield's 18th and 19th century history as a steel producer being revealed. This has been enabled by a massive series of redevelopments allowing access to the archaeology. Unfortunately the recent recession has seen the demise of ARCUS, Manchester and the Ironbridge unit.

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