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Industrial archaeology: a thematic or a period discipline?

  • Marilyn Palmer (a1)

A thematic or a period discipline?

Industrial archaeology has generally been defined as a thematic discipline, concerned with only one aspect of man’s past activity. Although the term ‘archaeology of industry’ was used in the 19th century, it was Michael Rix who used the phrase ‘industrial archaeology’ in print for the first time (Rix 1955). He later defined industrial archaeology as ‘recording, preserving in selected cases and interpreting the sites and structures of early industrial activity, particularly the monuments of the Industrial Revolution’ (Rix 1967: 5). The emphasis on the term ‘industrial monument’ followed a need to define an industrial class of Ancient Monument so that some examples would be scheduled. Industrial archaeology, then, grew from the need to record and preserve standing structures threatened with demolition rather than an inherent desire to understand more about the historical period of the monuments. It was perhaps felt that understanding of the industrial revolution period was more readily arrived at by other means, particularly written historical evidence. During the ‘rescue’ years of the 1960s and 1970s, archaeology was one of the two areas of fastest university expansion and very popular in extra-mural teaching. But none of the archaeology departments took up industrial archaeology, although many of the extra-mural departments did; it is largely as a part-time, amateur interest that industrial archaeology has flourished ever since. The author’s post as an industrial archaeologist in the Leicester archaeology department is one of the first occasions on which the specialism has been given a place in full-time undergraduate archaeology courses.

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If industrial archaeology is defined by its industrial subject-matter, then is it a theme within archaeology that runs back to prehistoric flint-mines and metal workshops? Or it is to be defined by period, as the archaeology of the industrial society that follows post-medieval? And, if it is concerned with documented history and standing structures, is it archaeology at all?

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
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