Session 6 – Industrial Archaeology

Cranes at Bristol Docks

A towering example of industrial archaeology, but not all examples are so monumental.

This week we looked at how Industrial Archaeology can shape our understanding of the development of the city and it’s people. The key topics covered in the lecture were as follows:

a)      Industrial Archaeology is highly variable in nature depending on the nature of the industry which has existed in the area of study and the period during which this industry has been active.

b)      Industrial Archaeology can be difficult to interpret without sources which give us insights into how industrial sites functioned.

c)       Industrial Archaeology is a history not just of buildings and machines but of entire communities.

The class began with a discussion of the origins of industrial archaeology in the 1950’s the term is thought to have been coined by Donald Dudley, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham (Hudson 1963:11). Originally the term seemed implicitly to relate to the increasingly abandoned industrial architecture which was left over from the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries and which at this point was beginning in many cases to fall into major decay. This narrow definition of the term has now largely been abandoned in favour of a definition which encompasses a wider range of industrial or pre-industrial activities relating to commerce and industry

We then went on to discuss the different types of evidence which we can employ in order to research industrial archaeology. In the first place we have the material remains, sometimes this is all that survives, this is particularly true of smaller scale or very ancient sites like the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. In the second place we have historical evidence, this can of course be very ancient (such as documentary evidence relating to the functioning of a Roman Harbour) but the volume of available material increases as we get closer to the present. In the case of very recent industrial sites we are often able to acquire sources such as oral histories.

Recovering an Industrial Past

The first example of industrial archaeology we looked at was the Roman Harbour complex at Portus (find out more here: This is a fascinating archaeological example in the sense that it is ancient (construction beginning in the 1st Century AD and habitation continuing into the medieval) but it also fulfils many of the characteristics of an industrial site. Portus is also a good example of a site which is very rich in material evidence (we have no shortage of buildings or artefacts!) but from which we have very few reliable first-hand accounts. We are attempting to piece together the history of a site and its people through the study of the material which they left behind.

In the case of Portus this presents us with some incredible insights; we are able to see the mooring posts around the edges of the harbour and see the baths which some of the residents or officials may have spent their leisure time. However, we are left with many elementary questions relating to matters of such significance as where the population of workers required for a harbour of this scale might have lived. These problems are compounded by the fact that the site was in use as a harbour for more than 600 years. It is easy to imagine that Roman sites had a single purpose and a short life but think about how many changes the 600 year old buildings we use have gone through and you will begin to get a sense of how complex these buildings can be to study.

We use all of the methods at our disposal in order to carefully document our excavations at a site like this. Excavation is expensive and time consuming and it is essential that we record everything which we uncover in as great detail as we can. Consequently we use cutting edge technologies such as laser scanning as well as traditional forms of archaeological excavation to ensure that we document the excavation as it proceeds.

Documenting Industrial History

Many of the challenges of this kind of archaeology can be alleviated through documenting our industrial history while it is still within living memory. Techniques such as the recording of oral histories can provide archives which future generations will rely upon to interpret buildings and communities which are second nature to us.

Consider for example the changes which have taken place across the British landscape as a result of the collapse of extractive industries such as coal and tin mining. Landscapes in places like the English midlands, South Wales and Cornwall have been permanently altered, no longer looking at all as they did even 40 years ago. With these changes have also come changes in communities with the immediate memory of these extractive industries gradually being lost as people move away and older generations die.

Several projects have sought to document this history, either through the preservation of architecture or through the preservation of other sources such as the oral histories of those who worked in the industries.

Technique of the Week: Oral History

There are many ways to study the industrial past. Most of the techniques already covered including the consultation of archives, online collections and even the study of churches can tell us a great deal about industrial sites and the communities which surrounded them. The technique which we covered this week was Oral History. Oral histories allow us to capture testimonies from people who often don’t feature in conventional historical records. They can provide a rich and insightful picture of life and events in the past.

Oral histories can be subjective and contradictory, based as they are upon the memories of individual people. However, taken as a collection they can provide a reliable and unique source of data. Furthermore, and equally importantly, they provide a sense of how the people who were there felt about the subject you are studying.

Further Reading

Documentation of recent industrial history is extremely easy to begin with a great deal of advice available to potential researchers. Below are some links which may be useful:

Oral History

The Oral History Society provide advice on how to begin your oral history project. They also provide hosting for a small fee

The British Library Sound Archives contain oral histories on many subjects. Many of the best examples of speakers talking about industrial life can be found in the accents and dialects collection

The British Library also recommend many excellent sources of Oral Histories here:

Industrial Archaeology

The UK Association for Industrial Archaeology – lots of good advice on carrying out industrial archaeology projects. The Association also issue a number of grants which can be applied for annually –

Hampshire Industrial Archaeology Society – an active society that holds regular meetings. They also have a journal to which industrial archaeology projects of local significance can be submitted –

Further Reading

Palmer, M., Nevell, M. and Sissons, M. (2012) Industrial Archaeology: A Handbook. Council for British Archaeology

Hudson, K. (1963) Industrial Archaeology London: John Baker