Friday, December 28, 2012

Industrial archaeology and workplace archaeology

I have, through no desire of my own, been doing industrial archaeology—working on the foundations of an early 20th-century gold-mining facility in a state park, but it could be any industrial site.
"Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana."
Lewis Hine 1908, Wikimedia Commons

The bulk of this project is traditional industrial archaeology, which is to say trying to reconstruct the various stages of the process by tying together historical documents (maps, flowcharts, etc.) with the current physical remains (a multi-tiered concrete foundation with footings and pads for machinery and plant). I am finding it interesting, in spite of myself, but it isn’t very satisfying.  Ideally I’d like to be able to push it a bit, going beyond considering the  facility solely as the outcome of engineering decisions about efficiency and process to treating it as a place of work and a livelihood for the people who spent most of their day there.  Call it Workplace Archaeology.

Recently a lot of archaeologists working on industrial sites have been thinking the same thing, trying to engage industrial archaeology with the anthropological and social-historical concerns of the broader discipline.  There has been some archaeological work on Workplace Archaeology.  Paul Shackel’s (2000) work at the Harper’s Ferry Armory is an early example.  Michael Nassaney and Marjorie Abel’s (2009) study of the residue of cutlery production is another. More recently Lucy Taksa (2005) analyzed the Eveleigh Railroad Shops in Sydney, Australia, from the perspective of workers’ resistance.  There have also have been a lot of thoughtful programmatic statements (e.g., Casella 2005; Symonds 2005), but we always tend to end up at the same place.  We can’t actually get at workers as workers

Usually industrial sites speak to us only of management. The place of work remains the place of technological and economic efficiency, the domain of the capitalist.  We can only really see the workers when they are in their homes (if they are fortunate enough to have a home).  This is simply the way the archaeological record is for the later 19th century.  Home is not a place of production for most workers.  It is, as far as the male factory worker goes, a place of consumption.1  We see workers in the archaeological record, not as producers, but as consumers.  

Unless you have some exceptional deposits or remains, that is pretty much where you are stuck.  Nothing in the material remains of the site I am working speaks of the workers.  The documentary record was better, especially now that now many government records are have been digitized and are searchable.  I was able to identify some of the workers and catch snapshots of them every ten years through census records.  I gained a much better sense of the workforce after this—who they were, their backgrounds, and what became of them.  What I learned was actually not what I expected, which makes it worthwhile. 

But did I learn this through “archaeology”?  No.  The straight archaeological remains from the site really are just about technology and engineering layout.  I can’t see anyway around that.  But who cares?  It’s not a game.  With any industrial site, you need to get the workers in there by hook or by crook.  You can’t just cut the historical research off at the technology and design of the industrial feature. 

If the only people we talk about at industrial sites are managers and capitalists, and we only talk about the workers as consumers, we are reproducing some insidious political narratives.

1The house is the workplace of his wife, and we need to start considering it in those terms—as a the site for the production and reproduction of the family, but that is another topic.  Even then there is little from this angle.  The household is still treated as a site of consumption. 

References cited

Casella, Eleanor Conlin
2005 “Social Workers”: New Directions in Industrial Archaeology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by Eleanor Conlin Casella and James Symonds, 3–31. 1st ed. Springer, New York, NY.

Nassaney, Michael S., and Marjorie R. Abel
1993 The Political and Social Contexts of Cutlery Production in the Connecticut Valley. Dialectical Anthropology 18(3-4): 247–289.

Shackel, Paul A.
2000 Archaeology and Created Memory: Public History in a National Park. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publisherd, New York.

Symonds, James
2005 Experiencing Industry: Beyond Machines and The History of Technology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by Eleanor Conlin Casella and James Symonds, 33–57. 1st ed. Springer, New York, NY.

Taksa, Lucy
2005 The Material Culture of an Industrial Artifact: Interpreting Control, Defiance, and Everyday Resistance at the New South Wales Eveleigh Railway Workshops. Historical Archaeology 39(3): 8–27.