It is a cold frosty morning in February in the closing years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Four well-wrapped figures are working hard at the frozen ground, digging trenches through the clay. Elsewhere others are creating roads and earthworks. The land they are all working on has recently been acquired by an entrepreneurial developer keen to profit from the rapidly shifting shapes of an emerging new world. This is a world characterised by investment in overseas enterprise, ongoing international conflict over religion and resources, and the ever-present tension between core and periphery in European society. Such matters may seem far from the blistered hands and frozen feet of the workers hacking at the clay. But only one of them is local. The others have arrived seeking better prospects or fleeing from religious persecution elsewhere. And they are helping to build a new centre for a rapidly developing technology that will be crucial in the development of a new England and a new world.
The place is Wednesbury, in the heart of the West Midlands. The date could be 1597 or 2007. In the 16th century a water-powered forge was built here; it was first mentioned in the documentary record in 1597 as the result of a legal dispute. The forge was built by a man whose father obtained land during the dissolution of the monasteries. The dissolution saw the greatest ever transfer of property in English history, and set changes in motion which eventually led to the industrial revolution and the development of a consumer society. The first English colony in Virginia had been established a decade earlier; ten years later the settlement at Jamestown would begin the process of invasion, clearance and ‘civilisation’ which would lead to the creation of modern America. During the 17th and 18th centuries our forge at Wednesbury made guns and other weapons; during the 18th and 19th centuries it also made tools for cutting and digging – axes, scythes, hoes and spades. The new empire was built and defended with goods from Wednesbury Forge. In the 19th century the owner built a church, a sports club and housing for his workers; he also connected his expanding factory to the new railway network. Wooden water wheels were replaced by steam engines and high-speed turbines.
Despite these investments the world moved on. A Great War cut down a generation in the fields of Flanders. Recession. Fascism. Another war to end all wars. Gradually the apron strings of Empire were severed. The forge was bought by a major national manufacturer. Within a generation this company had been taken over by an international conglomerate and the spectre of rationalisation loomed. Cheaper products could be made in Eastern Europe, India and China. Twentieth-century consumers – like their forebears in the 16th century – discriminated mainly on price rather than quality. The site was acquired for redevelopment and, finally, after more than 400 years, the forge closed down. A new industrial estate will be created, the sort of place where computer software will be developed and service industry workers will be trained; there will also be a new hotel and playing fields for the local school. So here we are on our frosty morning in February. A gang of Romanians are stripping the site of anything burnable – shelves, patterns, drawings of tools, records of production – and piling it high on the funeral pyre of English industry. A small team of archaeologists work in the shadow of the encroaching development, carefully extracting the story of the forge from the clay subsoil into which its first timbers were laid (Fig 7.1).
This paper is an inevitably personal view of the archaeology of the last few hundred years. Between the 16th and 21st centuries the world has changed radically, despite the outward similarities in the two scenes at Wednesbury. It has also produced a lot of ‘stuff ’. This ‘stuff ’ consists of both the material culture (artefacts, buildings, documents and so- on) with which archaeologists are so familiar, and also a non-material culture – a much more evanescent but essential component of everyday life incorporating sounds, smells, emotions and ideas. No historical or archaeological period has as much resonance in our lives today. Moreover, the overwhelming extent of the evidence makes a conventional audit and analysis of the resource impossible to achieve even with a generous word allowance from the editors. Consequently, unlike the other chapters in this volume there is no ‘resource assessment’ per se. Instead, this chapter provides an overview of the historical and theoretical development of the discipline itself, an analysis of some of the themes that have emerged from archaeological study hitherto, and discussion of how we might deal in practical terms with this superabundance of ‘stuff ’.
The title of this chapter comes from a discussion between David Barker and myself in 2004. We had co-organised the period seminars in Coalbrookdale and Stoke-on-Trent, and had been discussing ways in which we could present the archaeology of the region’s period in a coherent ‘framework’. We were returning by train from an event in Nottingham organised by the Association for Industrial Archaeology in an attempt to develop a national framework of their own. We were critiquing the event, and also attempting to define what was significant and interesting about the archaeology of the last 500 years for our own region. Before the train had reached Derby (where engineering work forced us to decant to separate buses) the interconnectedness of so many themes had forced the conclusion – in David’s words – that we were talking about ‘the archaeology of everything’. Attempting to order ‘everything’ into a neat list of archaeological priorities is akin to herding cats or Border Terriers.
The original brief for the framework seminars was to look at two periods. These were ‘Post-medieval’, covering the period from c 1500 to c 1750; and ‘Industrial’ which took the period c 1750 to c 1900. This was felt to be an artificial and somewhat old-fashioned subdivision of a single period which in fact contained considerable continuity. The conventional starting point is essentially the dissolution, although this episode was an English material reflection of wider European reformation which had been in progress for more than a hundred years. There was also concern about the cut-off date of c 1900, which seemed to imply that archaeology had nothing to contribute to our understanding of the post-Victorian period. Yet archaeological analysis of the region’s 20th-century industries began a generation ago with the late Michael Stratton’s work on car factories and electricity and this has been followed by extensive work on subjects as wide-ranging as the Defence of Britain during the Second World War and the archaeology of 1960s tenement houses (Collins and Stratton 1993; Stratton 1994; Stratton and Trinder 2000; Denison 2002; Belford and Ross 2004). In the last five years there has been the exciting development and maturation of the discipline of ‘contemporary archaeology’, and a growing acceptance of the value of the archaeology of the very recent past (Buchli and Lucas 2001; Bradley et al 2004; Lamb 2004). The study of ‘contemporary archaeology’ in the UK context has become a significant interface between the disciplines of archaeology, ethnography, anthropology and sociology. Therefore for this volume the three periods have been brought together and the period consequently covers, give or take a generation here or there, the five centuries before today.
The debate about what we actually call the period and/or its constituent parts is still ongoing. The terms ‘post-medieval’, ‘industrial’ and ‘contemporary’ are all used in the title of this paper, and all have different meanings to different archaeologists. This is partly a result of the origins of the different elements of the discipline which the terms represent. There is arguably a dichotomy between the middle-class, humanities-based origins of ‘post-medieval archaeology’ and the working-class, science- and engineering- based approaches of ‘industrial archaeology’. This has sometimes polarised the discipline and diverted energies away from cooperation in understanding the archaeology itself (Cranstone 2004). Many see value in the term ‘post-medieval’, but choose to ignore (or subvert) the expression by the founders of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology that the period ends at ‘the onset of industrialisation’ (Anon 1967, 2). Indeed the Society itself has recently produced volumes entitled The Archaeology of Industrialization and Cities in the World 1500-2000, which explicitly accept a broader timespan for the ‘post- medieval’ period (Barker and Cranstone 2004; Green and Leech 2006). Defining a period by what it is not (post-medieval – not medieval, but what?) does raise issues for some. However, it is wrong to suggest, as Susie West did in 1999, that post-medieval archaeology is the last refuge of ‘traditionalist archaeology’, operating as an empirical data-gathering exercise without theoretical rigour (West 1999, 6-7).
Outlining the scope of ‘industrial archaeology’ is also fraught with difficulty, and meetings of the Association for Industrial Archaeology have grappled with this subject. Certainly the subject has moved a long way from the days when one of its founding fathers, Kenneth Hudson, could state that ‘the very point of Industrial Archaeology…[is]…to provide facts about the history of industry and technology’ (1967, 9). Instead, its most innovative practitioners prefer to explore ‘social transformations…power relations, new systems of control and the creation of a work ethic’ (Gould 1999, 153). Marilyn Palmer has written of the ‘long pre-history of industrialisation’ which preceded the industrial revolution, and has acknowledged that industrialisation was ‘one of the key developments in the post-medieval British economy and society’ (2004, 1). So ‘industrial archaeology’ is today generally acknowledged as a subset of ‘post-medieval archaeology’, but with a specific focus on the issues surrounding the process of industrialisation (Palmer and Neaverson 1998; Fig 7.2). Like post-medieval archaeology, it has in the past been an easy target for those who accuse it of having ‘neglected almost all theory’ and focused on steam engines and mills (Grant 1987, 118). This situation has certainly changed in recent years, with theoretically informed studies being produced by industrial archaeologists such as James Symonds (2002) and Michael Nevell. The publication of papers from the 2004 conference referred to above has been a helpful step forward in articulating some of the issues concerned (Gwyn and Palmer 2005).
These home–grown approaches to the study of the recent past are part of a much wider global study of ‘historical archaeology’ (Andren 1998; Hall and Silliman 2006). Outside Europe there is less of a problem in identifying a starting point, for the term ‘historical archaeology’ is usually synonymous with the period following European contact. In North America the discipline was quick to advance beyond empirical approaches and developed a comprehensive armoury of theoretical weapons. Some colleagues have looked rather enviously across the Atlantic and bemoaned the academic marginalisation of the discipline here; however, their attempts to apply American approaches to UK situations have not always been wholly successful. Others have noted the shortcomings for British archaeology in some of the key tenets of traditional American historical archaeology, witness the widespread backlash in the 1990s against James Deetz’s influential ‘Georgian Order’ theory (Deetz 1977; Hall 1992; Courtney 1996). It has recently been said that American practitioners ‘often do not know much about historical archaeology outside of north America’ (although there are many notable exceptions), and for some the use of the term ‘historical archaeology’ in a UK context has been regarded as a form of US cultural imperialism (Hall and Silliman 2006, 6; Mark Horton, pers comm). There is clearly a need to continue developing our own set of models and theories, yet it is evident that in studying a period which created the modern globalised society, we can only do justice to the study of our own region with reference to the wider world and to its understanding of the same period and the events and processes within it.
The seemingly semantic debate over what the period is called is critical, since it is at the heart of our identity within the broader church of archaeological enquiry. David Cranstone has tentatively suggested a name for our subject might be the ‘archaeology of the later second millennium’ (Cranstone 2004). The arbitrariness of starting in the year 1500 is attractive, as is the all-encompassing nature of the phrase which advocates doing away with studies of industry, consumption and landscape (and all the rest) as separate sub-disciplines. The unwieldiness of the phrase is the main disadvantage, together with its implicit Euro-centricity. Agreement amongst colleagues specialising in the period is not readily forthcoming, and I have my own personal unease about the use of the terms ‘industrial archaeology’ (for the implied narrowness of the field) and ‘historical archaeology’ (for its inappropriateness as a period descriptor in a European context, when much medieval, Roman and even Iron Age archaeology also uses contemporaneous written sources). Consequently, in the rest of this chapter, the term ‘post-medieval’ will be used to describe the period from c 1500 to the present day.
It is clear that there are a number of issues around the construction of an archaeological research framework. One of the reasons for developing the framework in the first place has been to try and come to terms with the vast quantity of data emerging from PPG16- led archaeology. However, there is still a tendency amongst some archaeologists to dismiss the ‘overburden’ of later deposits in the quest for the remains of earlier periods (Lawrence 2006, 308). Malcolm Atkin has suggested that some colleagues are under the ‘impression that post-medieval archaeology is less important than earlier periods’ (Atkin 2003, 1). This situation is more acute for the post-medieval period than for prehistoric or Roman periods, although the urban archaeology of the medieval period has also suffered (Hunt, this volume). Part of the problem is a failure of communication between the three branches of the archaeological profession – academics, contractors and curators. Richard Bradley’s recent survey of prehistoric archaeology has shown that archaeological contractors are actually very much in the vanguard of research, particularly when they have developed a localised or subject-specialised interest (Bradley 2006). This is very true for the post-medieval period, as we shall see later. Another issue is the question of geographical cohesion, as John Hunt has already mentioned in his chapter on the medieval period. The West Midlands region, as defined by this volume, has never been a coherent cultural entity. It also excludes the vital communication nodes of Gloucester and the Mersey Basin, through which most of the industrial output of the conurbations, the Severn hinterland and north Staffordshire (coal, iron, steel, pottery, porcelain, textiles and so-on) was directed.
Colleagues constructing frameworks for the post-medieval period elsewhere in the country have had mixed approaches. Yorkshire stands at one extreme, where little space in the published volume was devoted to the last 500 years, notwithstanding the significance in that time frame of (for example) the port of Hull, Sheffield’s steel and cutlery trades, and the West Riding textile industries. At the other end of the scale the contributors to the north-west framework used the opportunity to promote Manchester as the ‘epicentre’ of industrialisation (McNeil and Newman 2006a and b). In the north- east, north-west and south-west, large amounts have been written under the heading ‘Resource Assessment’, with the implication that fieldwork has already identified the full nature, extent and character of the resource. Only in the north-east has the archaeology of the 20th century been given equal consideration to that of other periods (Petts and Gerrard 2006). The approach of the London research framework is more refreshing in this regard –four out of the total of 120 pages comprises the resource assessment (Museum of London 2002). Like Simon Esmonde Cleary (this volume), I would argue that the creation of a traditional resource assessment would simply echo the ‘history of the development of the specialisms’ within the discipline of archaeology and do little to develop a framework for future understanding. In terms of the pace and extent of social, cultural and technological change, the last 500 years are probably equivalent to dealing with the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods in one synthetic whole.
Transition pervades the entire period. Sometimes this was a gradual transition, such as the gently rolling snowball of industrialisation. At other times transition occurred sharply, even violently, through processes of reformation and revolution. The archaeology of this period deals with transition at every level, from the dissolution of the monasteries to the closure of Longbridge. In many places and situations there are several overlapping transitions going on at the same time. All of these different layers of change impacted upon people in different ways, and will have different manifestations in the archaeological record. They will also resonate most powerfully with present–day consumers of archaeology – ourselves, our clients and our public – who ultimately this is all for and for whom we need to start telling stories.
It has been successfully argued that the archaeology of this period is to an extent the ‘archaeology of capitalism’ (Leone 1995; Johnson 1996; Leone and Potter 1998). Matthew Johnson employed a broad definition of the term, which included notions such as the increasing privatisation of social space, as well as conventional material activities such as trade and the consumption of artefacts. Post-medieval archaeology has traditionally been very good at identifying where and how goods were produced and consumed, and in more recent years has begun to use artefacts to tell more complex stories about the people who used them. We have been less successful in trying to understand some of the more subtle and shifting nuances of meaning that have been created in our sites, buildings and landscapes by the ever-developing processes of capitalism. Johnson and others have used the term ‘commodification’, by which the notion of capitalism ‘embraces other concepts such as privacy, individualism and sentiment’ (Johnson 1996, 87-90; Tarlow 1999, 265). The development of capitalism was already underway when the dissolution of the monasteries created new patterns of asset ownership from the 16th century. This in turn provoked widespread and ongoing adjustment of social structures and power relations. Everything in the new post-medieval age had its social, cultural and economic price and the continual (re)negotiation of value is one of the key drivers of the development of the modern world.
One of the most obvious manifestations of capitalism was the process of industrialisation, which occurred very early in our region. Mining, pottery manufacture, iron- and glass-making had been steadily colonising the wastes, those helpful interstices between civilised and ordered towns and fields, since the 13th century. As the grip of traditional asset-holders (monasteries and aristocrats) began to slacken, capitalist entrepreneurs seized more opportunities to make money by making things. In 15th-century Rugeley, Ralph Wolseley put money into industrial plant for brewing and dyeing; by the mid 16th century the enterprising Robert Brooke had begun substantial capital investment to create Coalbrookdale’s industrial landscape (Welch 2001; Belford and Ross in prep). From this followed the massive industrial expansion of the 17th and 18th centuries, characterised by increasing mechanisation and mass production. The creation of these sorts of capital-intensive production infrastructures required the construction of new physical landscapes and mental adjustment to new (and continually adjusting) power relations between men, women and children. Enclosure of all sorts of spaces was a particularly post-medieval phenomenon and formed part of this process of commodification and alienation (Johnson 2007). As well as the phenomenon of agricultural enclosure, there was also re-colonisation of ‘marginal’ land, improvement of meadow systems and increasingly sophisticated woodland management (Welch 2000; Stamper 2003; Gledhill 2004). Landscapes of industrial production and transportation created new types of buildings and structures, and new hierarchies of relations between them. In urban spaces the same processes were evident, from the increasing partition and subdivision of existing townscapes to the regularised expansion of suburbs from the 17th century onwards.
Closely linked with the development of industrialised capitalism was the creation of a consumer society; money was made by mass-producing objects for sale – from iron bars to chocolate bars. Increasing consumption of ‘stuff ’ can be seen as a marker of modernity and individuality (Johnson 1996). However, consumption studies have traditionally had art-historical origins rather than archaeological ones and have therefore tended to focus on groups and individuals from well-documented sections of society (Courtney 1996; Johnson 2007). The archaeology of consumption can be studied at all levels – from the appropriation of medieval landscape features by wealthy landowners, to the use of pub tokens by urban workers. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of post-medieval archaeology is its ability to look at sections of society traditionally marginalised by (the absence of) documentary records. Archaeology in the West Midlands has the potential to challenge, for example, the traditional perception of urban (or London or European) core and rural (or provincial or colonial) periphery. Consumption of food, for example, was not undertaken in a cultural vacuum, but was informed by prevailing social conditions and resulted in the acquisition, modification and use of an array of metal, glass and ceramic artefacts. In spite of mass production, many of these items were imbued with particular personal and social meanings, as studies on both sides of the Atlantic have shown (Yentsch 1991; Pennell 1999). It is important not to separate production and consumption – the workers in the ironworks or pottery kilns were also consumers, and stories about identity and social networks can be teased out of both manufacturing and domestic sites. Changes in the consumption of space are also significant, not only ‘private’ domestic space but also ‘public’ spaces such as streets, railway carriages, art galleries and brothels.
The increasing crescendo of consumerism was assisted by the development of trade, transport and communication links. Improved navigability of rivers and the development of canal, railway and road networks resulted from the need to move raw materials and finished goods around (Quartermaine et al 2003; Trinder 2005). Improved communication also increased the consumption of ideas – ideas about God, governance and the way the world was (and could be) put together. Not only was a new world being manufactured at home, but the New World abroad was being ‘discovered’, mapped and colonised. The colonial experience for existing and new inhabitants of these places – from 17th-century Ireland to 20th-century Australia has been extensively studied from a variety of viewpoints and in all of these places we find the consumer products of the industrial capitalism of the West Midlands (Egan and Michael 1999; Barker 2003; Given 2004; Horning 2006). However, the means by which many of these goods appeared at home and abroad – the role of Birmingham munitions in the slave trade, for example, or the role of slaves in the tobacco trade which sustained the clay pipe makers – have often been overlooked (Higgins 1999; Hicks 2003; Johnson 2006). Furthermore the existence of the New World had impacts on European and English society, both in terms of ideas (the rise of European nation-states can be seen as a response to the ‘other’ represented by colonial experience, for example) and material remains. Hence the lavish houses built on the proceeds of slavery, and also the sometimes fiercely resisted processes of enclosure and improvement (itself a form of colonialism). There is tremendous scope to examine patterns of migration and notions of identity and ethnicity through material culture. Such studies will not simply illuminate the processes of globalisation in the past but may also provide assistance as we struggle with some of its effects in the present.
This rather superficial analysis suggests that the leitmotif of transition can be broken down into four broad and over-arching thematic groups which are characteristic of the development of human society in the West Midlands over the last 500 years. These are:
Of course it will always be difficult to directly relate these groups to the daily experience of confronting a ‘mid-grey-brown silty clay’ deposit, extracting its fragments of pot, tile and slag, and trying to understand its stratigraphic relationship with neighbouring layers of grey-brown mud. (Although of course archaeologists themselves are physically enacting all of these themes, with developer-funding, machine-assisted trial trenching, tea-drinking, bacon butties from the local greasy spoon and cheap Chinese-made waterproofs). Very rarely will a single artefact or feature speak so eloquently and directly of capitalism, industry and global consumption as the ones illustrated here, although some of these topics should be emerging at the level of an individual site or assemblage (Fig 7.3 and 7.4).
Present within all of these four main thematic groups is a number of subjects which will more readily manifest themselves in the archaeological record, or at least in our interpretation of it. These are very much interconnecting and overlapping; thus an archaeology of conflict may also be present in a gender-based archaeology of the home; or it might equally be evident in an investigation of scientific developments in the workplace. These themes include (but are by no means restricted to) the following areas, which have been arranged in alphabetical order.
The subject of battlefield archaeology has matured significantly in recent years, with practitioners such as John Carman moving the subject away from its close association with military history and placing it within a broader archaeological discourse. By emphasising the significance of place (rather than the event), Carman and others have sought to make a ‘distinctive archaeological contribution to…debates about…war itself ’ (Carman and Carman 2001, 280). However, the area of conflict archaeology in the post-medieval period is potentially much wider. It should encompass the changing functional and symbolic roles of the medieval castle, the creation of new types of fortification to meet the changing nature of gunfire, the development of arms and munitions and the social and industrial ramifications, 19th- and 20th-century developments and the archaeology of the Cold War (Johnson 2002; Saunders 2002; Brown et al 2006). It should also concern itself with non-military forms of conflict. Thus we should be exploring the way in which industrial space was constructed, archaeologies of civil unrest at times of economic hardship, political agitation, trade unionism, overt and covert forms of industrial resistance (from the Levellers to Red Robbo), suffragettes and civil rights, peace demonstrators, anti-road protestors and the Countryside Alliance (Ludlow Collective 2001; Schofield et al 2002).
The archaeology of death is certainly a well-established field in prehistoric, Roman and medieval archaeology, and is also developing into a serious part of post-medieval archaeology. Several large assemblages of post-medieval human skeletal remains have been examined, and probably the most significant regionally is the work done by Birmingham Archaeology at the Bullring site (Brickley et al 2006). Such analysis is not only important for understanding populations in the broad sense, but is also able to determine pathologies of disease, injury and disability during life. For the 19th century there is considerable potential to look at individual biographies and see how the stresses of work and life impacted on people’s bodies. There is also the archaeology of commemoration, understanding the social role played by acts of burial and remembrance. Detailed analysis of gravestones and coffin furniture, for example, has proved particularly fruitful in elucidating social attitudes amongst the living (Mytum 2002 and 2006). Analysis of the interplay between identity and ethnicity within and between groups is also possible; Quakers, Methodists, Jews and Muslims all have different practices of burial and commemoration that are manifest in the archaeological record.
There was a transformation in domestic life during this period; the main trends in the use of space evincing increasing density, privatisation of space and regularisation of form. The creation, use and modification of the built environment is the result of prevailing cultural modes and it has been clearly shown that an archaeological study of housing can provide a ‘route into the mentality of people who lived in the past’ (Leech 2006, 302). The evolution of housing forms does show considerable localised variation and retention of vernacular elements continued well into the 19th century. Studies elsewhere have shown that an investigation of this process can illuminate the extent to which this was the conscious (re)creation of identities (Leech 1981; Leech 1996; Guillery and Herman 1999; Burton and Guillery 2006; Figs 7.5 and 7.6). Infilling of existing urban spaces and expansion to create new suburbs, as well as the creation of specifically industrial forms of housing, all redefined the notion of home. Company housing schemes often had an explicit agenda of control and domination, although this was frequently subverted; the same may be true of later local authority schemes. It is certainly possible to investigate the changing dynamics of households (and within them gender, class and other forms of personal and group identity) through exploring the ways in which interior space and material culture were given meaning, as projects elsewhere have shown (Shackel 1996; Beaudry and Mrozowski 2001; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 2004). Research excavations in the region, for example at Coalbrookdale and Stoke-on-Trent, have shown how assemblages of domestic material culture demonstrate the continuity of regional networks, links and identities well into the 20th century (Belford and Ross 2004; Barker 2003). Further work of this nature needs to be made a more frequent part of developer-funded projects.
This is a substantial topic, bound up with intangible notions of ideas and ideology. At an individual level it is possible to reconstruct notions of personal identity by developing, for example, an archaeology of gender. Gender study in archaeology is now beginning to mature away from an overtly feminist agenda which sought to explore heterosexual male/female tensions, to a more sophisticated and nuanced approach which also examines homosexual, transgendered and transsexual identities (Spector 1993; Casella 2000; Schofield and Anderton 2000; Voss 2006). There is also scope to develop archaeologies of masculinity, childhood and old age. A number of studies concerning ideas of class or group identity have been extremely influential. Work on the industrial complex of Boott Mills, for example, has demonstrated that a working–class identity was developed through differential use of clay pipes, costume jewellery and alcohol; and that this behaviour was identifiable in the archaeological record (Beaudry and Mrozowski 2001). In Shropshire, excavation of a 1930s Tartan linoleum floor covering in workers’ housing prompted questions about identity – did it form a conscious manifestation of Scottish cultural heritage, or was it simply the cheapest offcut available at the time? (Belford and Ross in prep). At the other end of the social scale, it has been shown that post-medieval rebuilding of castles and monastic sites represented appropriation of a medieval past to give substance to modern identities. This has been demonstrated by Pete Brown’s ongoing investigations at Whittington Castle (Shropshire); and also by recent work at Chesterton (Warwickshire) which suggests the deliberate creation of a house and landscape setting to make a complex ideological statement during the turbulent mid 17th century (Brown et al 2006; Paul Everson, pers comm; Bowden 2003). Widening further still we can look at cultural identities shaped by religion, belief, membership and geography. There is almost certainly a ‘border identity’ along the Welsh Marches, for example, which provokes consideration of ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ identities; the region has a contribution to make to the archaeology of Britishness and its components. There is also the legendary dichotomy between Birmingham and the Black Country, as well as numerous other local rivalries. How old these identities are, and how they rank in significance to different people at different times, are some of the questions post-medieval archaeology can begin to answer.
The archaeological recording of industrial production sites has been ongoing for the last fifty years. However, it is only in the last decade that we have moved beyond the recording of process to the beginnings of an understanding of the social ‘world of the workshop’ (Belford 2006). Intentions behind the design of workspaces were often to divide, subjugate and observe the workforce to ensure that their time spent at work was time spent working. The use of courtyards as defensible and controllable spaces was widespread in many industries (Belford 2004b). However, workers were able to overcome these intentions, and detailed archaeological investigation of place and material culture – notably in the new world – has been able to illuminate these processes of resistance and subversion (Shackel 1996; Beaudry and Mrozowski 2001; Fig 7.7). It is important to remember that factories were not the only workplaces. In the West Midlands, where industrialisation happened at such an early stage, the scale of operations was often smaller and less proscriptive than it was in the Manchester mills and Sheffield steelworks. The quasi-independent social worlds of the chain- and nail-making industries of Worcestershire and the Black Country were typical. The role and social position of itinerant labourers, such as 16th-century potters, 18th- and 19th-century navvies (or 21st-century archaeologists and Romanian demolition workers for that matter) is also worthy of further investigation.
The development of an industrialised society brought about clear demarcation between ‘work’ and ‘other’ time, and a formalisation of leisure pursuits (Fig 7.7). At least, such is the conventional historical wisdom, although it is evident that using time at work for leisure activities has a long and noteworthy tradition – from sly games of cribbage on the workshop bench to surfing the net in the manager’s office. Outside the workplace, the archaeology of sex is a particularly interesting theme, bound up with notions of sexuality, gender and identity explored above. The recovery of a 17th-century condom from excavations at Dudley Castle, for example, is a rare example of the survival of material culture directly associated with sex as leisure; other items such as sex toys and masturbation aids have been found in prehistoric contexts and are known from documentary sources, but remain hitherto unidentified in the region’s post-medieval material culture (Gaimster et al 1996; Taylor 1996). Archaeological investigation of the full range of more formalised leisure pursuits is becoming more widely accepted, and the study of football grounds, theatres, cinemas and pubs is now developing a substantial literature (Smith 2001; Richardson 2005; Wood 2005). Contemporary archaeology has much to contribute to the study of leisure, as Julian Lamb has shown in his analysis of Mell Square shopping centre in Solihull, which sought to examine ‘the mesh of differing and shifting understandings, meanings and significances’ experienced by present-day users of the site (Lamb 2004, 135). The use of ‘industrial’ transport networks to access leisure – such as journeys to the seaside by road and railway and the concomitant development of servicing facilities en route, from coaching inns to Little Chefs, is also worth investigation.
The evolution of modern capitalist, industrialised consumer society was bound up with the post-reformation Enlightenment and the development of humanist ideals leading to the emergence of scientific techniques, methods and ideas. One of the great stimuli to these developments was the exploration and description of the new world during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; encounters at the fringe of knowledge which profoundly affected English society (Sloan 2007). Encounters with temporal as well as spatial fringes were also increasingly common and the emergence of archaeology itself was a key development the pioneering work of Leland, Camden, Aubrey, Stukeley and others ultimately led to the formation of the Society of Antiquaries in 1707 and the development of the modern profession; a pattern mirrored in other disciplines. Existing systems of measuring the world began to be standardised and improved, and new methods developed – thus Gunter’s 22-yard long surveying chain was in widespread use by the mid 1600s and, for example, affected the allocation and sizes of enclosed plots of land. In our region the importance of the Lunar Society, whose members included key figures of 18th-century rationalism such as Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood, cannot be underestimated (Uglow 2002). Archaeological work can reveal, for example, the progress of the installation of gas lighting following William Murdoch’s developments at Soho; the emergence of new medical and post-mortem practises through analysis of human remains; or the role of the region’s instrument makers in the beginnings of scientific industrialism.
The themes outlined above provide a possible framework for exploring the archaeology of the post-medieval period in our region. It is now worth addressing some of the
key issues which we face in trying to implement such a study. In terms of fieldwork we should be moving beyond the stage where post-medieval remains are dealt with superficially in order to arrive at earlier features underlying them. Some colleagues persist in seeing archaeology as the ‘handmaiden of history’ (Andren 1998, 106). Thus Malcolm Atkin suggests that the role of post-medieval archaeology is still perceived as being ‘largely confined to illustrating an already well-dated historical framework’ (his emphasis), and John Hemingway argues the need for historical evidence to be ‘proved archaeologically’ (Atkin 2003, 1; Hemingway 2003, 4). Certainly the temptation is there, in this extraordinarily well-documented period, to confine ourselves to confirming the sequence of building construction here or to filling the gap in production records there. However, this is like picking at the side salad of the wondrously rich feast that post- medieval archaeology has to offer. Rather, we should be seeking to develop a uniquely archaeological viewpoint for the human story of the last 500 years. Instead of answering questions thrown to us like scraps from the table by historians, geographers, sociologists, ethnographers, architects, conservationists and others, we should be stamping our muddy boots on the tablecloth and hurling great slabs of meat towards our colleagues in sister disciplines. More importantly we should also be serving up tasty morsels for non-professionals and non-archaeologists.
The work by Birmingham Archaeology on the cemetery at St Martin’s in the Bullring, or more recent work by Ironbridge Archaeology on the multi-period forge site at Wednesbury, shows that large-scale developer-funded archaeological projects can embrace post-medieval archaeology – even to the extent, in the latter case, of recording
21st-century material culture (Brickley et al 2006; Belford and Mitchell in prep). These projects worked well because of close collaboration between archaeological curators and contractors, and because of the support of the developers themselves. It has been possible to place them in the context of the development of the urban landscape through time (Belford 2004a). However, in the world of developer-funded archaeology it is sometimes difficult to think of a site in its full landscape context, let alone any other form of context such as an historical, social or cultural one (Fig 7.8). Arguably the development of syntheses is the work of curatorial archaeologists, but in most cases they are overworked simply dealing with the daily demands of development control. Where local and national curators are able to facilitate inter-contractor cooperation the results can be very useful as in the case of recent near simultaneous excavations by Ironbridge Archaeology and Birmingham Archaeology on two physically separate 17th-century pottery production sites in Wednesbury; or in tying together the results of temporally separate interventions on the same site in Edgbaston by the same two organisations (Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Birmingham City Council respectively).
The dearth of local specialist knowledge has been noted by David Barker in relation to the Staffordshire pottery industries (Barker 2003) and this is a much more widespread problem which sees many of us duplicating the work of colleagues as a result of ignorance of previous research. Essentially this is a call for common courtesy – if a unit is undertaking work in an area traditionally the ‘patch’ of another, they can certainly make contact and ask for advice; equally the unit being asked can supply useful information without compromising commercial confidentiality. The ‘Frameworks’ collaboration between Oxford Archaeology and the Wessex Trust is an interesting example of this kind of development, as is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project involving five separate contractors (David Jennings, pers comm; Frank Meddens, pers comm). Experience of these and other projects suggests, however, that very clearly defined methodologies and managerial structures need to be in place (and firmly understood by all parties) before work begins. On a wider scale, we need to be looking far afield for comparative examples. As noted above, the West Midlands region is an entirely artificial modern construct. For example, fieldwork on an early 19th-century domestic site in Oswestry is as likely to have parallels with similar work in Powys and Cheshire as it is with a project looking at a site of the same period in Stratford-on-Avon. Notwithstanding the importance of locale, it is equally the case that the sites in Oswestry and Stratford will certainly have similarities with domestic sites in Virginia and New South Wales.
It is unfortunate that archaeology is often regarded as the study of artefacts and features dug out of the ground rather than as a methodology for investigation of past societies. In the post-medieval period particularly, we rely on a wide range of resources that are not buried. These include documents, memories, landscapes and buildings. Documents have a dual role as artefacts; they were of course created for a specific purpose in the past and therefore provide as much information about the people who produced them and the circumstances in which they were produced as they do about the subject they are purportedly about. Moreover they were usually part of an expression of established power and authority, which our archaeologically derived narratives should attempt to counterbalance. The role of oral history is also particularly interesting for archaeologies of the very recent past. Work by Ironbridge Archaeology during the excavation of tenement houses demolished in the 1960s, for example, found the anecdotes of former residents extremely helpful in understanding the function and meaning of the place for its 20th- century inhabitants (Belford 2003). Elsewhere oral history has proved more problematic, particularly when tempered with robust West Midlands humour, with people born in the 1950s seeming to remember buildings that were demolished in the mid 19th century (Dwyer and Mitchell 2006). Nevertheless, talking to people about the past (and their perceptions of it) is an important part of the study of post-medieval archaeology.
The archaeology of buildings is a well-established component of the discipline (English Heritage 2006a; Fig 7.9). Recent work has revealed a great deal about prevailing attitudes to mind, body and society in a variety of circumstances, ranging from analyses of 19th- century workhouses, jewellery factories and textile mills, through to investigation of Soviet communal housing (Lucas 1999; Buchli 1999; Cattell et al 2002; Watson 2006). Archaeologists dealing with buildings are developing increasingly sophisticated analyses of the way space was defined, used and developed over time – in terms of industrial buildings for example there has been considerable movement away from purely functional understandings to a more complex realisation of social and cultural use of space. Much of this can be built into building recording specifications as part of PPG15 or PPG16, as Gould (1999) has pointed out. However, problems have arisen when ‘buildings’ and ‘archaeology’ are considered as separate and unrelated entities. Yet it is clearly nonsense to try and understand the standing remains of post-medieval housing without excavating the rubbish dumped in its back yard or to attempt an exploration of the archaeology of a lead-smelting site without recording the extant standing remains of the former smelt mill at the centre of it.
The role of archaeological science is key to developing our understanding of the post- medieval period. However, the discipline of post-medieval archaeology has such firm roots in the arts and humanities that it has at times been slow to grasp the opportunities offered by science-based archaeology (Astill 1998). Partly this is the result of the overwhelming scale of the evidence; the extent of process residues left by 19th-century ironworking, for example, makes a conventional 50% sample impossible to remove from site. There is also a persistent feeling that the period is so well documented that such analyses are unnecessary or redundant (English Heritage 2006b). However, many processes are not at all well documented, whether through inadequate record keeping or a desire for secrecy, particularly at the early stages of their evolution. In the ferrous industries for example, very little is known about the adoption of coke for refining wrought iron in the 18th century. Cort’s puddling process emerged fully fledged and well documented in the 1780s, but the metallurgical details of experimentation prior to this are not clear (King 2003). Equally, where processes were well documented (particularly in the 20th century) then archaeology can be helpful as a ‘control’ for other periods. The role of archaeometallurgy and the scientific analysis of glass and ceramics is particularly important for understanding the development of industrial processes during this period (English Heritage 2001; English Heritage 2006b).
Studies of industrial development are also enhanced by the work of environmental archaeology (Mighall and Chambers 1993; Murphy and Wiltshire 2003). Quite localised studies have the potential to determine, for example, the effects of industrial pollution on specific ecosystems or changes in woodland management as a result of a switch from coppice-wood to mineral fuel. On a wider scale there is potential to look at longer-term impacts of industrialisation, as studies in Worcestershire and Shropshire have shown (Pittam 2003; Pittam et al 2006; Belford and Ross in prep). This has a particular resonance today with the rapid onslaught of global warming. Coming to terms with the contribution of formerly industrialised societies (such as ours) to this situation may help in dealing with the future impact of the now rapidly-industrialising economies such as China and India. Pollen, seed and faunal analysis can of course assist in our understanding of food, diet, agriculture and landscape during the post-medieval period just as much as for earlier periods (Pearson 2003). Environmental sampling should ideally become a routine part of work on post-medieval sites, even where the work is relatively small- scale – for, as Liz Pearson has pointed out, ‘some of the best environmental evidence has been recovered from the smallest of watching briefs’ within the region (Pearson 2003, 6). Dendrochronology, archaeomagnetic and thermoluminesence dating methods are also applicable. Finally, it is worth mentioning the potential for osteoarchaeology. The importance of human skeletal assemblages has been noted above; however, analysis of animal bone from urban sites can reveal a great deal of information about processes such as tanning, and secondary industries like handle- and button-making.
The role of amateurs is arguably more important in post-medieval archaeology than elsewhere. This is partly due to the historical development of the specialism outside mainstream academic archaeology. There is an extremely long amateur ‘pre-history’ to post-medieval studies, and the 19th-century volumes of local antiquarian groups are often full of fascinating studies of folklore, buildings, landscapes, documents and ways of life that are very definitely part of the study of modern post-medieval archaeology. The tradition of local history and local ‘industrial archaeology’ as essentially amateur pursuits continues today – many present–day stalwarts of such groups would recognise the sentiments expressed by the author of an early textbook on industrial archaeology, who ‘became an industrial archaeologist in his spare time because of his love for windmills and watermills’ (Major 1975, 9). A number of investigators in this field still are non-professionals – whose dogged determination to extract definitive detail far exceeds the time and energy of professionals – and their contribution should be valued. Knowledgeable expertise often appears in surprising contexts. Re-enactment groups, for example (one of which includes a county archaeologist from our own region) are often extremely well informed about particular fields of interest, be it traditional long-bows, musket balls, clay pipes, slipware or buttons, which can be very helpful. Encouraging members of the public to assist with excavation and post-excavation processes can be difficult, but is worthwhile.
Finally, it is worth remembering, in the self-referential world of archaeology, that very few people actually read archaeological site reports. Indeed I often comment to my staff (in my more sadistic moments) when editing their site reports – the grey literature which satisfies the client’s planning conditions and ends up in the ‘public domain’ of the relevant HER – that only three people will ever read the results of their intensive labours: themselves, myself and the curatorial archaeologist. There is no published data on exactly how many people visit their local HER and access the grey literature. However, as Richard Bradley has suggested, it seems likely that very few people from outside the profession and the network of local history groups actually get through the door (Bradley 2006). In practice many of our developer clients have been extremely interested in our findings and we have discovered (perhaps surprisingly) that the more recent the archaeology, the more interesting it is to the non-archaeologist. On several public open days on a variety of sites, people have consistently been drawn to recognisable artefacts from their own lifetimes – particularly the period from c 1930- c 1960, and to clearly identifiable objects like stoneware jars and bottles (Fig 7.10). Enthusiasm for archaeology is high amongst all sectors of the population and post-medieval archaeology has potential to really engage people. We know, for instance, that the hilltop settlement of medieval Wednesbury was probably on an earlier hill fort. Yet this abstract knowledge of a vanished Iron Age landscape (however romantic and evocative it may be) appears to have little resonance for the modern citizens of the place. Instead our open day at Wednesbury Forge showed that the locals had real appetite for understanding their fathers’, grandfathers’ and great- grandfathers’ workplace, the role Wednesbury had in building the modern world and the reasons why the (18th-century) watercourses, the (19th-century) streets and the (20th-century) houses were the way they were. We ignore this audience at our peril. We must publish more synthetic and accessible accounts of our work, and we must not be afraid to ask developers to pay for them.
At the beginning I remarked that this was an entirely personal view of the research potential of post-medieval archaeology. No doubt many colleagues would have produced a very different paper. An attempt at a global synthesis of the archaeology of the last 500 years was made by Anders Andren almost a decade ago with only partial success; like most of us he found himself struggling in what Martin Hall and Stephen Silliman have more recently described as ‘a field of enquiry that is resistant to classification’ (Andren 1998; Hall and Silliman 2006, 7). This paper has attempted to look at the period for a much smaller geographical area than the whole world; nevertheless the abundance of material remains from the last 500 years has proved to be overwhelming. However, the conscientious creation of a comprehensive catalogue of the ‘resource’ would not only be extremely boring to read but would do little for the development of a research agenda (it would also not fail to exclude someone’s particular pet topic). Hence the extraction of a few key themes, for which the potential for development will largely depend on the specific circumstances of an individual project. Priorities to pursue for the archaeology of the West Midlands include:
It is worth pointing out that the actual implementation of archaeological research is to a large extent determined by the day-to-day decisions made at project officer or project manager level within commercial archaeological organisations. However, with clear vision and understanding, and the support of a well-written and comprehensive curatorial brief, then a hugely exciting archaeology of the last 500 years can begin to emerge from the West Midlands. This period of transition is still ongoing; the West Midlands was and is a key contributor to the development of modern society, and the evidence is there in the people, documents, buildings and below-ground remains. The global impact of our region is attested through the presence of ‘our’ material culture on historical sites around the world; we are still coming to terms with the impact of the rest of the world on ourselves and archaeology has an important part to play in that process as well. Hopefully the ‘archaeology of everything’ can be a positive force for changing our future, as well as enabling us to understand how we got here in the first place. Even on a cold frosty morning in February.
This paper would not have been possible without the support and assistance of two people: Roger White (University of Birmingham) who provided much-needed guidance and advice; and Kate Page-Smith (English Heritage) who provided equally much-needed love and support. The original seminars at Coalbrookdale and Stoke-on-Trent in 2003 were co-organised with David Barker – speakers were: Malcolm Atkin, Andy Boucher, Mark Bowden, James Dinn, John Hemingway, Mike Hodder, Jeremy Milln, Jonathan Parkhouse, Liz Pearson, Rebecca Roseff, Ian Soden, Paul Stamper, Barrie Trinder and Chris Welch, to whom many thanks for their contributions. The final version has incorporated comments made on draft versions by David Cranstone, Ian George, Keith Hinton, William Mitchell, Simon Roper, Anna Wallis and Sophie Watson. I am also grateful to Kenneth Aitchison (Institute of Field Archaeologists), Justine Bayley (English Heritage), Mary Beaudry (University of Boston), Geoff Egan (Museum of London), Paul Everson (English Heritage), David Gaimster (Society of Antiquaries), David Jennings (Oxford Archaeology), Mark Horton (University of Bristol), Frank Meddens (Pre-Construct Archaeology), Kirsty Nichol (Birmingham Archaeology), Stephanie Ratkai and John Schofield (English Heritage) amongst many others, for providing helpful information along the way. Sarah Watt, Ian George and John Hunter have been unstinting in their support during the lengthy pause before the paper’s eventual gestation. The style, errors and omissions in this chapter are entirely my own, and comment and criticism is very welcome; please direct it to me email@example.com.
This paper is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Dorothy Smith (1917-2006). Her ability to laugh, sing, and consume vast quantities of tea all over the world should be an inspiration to us all.