Case Study: Industial Archaeology


Strathclyde public school on the left, next to the mill at Dalmarnock, ©RCAHMS

‘Industrial Archaeology’ is a term which has developed a number of connotations since it was coined in the late 1950s.  Its earliest concise definition was ‘the archaeology of the first Industrial Revolution’.  The term has since been extended to apply to an enthusiast-driven movement often focussed on recording and preserving machinery, mills and other hardware.  Industrial archaeology was initially focussed on recording industrial technology and buildings, especially where this material was threatened with demolition and removal (it is no coincidence that the sub-discipline emerged in a period of de-industrialisation and significant urban transformation).  From the 1970s, the traditional archaeological technique of excavation has been applied to industrial sites on a more frequent basis, with a particular focus on particular kinds of sites, such as blast furnaces and other metallurgical sites and pottery factories.

Very recently the scope of the subject has widened considerably, as exemplified by recent archaeological work associated with the extension of the M74 motorway through Rutherglen and the south side of Glasgow.  This work involved survey of industrial buildings and the excavation of various industrial sites, but also the excavation of tenement blocks and rows of workers’ cottages and of other non-industrial premises on the route. 

In cities, towns and villages, the study of industrial activity is to be connected with understanding of every aspect of contemporary life.  Urban areas mixed industrial units of many types with places of worship of many kinds indicating the diversity of the industrial population, the complexity of industrial society and the close proximity and interaction of industry and belief.  Interspersed with these buildings were houses for workers, managers and owners, shops, schools and other community buildings.

In rural contexts, industry was equally embedded in life, taking the form of quarrying, iron smelting, whisky distilling (legal and illicit), lime-burning, charcoal production, meal and saw milling, blacksmithing, leather-working and small-scale textile manufacture, amongst other things.  Such activities were integral not only to industrial communities in rural locations but also to agricultural populations, whether in villages or dispersed in isolated steadings. 

Industrial archaeology emerged as the study of particular places (a pottery factory, a mill, a foundry) and its thematic extension to all aspects of industrial life can focus on particular areas (urban neighbourhoods, villages and their related landscapes).  But industrial archaeology also considers the connections between places.  Govan, west of Glasgow, for example, was described in 1901 as ‘the shipbuildingest burgh’ in the world, the whole fabric of the place was built round the shipbuilding industry and its supply chain.  That chain extended into the coal-mining and steel-working areas of Lanarkshire, the furniture-making districts of Beith and Lochwinnoch, the textile mills of Catrine and Deanston, in Ayrshire and Perthshire, and ultimately to the sources of all the raw materials and manufactured goods required for the building and fitting out of ships.  Underlying all of this was transport and communications – roads, railways, tramways, telegraphs, telephones, postal services, and shipping.  The products of Govan – the ships – facilitated world commerce.  Industrial Govan existed within a materially connected world and the industrial archaeology is a globally-dispersed endeavour. 

What is thoroughly significant for the study of modern social attitudes and problems, and often underestimated, is the extent to which the mass of industry was the fabric and foundation of society itself.  The shared experience of working in the yards, factories and mills and of living in industrial neighbourhoods and communities was a social and cultural experience.  Industrial archaeology, then, is simultaneously the study of industrial technologies, processes, buildings, sites and landscapes and of the working practices and relationships, social networks, environmental interactions and others facets of life which were dependent on and creative of industry.


Return to 2.4 The Industrial Revolution