Fires of Prometheus




Such is my, perhaps bizarre, interest in the relics of the last couple of hundred years of industrial activity, that I have been known to mystify people by recording video of abandoned railway tracks that for obvious reasons were not moving, and indeed have never moved. Why?

There are many aspects of industrial archaeology that I find fascinating:

The archaeology of yesterday

Firstly, as we are still living the "industrial revolution" (although some people claim we are still in the Iron Age), industrial archaeology is the archaeology of us...not of long-dead civilisations or cultures that spoke different and often dead languages and are separated from us by centuries, if not millenia. Many of us have grandparents and parents who worked in industrial environments that are now history, and our contemporaries have seen whole industries that had employed them for decades if not generations, consigned to the past and bulldozed. So some industrial archaeology is recorded directly from oral sources. I also like discovering bits of cheap pottery that is only once removed from that which graces my own table. Industrial archaeology is about yesterday, not the distant past.

Secondly it is also not messed up by being associated with what is popularly known as "treasure", the stuff that causes many to ask, on meeting field archaeologists: "Have you found anything valuable?" Of course there is much in industrial archaeology (as there is in archaeology) that is incredibly valuable, and much to treasure, but not in a monetary sense.

Thirdly, even though this is archaeology of the historical period, basically the last 500 years or so, and many industrial sites include extant material remains, the puzzles and mysteries it presents the researcher and explorer are just as complex as sites that have been buried for thousands of years.

The archaeology of seeing

Fourthly, part of the interest of industrial archaeology, for me, involves mentally (and sometimes physically) reconstructing a past that includes exciting and dramatic features. Industry leaves its mark on the landscape in both dramatic and subtle ways. Cockfield Fell, for example, in County Durham, is a three-dimensional map of the scars left by mining and other activities. So is the southeast corner of Murcia, Spain. But people tend to miss the more obscure marks left on the entire landscape of what for example is now the green rural north but what was a vast industrial landscape only a century ago. Much of industrial archaeology is about the art of seeing, a thrill it shares with photography, another of my enthusiasms. I like the fact that industrial archaeology is about details, rather than vast monuments.

Fifthly, industrial archaeology is still accessible to the amateur. Anyone can get involved in it, in practical ways, and make significant discoveries by research in the field or beyond. Whereas modern field archaeology has become the jealously-guarded preserve of professionals, companies and consultants who are forced to obey the laws of the biggest result for the least expenditure. I, meanwhile, am able to explore industrial landscapes and remains pretty well unhindered other than by concerns of safety and private property. Indeed I can get satisfyingly muddy or oily, volunteering to restore a waterway or a railway line.

Doing something different

And finally there is that tremendous satisfaction of doing something out of the ordinary, something of which others perhaps can't see the attraction, something that might uncover surprises.Yes, I guess that I often get lumped together with train-spotters and other recorders of the mundane. But it is worth it when I discover a granite rail plate buried in the grass, or a mine tramway rail rusting in a Canadian river.

I well remember visiting the Beamish Museum in County Durham and wandering into a row of tiny pit cottages that have been moved and rebuilt there, to discover an old lady who had once lived in one of those very cottages, transported by delight and happily reminiscing about what once had been her home. What a strange feeling it must have been for her, to be in her old house, but looking out of the windows over a completely different scene. And what an thrill for me, to be standing next to living and breathing history.

Industrial Archaeology Miscellany

A collection of images I've captured in my wanderings around sites of past industry.

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Nottingham Industrial Museum

Ty Coch Archaeology

Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds

National Coal Mining Museum

Rusty Rails

Atlas Mine, Alberta

Midland Mine, Alberta

Waterway Recovery Group

Midway Museum, British Columbia

Hedley, British Columbia

Llanberis slate, Wales

Middleton Railway

Along a Welsh tramway