5 June 2008

Crossing Paths, Sharing Tracks

This was the title of the Leicester conference in April which attempted to coalesce some of the rather disparate strands of historical archaeology in the UK.

The organisers very bravely tried to bridge a number of gaps by bringing together the four major bodies concerned with historical archaeology in the British Isles – the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA), the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA), the Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group (IPMAG) and the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory group (CHAT).

Subtitled "future directions for the archaeological study of post-1550 Britain and Ireland", there seemed to be two main thrusts. The first of these was in trying to locate UK and Irish historical archaeology in a broader global context. The second was trying to bring together the very separate traditions of 'industrial' and 'post-medieval' archaeology.

Despite brave attempts, the meeting only partially succeeded in the first aim, and, to my mind at least, largely failed in the second.

To deal with the second aspect first: the whole premise of the meeting was slightly Quixotic. There isn't really quite the 'clash of cultures' that was highlighted as a problem in UK archaeology. Rather there are a few on the fringes of mainstream archaeology who maintain a distinctly atheoretical and technocentric stance to the study of the industrial past. Needless to say, those people were largely absent from the conference and so will remain obdurate. The fact is that 'industrial archaeology' has never been more mainstream, and is now being undertaken regularly in all sorts of places. The only slight worries which I have - and, in fairness, these were rather overlooked at the conference - are a rather widespread ignorance of even rather basic technological processes on the part of many archaeologists dealing with industrial remains, and the generally rather patronising attitude which many academics have to non-academics.

The first aim was closer to being achieved, although contributors from outside the British Isles were exclusively from the United States. This meant that the many vibrant and interesting historical archaeologies of Europe, south America, Africa, Australia and even non-anglophone Canada, were absent. In addition there was no-one from the world of maritime archaeology - another glaring absence given the number of references to 'Atlanticity', colonialism and so-on - none of which are possible without a boat. And a boat is, of course, an example of industrial technology.

Another notable omission was the absence of data from developer-funded projects. It would therefore have been nice to have had more input from some of the contracting units who are doing excellent work every day on this period.

So a mixed bag therefore, but much food for thought. Of course now I am in the throes of writing up my own deeply flawed contribution, which will doubtless be too long and too unwieldy for the proceedings. Let's hope we can do better in 2009...

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