Anthropology Industrial Archaeology
Marilyn Palmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0181


Industrial archaeology is a relatively new field, originating in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, when the postwar preoccupation with renewal had led to the destruction of much of the landscape associated with early industrialization. It was very much a spontaneous growth, resulting in volunteer activity on a considerable scale in both preservation and recording. There had been no systematic investigation of the physical remains of the recent industrial past in the United Kingdom, as the national recording agencies had considered the recent past as outside their remit and the peculiarly British post-medieval archaeology generally concerned itself at that time with the period from roughly 1450 to 1750. Some early practitioners of industrial archaeology argued that the discipline was a thematic rather than a chronological one and can range from the prehistoric to the modern period but it became generally accepted that industrial archaeology was the systematic study of standing as well as subsurface structures and their related landscapes of the classic period of industrialization from the 18th to the 20th centuries. This time frame has been increasingly modified in recent decades, with far greater concentration on the excavation of former industrial sites, revealing proto-industrial practices before the formal advent of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial archaeology is essentially concerned with the evidence for people at work and so defines a type of human activity rather than a type of site, since “work,” even after the Industrial Revolution, could be based in domestic and well as nondomestic locations. Practitioners employ both archaeological materials and historical (textual, oral, visual, structural) sources of information as well as the scientific study of process residues and often require an understanding of techniques of engineering. Finally, unlike most other periods of archaeology, industrial archaeologists have usually been concerned with the preservation of structures from past decades, so much so that the discipline is often popularly known as “industrial heritage.” The decline of industrial activity in many countries has also created another subdiscipline looking at the reuse of industrial sites and structures in creative and meaningful ways, creating an archaeology of deindustrialization.

General Overviews

Whereas historical archaeology is known and practiced as such in many different countries, Industrial archaeology tended to develop individually in each country, depending to some extent on the nature and timing of its industrialization. The organization of the discipline varied too, with volunteer activity dominating the early years in the United Kingdom, whereas the state became involved in the United States because of the early establishment of the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933, followed by the Historic American Engineering Record in 1969. This created a system of “preservation by record” for significant buildings and structures (DeLony 1999; see also Gazetteers and Regional Guides and Buildings and Structures). Jones 1996 provides both professionals and volunteers working in the discipline with a ready means of accessing the necessary technical information that they often lacked. Overviews in most European countries are not usually in English, but Platt 1983 brings together a number of specialists in different countries then working in the discipline who wrote in English, such as Nisser 1983. Trinder 1992 puts together an international encyclopedia of industrial sites and processes, which covers the United States and Europe in particular, although with some attention to other parts of the developed world. Trinder 2013, a book on Britain’s Industrial Revolution, is a more historical account of the effects of industrialization in the United Kingdom. Patrick Martin, at that time President of the International Committee on the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, put industrial archaeology into a more archaeological context in Martin 2009, which is also an update of Platt 1983. Stratton and Trinder 2000 stresses that industrial archaeology should not be confined to the early periods of industrialization but should consider the importance of the twentieth century, a point also made by Jørgensen and Pedersen 2014, with reference to Denmark (see Industrial Heritage).

  • DeLony, Eric. 1999. HAER and the Recording of Technological Heritage: Reflections on 30 years’ work. IA: Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 25.1: 103–111.

    A useful survey by the chief architect of HAER of its work over thirty years on “preservation by documentation,” which has also led to some on-site preservation. The extensive notes provide some idea of its coverage as well as its relations with recording bodies in other countries. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Jones, William. 1996. Dictionary of industrial archaeology. Stroud, UK: Sutton.

    Designed to explain the terminology used in extractive, manufacturing, and construction industries as well as transport systems, mainly of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain. Textual figures help to clarify some of the technical detail, while many of the entries include references to books and articles to help further understanding.

  • Martin, Patrick. 2009. Industrial archaeology. In The international handbook of historical archaeology. Edited by David Gaimster and Teresita Majewski, 285–297. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-72071-5_16

    Surveys industrial archaeology on an international scale, looking at its academic as well as volunteer base and also providing a comparative survey of publications at that date. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Nisser, Marie. 1983. Industrial archaeology in the Nordic countries, viewed from Sweden. Special issue: Industrial archaeology. World archaeology 15.2: 137–147.

    DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1983.9979893

    Stresses that there has been a long-standing interest in industrial history in the Nordic countries, which has contributed to the preservation of some monuments, of which four examples are considered, from each of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

  • Platt, Colin, ed. 1983. Special issue: Industrial archaeology. World archaeology 15.2.

    The first attempt at a world overview of industrial archaeology, with an introduction by Walter Minchinton of the United Kingdom. Contains articles on the United States, United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries but not limited to the classic period of industrialization as ancient civilizations are also included. A useful survey at an early period of the development of the discipline.

  • Stratton, Michael, and Barrie Trinder. 2000. Twentieth century industrial archaeology. London: E & F N Spon.

    This book examines the industrial monuments of twentieth- century Britain, each chapter taking a specific theme, such an energy, food production etc. and examining it in the context of the buildings and structure of the twentieth century.

  • Trinder, Barrie. 2013. Britain’s industrial revolution: The making of a manufacturing people, 1700–1900. Lancaster, UK: Carnegie.

    Not strictly industrial archaeology, but the most authoritative account of industrialization of the United Kingdom. It is not theoretical but presents a picture of the effect of industrialization on landscape and people, heavily illustrated both with contemporary prints and images of surviving industrial sites.

  • Trinder, Barrie, ed. 1992. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of industrial archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This huge encyclopedia, achieved with the participation of a large number of contributors and consultants, covers the United States and Europe in particular, although with some attention to other parts of the developed world. The entries are arranged alphabetically and survey industrial sites, processes, museums, conservation, adaptive reuse and similar topics.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.