What Does an Industrial Archaeologist Do?

Daniel Liden

Archaeology is a field of science based primarily on examining human history and society through recovered artifacts — thus, industrial archaeology is a subfield that is focused on studying and preserving industrial relics. An industrial archaeologist searches for, analyzes, and preserves the remains of earlier industrial sites and structures. This endeavor can have many goals, ranging from tracing the evolution of various industrial processes to determining how certain industrial structures relate to the society in which they were found. Simply finding artifacts is only a small part of the industrial archaeologist's job — trying to socially and historically contextualize findings is also highly important. Though an industrial archaeologist may focus on concerns that predate the industrial revolution, most tend to focus on the years since the 18th century because widespread industrialization did not occur until that time.

Studying industrial archaeology started even before the Industrial Revolution.
Studying industrial archaeology started even before the Industrial Revolution.

Some industrial archaeologists focus on the evolution of primitive industrial methods that have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Metalworking, stone working, and mining, for instance, have all been practiced in some form or another since long before the industrial revolution. In many cases, however, an industrial archaeologist will choose to focus his studies in time periods following the industrial revolution, when widespread organized industry became a foundational aspect of many societies. Even though this level of industrialization is a relatively recent development in human history, the constant development of new methods and technologies has led to the existence of many unused industrial relics for the industrial archaeologist to study and preserve.

An industrial archaeologist is responsible for preserving the remains of earlier industrial sites.
An industrial archaeologist is responsible for preserving the remains of earlier industrial sites.

In terms of employment, an industrial archaeologist is most likely to find work in academia. In many places, archaeology is considered a subfield of anthropology, so archaeologists often find employment in anthropology departments. In an academic setting, an industrial archaeologist will likely split his time between teaching, fieldwork, and research. Fieldwork generally involves surveying and excavating past industrial sites and, if possible, recovering some artifacts. From this point, it is necessary to use all available resources to conduct research aimed at giving social and historical context and significance to the findings.

Research in industrial archaeology, at least as practiced by those who focus on the industrial revolution and later, is often made easier by the abundance of accurate information that exists about industry since that time. In other cases, however, it can be difficult to find reliable information, and it may be necessary to speculate on the different possibilities for the significance of a given finding. Publishing archaeological findings is one important way that an industrial archaeologist can advance in his career. Having a substantial body of well-regarded research is a good way to advance to a better academic position or to employment at a better institution.

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