Podcast 120: Archaeological Exploration of Material Production

Getting Involved with Industrial Archaeology

Catherine Cooper: My name is Catherine Cooper I am here with—

Chris Fennell: Hi, this is Chris Fennell and I'm a Professor of Anthropology and Law at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Catherine Cooper: So you recently had a book come out called The Archeology of Craft and Industry.

Chris Fennell: I'm an academic archaeologist so when I start a project I usually plan for a multi-year project and it’s research and education interwoven. We'll have field schools, we train grad students and undergrads on how to do archeology, and then we go back year after year and do the research. And I really concentrated on African-American archeology and seeing the way in which African-American culture and practices interacted with Europeans in the colonial period and later period. And having done a lot of that, I asked a couple of key scholars, John Vlach and Robert Farris Thompson, whom I collaborated with on earlier projects, and I asked them at one point, and this is going back over a decade ago, “If you could unleash an archaeologist on an interesting site where archeology hasn't been done where would it be?” And they both said, independently, “there's something very interesting going on in the Edgefield potteries in South Carolina.”

And they were known. They've been studied extensively by historians and museum specialists and collectors that there's a very aesthetic, beautiful stoneware that started to be produced in this region in like the first decade of the 1800s. As an academic archaeologist you consult with all sorts of local landowners, descendants, historians, ceramic specialists, museum specialists who knew about this pottery. It's a big collector's item. The type of pottery that came out of this tradition is called the southern alkaline glazed pottery.
Veterans Curation Program of Augusta, Georgia, undergraduate and graduate students in the 2016 University of Illinois field school, and volunteers at the Pottersville site in Edgefield County, South Carolina.
Veterans Curation Program of Augusta, Georgia, undergraduate and graduate students in the 2016 U of I field school, and volunteers at the Pottersville site in Edgefield County, SC. The industrial-scale dragon kiln once stretched down-hill, with its 105ft. length of barrel vault is in the background

Photograph courtesy of Dan Jones

So we approached it initially with a different host of questions. But the very first field season, we knew the location generally of where the kiln would be where they would burn the pots. We had a first field school led by my doctoral advisee, George Calfas, who's now Dr. George Calfas. And so he led a team of undergrads, and as the field school went on through six very hot weeks during the summer, they uncovered a kiln that was over 100 feet long, 10 to 12 feet wide, that ran in a slope, even the floor was sloping, running up the hill. And it being an academic process, we have both the burden and the benefit of being able to really dive into a topic like this.

How Archaeology Contributes to the Story of Industrialization

Chris Fennell: Industrialists were very secretive, so they had created this thing but had never written it down anywhere. So historians who have looked at this process before had no idea about it. It was only revealed through the archeology. And the only counterpart is that they had copied the design of an industrial scale kiln that was only used in southeast China. And the Chinese had factory towns there at industrial scales producing porcelain and stoneware for centuries. And they developed this form of really high resource-consuming kiln called a dragon kiln. The dragon references to the fact that it was subsidized by the monarchy and the dragon is the symbol of the monarchy and a kind of government investment in these factory towns. But they are enormous tube kilns, basically a barrel vault going uphill, and they only worked if you could expend an enormous amount of resources. And as the process continued and we were working with other collaborating archaeologists in the region and looked around, we found that this extended family of Scots Irishmen who are using before the Civil War mostly enslaved laborers.

And so I began just to read the context, see what's going on in industrial archeology at large. And so I ended up you know really learning industrial archeology to understand what was going on in this multi-year project, and then I produced a first book for the Society of Historical Archeology; they have a reader series. So we did a first book where I just kind of organized a set of articles that have been published in their journal by theme. So now it wasn't just pottery, it was ironworks and textiles and pottery. And then a colleague of mine had a book series on the archeology of the American Experience and he approached me and said “I've always been looking for someone who could tackle this topic, what kind of studies have been done?” and that was the origin of this book that's called The Archeology of Craft and Industry.

Comparing Craft and Industry

Chris Fennell: There's a very robust literature of historians looking at this process and saying “what is industrialization? What is the main sort of impetus behind it?” And one author David Landes has this very poignant title; he calls it Unbound Prometheus. You know has this mythological character to the name and he wanted to take the approach of saying “You know there's this technological impetus that takes off.” So if you want to understand what happens in moving from small-scale craft into these factories, you can really view it by each innovation as it happens in technology. Because it's going to be so attractive to profit-making entrepreneurs, it's going to spread and diffuse very quickly. So he developed a story that other historians of industry have been in comment with, and they will label this, in a way that Landes wouldn't, being technological determinism. It's like this technological juggernaut that, once you have the desire to produce more, to sell more, and then you have a new technological development—a better way to make a weaving machine, better fuel to use for burning iron—that it will just spread rapidly because everyone's motivated to implement it. And the other simplifying description, if you take that more technological phrase, would borrow like comments and critiques by analysts like Karl Marx. [They] would say industrialization, as you move from engaged skill workers who are doing all sorts of tasks and creating a finished thing, like a finished piece of pottery, and they're fully engaged and have ownership in it and pride in that work and they go from soup to nuts so shaping the clay to burning it to help run the Kiln and so they are fully engaged and fulfilled in that process as an artisan; and that when you move to an industry, according to critical views by people like Karl Marx, you move to the machines are doing everything. So instead of people using tools to create things and being engaged, now the machines are using the people. The only thing the people do is they're viewed as being unskilled now and they're just tending the machine, so the machine stops working properly they'll figure out how to kick it in a certain way to keep it going. So he says you move from people being the users of tools to people being the tools used by the machines. So in general, craft is someone who's doing a variety of skilled endeavors to create a thing and that industry would mean that you’ve lost that.

And instead, what we see is, one, tending to those machines was highly skilled labor and you see this in places like the textile industry before child labor laws came in the early 1900s. A lot of the textile mills in the United States employed young women who had smaller and more dexterous hands. And that was very useful because these big spinning machines were very crowded and dense, so if something went wrong and a thread was going the wrong way or a spindle wasn't working, you wanted someone with very small, dexterous hands who could get in there and fix it very quickly so the machine would keep working. The workers are engaged in their own innovation and their own sort of craft artisanal efforts to figure out how to make the assembly floor run, to modify machines.

A Variety of Industrial and Craft Practices

C. Fennell: Archeology has been terrific and also at times it's material culture studies. If you have the ruins of a factory and the machines are still there rusting in place, you can analyze them in a standing ruin the way you would analyze an archaeological remain. And much of this is not recorded in the archives. Historians do a fabulous job of seeing what's in the archives. But the archives we find industrialists were, one, they weren't interested in keeping detailed records, they wanted to make products. But, two, they were very secretive so they didn't want to write down exactly what they were doing. And so when you actually look at the material, whether it's in a standing ruin or buried in the ground, you'll find the modifications that were made. The iron foundries, so blast furnaces and then foundries are enormous assembly plants, particularly a blast furnace. A blast furnace is: the exterior is made of stone; these are often like 25 or 30 foot square at the base, and they'll be like 30 to 40 feet high depending on what fuel they were using, if it was charcoal or coal. They usually built them at the base of a hill because just the way a blast furnace was run was you would pour all the contents in from the top and then all of that would be burned over a series of weeks. When they got it up and going, because the fuel was so expensive, they would try and keep it going. So you keep pouring in iron ore and other agents that'll mix with it. And you would do that from the top so that people would bring all the materials in at the base, they would move around up the hillside, come across a bridge to the top, dump it in the top. So you can imagine what that ruin looks like. You know, this would be an enormous structure left behind, and people can go visit these.

But there was an amazing expression of how active the archaeological record is. There was a case of, in Tennessee, the Bluff Furnace it was called, along a river in Tennessee. It was built at the base of a hill, it was operated in this way before the Civil War and then pretty much fell out of production right after the Civil War. But, by the time the archaeologists started looking at it in the 1980s, that enormous structure had actually been buried because later roads came in over the hillside and graders had pushed an enormous amount of fill.

But textile mills have been studied quite extensively, blast furnaces, potteries extensively. What was so intriguing about the South Carolina example is much of the pottery is on smaller scale in the United States. So most of the archeology is more on the craft end of the continuum than on the industry side. But the other thing is quite a lot of endeavors of the construction of the transcontinental railroad, so there's quite a lot of projects that look at the construction of canals and the workers camps for doing canals, for building different types of railroads. So those are really a lot of the principal areas that are outlined in separate chapters in the book.

Industrial Archaeology is a Thriving Field

C. Fennell: Industrial archeology is very active. There's an estimate that 90% of the archeology conducted in the United States is by commercial, professional archaeologists. So this is in both federal and state law, if you're going to do some new construction you typically hire an archeology firm to go look at the space you're going to be building in to see if there's any cultural, historical remains there that need to be dealt with in some way. Once you start looking for what's out there you find it’s a really vibrant field with tremendous debates.

Those case studies that I highlight in the book, I chose to get ones where I knew the readers could get to the underlying literature pretty readily. So at times it's professional archaeologists who went out of their way to post their reports on a website or make them more broadly available. But it is really the tip of the iceberg that there's a tremendous amount that you would learn from the reports that are in these agency archives. But the nice part about it is that if you're reading the chapter on iron production and you say “this is fascinating, I'd like to learn more about that bluff furnace in Tennessee,” it'll cite you to things that are readily available through libraries.

I think very much the theme I've been speaking to, which is really congratulations to Industrial archaeologists showing how fascinating this history really is! Quite often people think of it as, you know, it's an industrial site so they just think of the owners and the designers and then on the production site itself there's no real thought that there's agency by the workers. They're kind of forgotten because people have this notion of industry—it's unskilled, they're disaffected, they're alienated from what they're doing. What industrial archeology has shown is so much that in-place pride and innovation and skill that they're using.

It’s All About the Questions

C. Fennell: It's another aspect of the book I should point out as a general matter is a lot of the archeology thinking about industry in the United States goes to the domestic places of the workers. So like Boott Mills in Lowell, they were very much looking at the boarding houses and the refuse of the boarding houses where the workers lived. And they didn't have access to really do archeology at the mills themselves in great detail.

And the focus of this book is to try and get into the space of production itself and how have archaeologists teased out the worker agency within those spaces. So I hope they take that away and also this theme of really seeing this tremendous integration of there’s continuing innovation by common workers in these sites even as you have these technological advances in increased mechanization.

So we now know we had these four dragon kilns operating for several decades run by a skilled African-American laborers funded by Scots Irish entrepreneurs. There's a very famous outlying potter, an African-American individual who was enslaved and then continued working after the Civil War who took the name of Dave Drake and he would write poetry on these enormous stoneware pots. You can now go visit the pots that we excavated, and particularly George Calfas and his students in 2011 excavated; they are on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There's an exhibition that's starting there and it's going to move around the country and it's called “Hear Me Now: the Black Potters of Old Edgefield South Carolina” and there are existing pots with the poetry of Dave Drake on display. There's a quite a lot available on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website right now about this exhibition and the history. So if you're visiting New York City please go see the “Hear Me Now” exhibition. You'll see our work and other collector items of this pottery on display. It's a very rewarding, engaging project with multiple players involved. And you can read and learn much more about it now not just from a university website, but from a museum in New York, and then it's going to move to Michigan and other locations during the year.

C. Cooper: Thank you so much.

C. Fennell: My pleasure, thank you.

Last updated: July 20, 2023