Industrial Archaeology

Industrial ARCHAEOLOGY is a type of interdisciplinary history that promotes understanding of the industrial era by focusing on physical remains, whether above ground or below, and by combining the insights of fieldwork and historical research.

Forges Saint-Maurice
Production of iron began about 12 kilometres from Trois-Rivi\u00e8res River in 1733. A stream emptying into the St Maurice River provided the power and locally-produced charcoal was used in the furnaces to melt the ore (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-4356).

Archaeology, Industrial

Industrial ARCHAEOLOGY is a type of interdisciplinary history that promotes understanding of the industrial era by focusing on physical remains, whether above ground or below, and by combining the insights of fieldwork and historical research. The name is recent in origin but already is well established throughout the world.


Industrial archaeology originated in Great Britain - birthplace of the Industrial Revolution - in the late 1950s as a response to the alarming rate at which the nation's industrial and engineering heritage was being destroyed, and as a celebration of the lives and works of industrialists, engineers and inventors of the early industrial period. North Americans formed the Society for Industrial Archeology in 1971, while the Canadian Society for Industrial Heritage was created in 1988. Provincial societies are the Ontario Society for Industrial Archaeology (1981) and Association Québecoise pour le patrimoine industriel (1988). The British Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) and the International Committee on the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH) are strong and older organizations.


Industrial archaeology everywhere is interdisciplinary and focuses on a wide range of industrial objects, structures and sites. However, the industrial experience and contemporary social, economic and political priorities within various countries naturally have shaped the work of industrial archaeologists along individual national lines. In European countries and the US, for example, sites and structures of importance to the Industrial Revolution have received the most attention. These include power sources and transmission systems, canals and railways, and sites devoted to the textile industry and iron and steel production. In addition to the strictly industrial and engineering structures, European practitioners pay considerable attention to industrial villages and workers' housing.

In Canada and in Scandinavian countries the early industrial era was more closely associated with staple RESOURCE extraction and primary processing. Thus, sites devoted to MINING, FORESTRY, FISHERIES, IRON making, BREWING and DISTILLING are favoured for study. In Europe, where there is interest in teaching industrial archaeology, the field attracts mostly academic historians of technology or architecture; in North America work is carried on mainly by museum and HISTORIC SITES personnel, or historic preservationists, including historians, curators, architects, archaeologists, planners, photographers and teachers.


With such diversity in practice and practitioners, industrial archaeology has yet to develop a coherent methodology and theoretical framework. In general the research involves fieldwork, comprising recording through photography and measured drawings, oral interviews and site plans. So much tangible evidence of early INDUSTRY and industrial technology remains above the surface that actual excavation is seldom necessary. The insights of fieldwork are then combined with historical research to provide a record and understanding of what the Industrial Revolution entailed, more complete than that provided by written documents alone.

When the subject matter is particularly threatened by loss or destruction, fieldwork resembles salvage archaeology. Threats arise because industrial and engineering structures frequently become functionally obsolete; sometimes they are found in unattractive surroundings or in poor condition; many are even seen in a negative light as symbolic of human misery and exploitation. Thus the goal may be simply to preserve knowledge of the site or structure for posterity.

Canadian Focus

 In Canada, there has been less interest in projects devoted to recording and inventorying or in developing industrial archaeology as an academic discipline. Instead, work on industrial museums and historic industrial sites has been of much more importance. There are over 690 industrial and 100 transportation and communication museums alone. However, in 1986-87 the BC Heritage Trust funded a large-scale archival and aerial photo reconnaissance survey of the historic salmon canneries in the province. Numerous industrial archaeological sites are administered by the various levels of government, the most significant being the historic national park of the FORGES SAINT-MAURICE. Located just north of TROIS-RIVIÈRES, Qué, it is the site of Canada's oldest industrial complex. The mid-19th-century Gooderham and Worts Distillery site in Toronto has over the past decade undergone adaptive re-use of the complex for galleries, shops, and history programs to become in 2006 one of the country's great industrial heritage success stories.

Further Reading

  • D. Newell and R. Greenhill, Survivals: Aspects of Industrial Archaeology in Ontario (1989); M. Palmer and P. Neaverson, Industrial Archaeology: Principles and Practice (1998); Robert Summerby-Murray, "Interpreting Deindustrial Landscapes of Atlantic Canada: Memory and Industrial Heritage in Sackville, New Brunswick," Candian Geographer vol 46 (2002); Society for Industrial Archaeology Newsletter, and IA, Journal of the Society for Industrial archaeology, both provide Canadian coverage.