Thursday, 1 October 2009

Improvement: what kind of archaeological object is it?

[This review article works through the approach to 'the archaeology of improvement" adopted in Sarah Tarlow’s book The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750-1850 (2007, Cambridge University Press). Cite this paper as Hicks, D. 2008. Improvement: what kind of archaeological object is it? Journal of Field Archaeology 33(1): 111-116.]

image: An archaeological glimpse of the modern? An excavated section across a domestic brick-lined cesspit in London, infilled with ceramics, bricks, roof tiles and bottle glass in the late 19th century. Such deposits are associated with the end of the use of cesspits, as modern sanitary reforms introduced new sewerage systems. The pit is from 12-18 Albert Embankment Lambeth (sitecode ABK00), and is published in 'Two centuries of rubbish: excavations at an 18th and 19th century site at 12-18 Albert Embankment' by Kieron Tyler (with contributions by Alison Nailer and Lucy Whittingham) Surrey Archaeological Collections 91 (2004): 105-136 (courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology). The potential contribution of the archaeological study of such deposits to the theme of modern improvement is explored further below.


Like many British archaeologists trained in the 1990s, I shall probably never quite shake my mistrust of grand schemes, prime movers, and quick fixes in archaeological explanation, and yet will always retain a kind of nostalgic yearning for the sheer breadth of engagement across times, places, and materials that sets the archaeological analyses of previous generations apart from purely sociological or contextual studies. This ambivalence is, I would hazard, what has attracted so many of the current generation of British archaeologists to the study of the modem world as a place for thinking through issues of scale, disciplinarity, and the place of material things in our comprehension of the past. But while the attraction is strong, and the material complexity and sheer range of possibilities are a constant stimulation, there is an ever-present danger that our ambivalence will combine with a creeping sense that the archaeological study of our recent past is decadent, self-indulgent, or narcissistic, and will give way to insouciance, political detachment, and downright intellectual ennui.

Sarah Tarlow's ambitious new study The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain helps us to think through these problems and challenges. Because it does so, this timely and provocative book will undoubtedly prove to be an important benchmark for all those interested in theory and practice in contemporary British historical archaeology.

What, the book asks, do lime kilns, threshing machines, Mechanics Institutes, transfer-printed ceramics, suburban cemeteries, ceramic field drains, lead water pipes, ice houses, asylums, rubbish pits, the Scottish clearances, argand lamps, bleach baths, cylinder-blown glass panes, London Bridge, and the Pump Room of the Royal Baths at Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, have in common? The answer is that each item on this list can be understood as associated in some way with the trope of "improvement" as it emerged in British literature between ca. A.D. 1750 and 1850. In making this connection, Tarlow's study prompts three further questions. What kind of historical archaeology does such a thematic approach produce? What kind of archaeological object is improvement? And, what are the implications of the approach set out by the book for the future development of historical archaeology in the United Kingdom? Inspired by Tarlow's volume, this review article takes stock of its approaches, arguments, and implications by exploring each of these questions in turn. As will become clear, the study holds up a mirror to some of the central problems and choices that face British historical archaeology today.

What Kind of Historical Archaeology?

Although the book suggests at the outset that it "is not intended as a critique of past work" [p. 1], a considerable chunk of the introductory sections is given over to distinguishing what kind of historical archaeology is not being presented. Two bodies of work are singled out for, there is no more accurate word, critique: "traditional" industrial, post-medieval, and landscape archaeology, especially that carried out in development-funded investigations; and "neo-Marxist" explanatory frameworks, especially the work of Mark Leone and those associated with the Archaeology in Annapolis project. The traditional and the neo-Marxist are caricatured as extreme tendencies - towards small-scale and empirical particularism on the one hand and reductionist and normative grand narratives on the other-between which Tarlow will seek to mediate.

The anonymous contract archaeologist is portrayed as a myopic accumulator of site-specific data. Site reports from development-funded archaeology are criticized for their lack of engagement with post-medieval material [p. 184]. Where later material is engaged with in grey-literature reports, the book bemoans "the limited ambitions of most archaeologists working in this period to interpret their work in terms of wider social and cultural change" [p.164], or the "naïve progressivism" of traditional industrial archaeology's focus on inventions and new techniques [pp. 5-6]. The results of fieldwork are frustratingly "hard to access, seldom properly published and almost never interpreted" [p. 189]. The potential role, or responsibility, of the archaeologist based in higher education to take the lead on precisely this kind of interpretive work, or to build new kinds of relationships with the professional sector, is not considered. On several occasions the tone suggests that Tarlow is calling into question the very idea of fine-grained studies of recent material culture, for example in the comment that "better dating of other tiles would allow more careful study of the fascinating history of underdrainage" [p. 61]. Archaeologists engaging in "the detailed study of material objects themselves" are characterized as only focusing on "manufacture, functionality and material" [p. 29]. Dissatisfied with the "good, detailed and meticulous work on the archaeology of later historical Britain" [p.197], Tarlow calls for archaeologists to "be far more ambitious" [p. 5], arguing in particular for "the development of interpretive historical archaeologies of Britain in future years" [pp. 164-165]:

Until now British later historical archaeology has had little in the way of synthesis, and virtually no arguments about historical process in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; no canonical set of "big questions"; no home-grown interpretive narratives for new work to demolish or modify. [p.201]

Meanwhile, "Marxist" explanatory frameworks are dismissed as big questions, grand syntheses, and broad narratives that always reduce "the historical particularity of a context" to the negotiation of power relationships?' They cannot accommodate "philanthropy, aspiration and collective activity" [p. 9]:

[T]he archaeology of capitalism always asks the same question: what does this or that aspect of the material past tell us about relationships of power between social groups? [p. 10]

Marxist approaches are criticized as presenting the ruling class as "pantomime villains" who "clobbered the poor" [p. 200]. In relation to improvement in Britain this would lead to describing the Scottish clearances through "a cartoon history of dastardly villains, driven by wickedness and greed, and a helplessly passive peasantry, powerless to prevent the annihilation of their bucolic idyll" [p. 80]. Here, regrettably, the complexity of recent developments and current debates in Marxist historical archaeology are left unexplored (see discussions by Leone 2005; McGuire 2006).

Tarlow's contextual approach sets up this distinction between large-scale structures or explanations and small-scale situations or interventions, and then calls for a measured mediation between them. In doing so she contributes to an influential line of enquiry in British historical archaeology that has emerged since the early 1990s. We might usefully call this line of enquiry the "Interpretive Critique" of post-medieval archaeology. Like the Annapolis approach debated by Tarlow, this term could be understood as "a shorthand intended to represent a tendency rather than a creed" (Tarlow 1999a: 468). While it shares some characteristics with interpretive approaches in North American historical archaeology, the Interpretive Critique is distinct, and often self-consciously so. Developed especially by historical archaeologists who conducted their doctoral research in the atmosphere of Cambridge in the 1990s (Hicks 2007a: 1324), it applies aspects of British post-processual thinking to the recent past. For more than ten years scholars applying this critique have expressed frustration with purely descriptive and empirical accounts of the recent past, a dissatisfaction with grand, "totalizing" theory, and an interest in the use of social theory in archaeological explanation. Two books in particular stand out as landmarks in this tradition- Matthew Johnson's An Archaeology of Capitalism (1996) and Sarah Tarlow's own co-edited volume The Familiar Past? (1999, with Susie West). Like this reviewer, many will recall the excitement of the heralding of a "new postmedieval archaeology", and Tarlow and West's "manifesto for later historical archaeology in Britain" which called for the development in the United Kingdom of "the kind of large scale and ambitious research projects which have given American historical archaeology its particular vigour". A period of unprecedented activity and self-assuredness in British historical archaeology was catalyzed.

And yet, a decade since that fin-de-siècle optimism, the tone of The Archaeology of Improvement is considerably more downbeat. In this book-length restatement of the Interpretive Critique, the idea of improvement is deployed as a means of moderating impulses towards the fine-grained or the large-scale. Improvement is not a big question. So rather than "a set of closely defined rules and regularities”, the book provides "a web of ambiguities and further questions" [p. 190]. The idea of improvement, the book argues, can offer no new grand synthesis. No conclusions are drawn. Instead, the equivocal "Introduction" and the "Final Thoughts" pre-empt the volume's reception by its readership with bullet-pointed "notes and omissions" [pp. 27-32] and "questions and ambiguities" [pp. 197-201].

This self-denigrating open-endedness is frustrating for the reader, but it does make possible what I take to be the book's principal contribution. Tarlow thinks through and makes clear the attitudes towards archaeological materials that derive from the Interpretive Critique. What are the consequences, in other words, of shifting this approach from critique to practice? At this point we might consider our second question.

Improvement: What Kind of Archaeological Object is it?

The idea that the historical study of the late 18th and early-mid 19th centuries might make use of the idea of improvement derives from Asa Briggs' contribution to W.N. Medlicott's ten-volume History of England. The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867, first published in 1959. The period division for the eighth volume in the series was "unconventional" (Briggs 1959: 1) - 'caught between "Eighteenth Century England" (Volume 7) and "Late Nineteenth Century England)' (Volume 9). In his introduction, Briggs used the idea of improvement-visible in the utilitarianism of John -Stuart Mill, in the stadial models of society of Adam Smith, and in a wide range of contemporary literature that related to technology, agriculture, and governance - as a "clear-cut theme" for the timeframe: capturing the mood of a period of self-confident expansion in manufacturing and transport industries, trade and population, the bringing of the middle classes into political life, and the beginnings of modern local and national government in England. The Age of Improvement became a key introductory text for students. Well-thumbed, multiple copies may be found in continuing-education libraries in places such as Bristol, Birmingham, Oxford, and Leicester, since the volume was a favorite of extra-mural tutors on the new local studies courses that emerged during the 1960s. Such courses, and especially the idea of local history or local studies, were a central influence upon the development of industrial and post-medieval archaeology during the 1970s, and improvement provided a useful example of the relationships between ideas. and material change - visible, as Joan Thirsk put it, in both ‘plough and pen’.

Tarlow also uses improvement as a cross-cutting theme, but where Briggs used it to capture the self-confidence of economic, technological, and social change in the Georgian and early Victorian periods, in order to bring some coherence to this unusual period division within the ten-volume series, in Tarlow's analysis it somehow develops more weight. Improvement is capitalized. It is an "ethic" [p. 16], a "philosophy" [p. 33], an "aesthetic" [p. 192], and even an "ideology" [p. 189], albeit "never a fully articulated or an entirely coherent ideology" [p. 192]. Improvement means "both profit and morals" [p. 12]. It is an index of "cultural and ideological change" [p. 50]. It is both "cumulative and progressive" in focus [p. 17], concerned with the self or the divine rather than with society as a whole. It emphasizes "cleanliness, order, rational organisation, light and clarity" and an orientation towards the future [p. 67]. It is involved in "the positioning of people and families in social networks" [p. 26], and it is "a characteristic of modernity": "the sorts of improvement with which th[e] book is concerned were not preoccupations of medieval or even earlier modern people" [p. 11].

The book "tracks" improvement [p. 189] by defining it as a literary theme of the time, and then identifying manifestations ofit in four aspects of the material culture of late 18th-century and early 19th-century Britain: the rural built environment (Chapters 2-3), the urban built environment (Chapter 4), institutions (Chapter 5), and material goods (Chapter 6). This, then, is a kind of literary archaeology: improvement is set out as an emic, contextual category, which was current in the writing of the time rather than imposed by the archaeologist. Tarlow's literary archaeology involves a particular attitude to material things. Objects and "material practices" are for Tarlow "about belief, culture, aspiration and ways of understanding the world" [p. 10]. Tracking a literary trope serves to reduce landscapes, buildings, and objects to illustrations of an interpretive theme. For example, the field drains that are regularly encountered in rural excavations are used to suggest "the ideological meaning of drainage as an indication of Improvement" [p. 62]. Improvement is presented as "an especially useful lens for the discipline of archaeology” which can be used to "join material culture with ideology” [p. 18, my emphasis].

But the analysis is always lopsided. The chapter on material goods demonstrates the implications of the approach most clearly. A number of accounts of the excavation of rubbish pits, published in county journals such as Oxoniensia and Essex Archaeology and History are discussed [pp. 185-188]. Rather than using these accounts as a point of departure for more detailed examinations of the excavated material culture, they are subsumed in a historical narrative of improving change. A general shift from medieval and early modem disposal of waste in "open, unlined pits, or in heaps or layers on the ground." to "the use of deep, lined pits and redundant underground features" is suggested [p. 188]. Tarlow argues that the archaeological record holds evidence for "a particular frenzy of pit-digging in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries followed by a near ubiquitous abrupt (in archaeological terms) halt to the disposal of rubbish in pits in the first half of the nineteenth century" [p. 187]. Tarlow associates these apparent changes with "a growing intolerance of smells and mess in the immediate vicinity of the house" [p. 188], which in turn is connected with the idea of improvement.

Substantial dumps, or clearance layers, are indeed a common feature of late 18th- and early 19th-century urban archaeology in Britain, although most commonly they survive as in-filled features such as cellars, soakaways, or domestic privies rather than purpose-dug pits, and they more often comprise "dry goods" such as broken ceramics and glass than kitchen refuse such as animal bone. Tarlow is incorrect, however, to argue that there is an overall increase in the digging and filling of rubbish pits during the late 18th century: the digging of pits for domestic rubbish is a medieval and early modem phenomenon that declines markedly in British towns from the turn of the 18th century, rather than a century later. Meanwhile, in the first half of the 19th century, we clearly do not need the absence of archaeological remains to demonstrate the well-documented increase in refuse removal by scavengers and rubbish carters. In practice, by eschewing what Tarlow has previously described as "the mood-killing qualities of data-dense academic writing” the Interpretive Critique risks reducing objects to the illustration of its theme.


What, then, are the implications of the study for the future development of British historical archaeology? An important context for Tarlow's use of the idea of improvement as "a cross-cutting ethic that affected many spheres of practice" [p. 31] is James Deetz's account of the 'Georgian Order', previously developed in a British context by Matthew Johnson's Archaeology of Capitalism. But the strong thematic focus in this book, its weak model of engagement with archaeological material, and its critiques of the contributions of field archaeology point, in a way that those earlier studies did not, towards a division of disciplinary labor. The reader is reminded of David Clarke's famous warning in relation to prehistoric archaeology about the model of the academic as the "armchair synthesiser of the analytical work of the [field] archaeologist': a "dilettante" in contrast with the "unintelligent excavator or the narrow-minded specialist". The problem lies in the book's use of a literary, as opposed to an archaeological, mode of explanation. Unlike previous archaeological studies of improvement in Scottish contexts, which have been based on extensive fieldwork (Dalglish 2003; Symonds 1999), the landscapes, buildings, and objects constitute no more than what Max Gluckman would have called "apt illustration". The implications of this approach have both historiographic and geographical dimensions.

What kind of historiography results from such an approach? A central premise of the Interpretive Critique was the idea of the past as other, or, the importance of defamiliarizing the superficially familiar recent past before interpreting it. These arguments are restated here [p. 10], but the distance leads to a kind of soft focus in which material complexities are blurred. What emerges is a form of empathy with the past. Avoiding "anachronism" is set up as a major concern [pp. 27, 80]. The book aims "to draw out what is distinctive about later historical periods" [p. 10, my emphasis]. The result often seems little removed from the ideal of romantic historicism - wie es eigentlich war – that was famously problematized by Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, updated through an interpretive turn that parallels the new historicist thinking of writers like Stephen Greenblatt. The surprising result is that "the historical archaeology of improvement in Britain" replaces the prime movers of 1980s Marxian archaeologies with improvement as a sort of surrogate capitalism, apparently wrung dry of "totalising" impulses and of any trace of a "radical agenda" [pp. 8-10], and yet bolstered by a single literary trope that smoothes out complexity, incoherence, or fragmentation. This brings about a certain timelessness, in which the social and material changes between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries are almost unmentioned.

The geographical implications of the study relate to the Britishness in the title of the book. One of the initial concerns that was expressed about the Interpretive Critique in British historical archaeology was its tendency to "retain a local agenda" (Hicks 2000: par. 1). Here, in relation to improvement, Tarlow follows Briggs (1959) in his remarkable neglect of colonial history. In this respect Briggs' study is a prime example, perhaps, of the kind of "home-grown interpretive narrative" [p. 201] that Tarlow calls for. The fact that British colonialism was a central arena in which ideas of improvement were worked out, both in writing and in practice, is neglected. The stated reason for this - that such improvement literature "deal[s] mostly with the indigenous people of Africa or America" [p. 16] – obscures the central role of ideas of improvement in plantation slavery (Hicks 2007b), and the attendant attitudes to landscape, buildings, and human improvement that without doubt fed back into ideas of improvement in Britain at precisely this time (Hicks 2007c). These geographical restrictions mean that Tarlow's previous excellent work on utopian sites is omitted from the study, and the potential connections between utopian settlements and improvement are never made (Tarlow 2003). By writing out colonialism, Tarlow adopts a particular form of nationalist historiography which reproduces precisely the "concentrat[ion] on the very local" and the failure to "incorporat[e] a sense of larger historical processes at work" for which she criticizes previous studies in industrial archaeology [p. 27]. In these respects, despite the rhetorical discussions of traditionalist approaches, the study fits coherently into post-war traditions of local studies, most prominent among which was the Leicester school of local history.

It is a difficult and frustrating task to review a major publication by a leading scholar and a valued colleague that pre-empts so much of its possible reception. I do not believe that Tarlow's decision not to "foreground capitalism" makes her work "politically suspect" [p. 8]. And I do not feel that a focus upon ideas and philosophies is incompatible with an archaeological approach [p. 29]. Without doubt, the book is a landmark contribution to British historical archaeology, the product of considerable scholarly effort on the part of a key thinker in contemporary British archaeology. Nevertheless, the attempt to stretch the Interpretive Critique across a book-length study is unsuccessful.

The reasons for this failure relate to the use of two unhelpful models of radical difference: between past and present, and between British and non-British history and archaeology. The first leads to a historicist-interpretive model that uses archaeological engagements with material things only for the illustration of ideational themes. The second isolates the work not just from the central influence of colonial history upon modem Britain, but also from the thinking and perspectives of non-British traditions of historical archaeology.

Tarlow hopes that the book will be "employed, adapted or rejected by others in the project of developing a theoretically sophisticated...historical archaeology in Britain" [p. 2]. Its value is to expose the limitations of the conception of materiality (in both senses-objects and their significance) in the Interpretive Critique of post-medieval archaeology. We might think back to the problems identified with contextual archaeology in European prehistory in the late 1980s (e.g. Barrett 1988). It is important that historical archaeology learns from those debates and from the highly stimulating and materially-engaged studies that have developed from them (see most recently Jones 2007: 77-84). In the modem period the requirement to think through the archaeologist's material focus is felt even more keenly than in prehistoric studies. Like it or not, the landscapes, buildings, and objects that we record and excavate are the stuff of politics - whether in the unequal distributions of material things across human populations, in the material conditions in which new bourgeois ideas of self improvement were imagined and worked out, or in our own choices over which material things and human populations we choose to study and which we do not.

The challenge ahead will involve decentring the Britishness in British historical archaeology. Such decentring involves moving away from a focus only on human identities and ideas that neglects the complex affordances of material things, while also relocating our narratives of historical process to accommodate the unceasing mobilities of objects and people: mapping human and material movements onto one another without having to give way to the crude application of grand schemes. In doing so, British historical archaeologists must complement critique with more positive, creative, and constructive contributions that seek to answer archaeological questions about the recent past. After all (with apologies to David Clarke), historical archaeology is archaeology is archaeology.

Selected References

NB this is an edited version of the paper, without full references and citations. For the full references, please see the published paper in Journal of Field Archaeology 33(1): 111-116.

Briggs, Asa 1959. The Age of lmprovement 1783-1867. History of England Vol. 8. London: Longmans.

Clarke, David 1968. Analytical Archaeology. London: Methuen.

Dalglish, Chris 2003. Rural Society in the Age of Reason: An Archaeology of the Emergence of Modern Life in the Southern Scottish Highlands. New York: Plenum.

Deetz, James 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Hicks, Dan 2007. The Garden of the World: A Historical Archaeology of Sugar Landscapes in the Eastern Caribbean. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Johnson, Matthew H. 1996 An Archaeology of Capitalism. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, Andy 2007 Memory and Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leone, Mark P. 2005 The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McGuire, Randall H. 2006 Marxist Historical Archaeology. In Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 123-142.

Tarlow, Sarah, and Susie West (eds) 1999 The Familiar Past? Archaeologies of Later Historical Britain. London: Routledge.

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