A Communications Archaeology

The communication of goods, ideas, and people was the subject of an archaeology conference I co-ran with Nigel Linge of the School of Computing, Science and Engineering on Saturday 3rd March. As well as individuals from the University of Salford, the speakers included staff from the Science Museum in London, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and English Heritage. The conference focussed upon the archaeology of communications systems from the last 200 years, but particularly from the 20th century. As an industrial and landscape archaeologist I am used to dealing with the physical remains of turnpikes, canals and railways (covered briefly on Saturday). These classic Industrial transport networks, to which we might add the mid-20th century motorway system, have left a substantial engineering and architectural legacy; from aqueducts and viaducts, tunnels and bridges, to embankments, cuttings, tollbooths, warehouses, railway stations and service stations (see Palmer M, Nevell M & Sissons M, 2012, Industrial Archaeology: A Handbook. York: Council for British Archaeology). Often, form followed function in the design of individual transport structures, whilst a more detailed material culture can be found in the hoists mechanisms, milestones, railway tracks and signage of each transport network. There is though, still much to learn in this area; in the influence of turnpike construction on canal design, and the impact of the form of canal structures on the new railway transport network. We have also only just begun to look at the archaeology of the construction gangs that built these industrial networks; the navies.

One the debates that emerged during the day, was what will be the archaeological legacy of the late 20th century communications networks? The mass print media of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has left little in the way of a distinguished architectural legacy (the 1930s Daily Mail building in Manchester being a noted exception), whilst the newspaper print machinery can now only be found in museums. It seems likely that that of the late 20th century will leave an equally undistinguished architectural legacy. The Centre for Applied Archaeology has recently surveyed a 1950s Cold War communications bunker at Worsley, and whilst the concrete structure has survived the communications equipment and power supply have long been removed. This has made the interpretation of the layout and the function of the building difficult, although fortunately documentary material has survived that throws light on this particular site. Other elements of the Cold War communications system may not be so well recorded, or the documentary material so readily available; how does one interpret a loan radar dish when the associated command post or bunker has long gone, or vice-versa? The situation gets even more complex when trying to record the evolution of the digital age over the last 40 years. Whilst it is possible to come up with a typology of cable and fibre-optic types, only a limited number of historic televisions and computer can be curated for later generations, and who is to say which of the early 21st century mass digital devices such as the mp3 player; smart phone and tablet should be kept for posterity. More to the point how do we as archaeologists understand how these devices work when they are merely conduits for digital data on the internet; who has the resources to curate billions of former internet pages?

In the UK some of these issues have begun to be debated in the last by CADW, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and specialist museums such as The Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford decade (Bradley A, Buchli V, Fairclough G, Hicks D, Miller J & Schofield J, 2004, Change and Creation: Historic Landscape Character 1950-2000, London: English Heritage). Yet, because the new communication systems of the last 40 years have been based around the transmission of digital data in cables and as radio waves there are very few iconic buildings to survey, nor the equivalent of transport routes to study. Radio antennae, dishes and towers are exceptional in the new digital landscape.

The recording of these new communication systems will require fresh archaeological approaches and cross-disciplinary co-operation if we are to fully understand the significance of the material culture of the 21st century. With this in mind, four or five of the conference papers will be published next year as a special edition of the journal Industrial Archaeology Review, published by the Association for Industrial Archaeology, where the debate begun on Saturday will continue.

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