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The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century

By Alasdair Brooks, editor

Review By Douglas E. Ross

March 22, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 155-156

One great irony of historical archaeology is that far more research is done on nineteenth century British material culture overseas than in Britain itself, despite the importance of the Empire and its material culture to global trade networks. The flipside is that such international research is often done without a real understanding of how these objects were used and given meaning in their country of origin. This edited volume, based on a conference session at the 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Florida, seeks to redress this imbalance by presenting a collection of studies on British material culture in the homeland itself.

The volume’s core argument is that an understanding of how British material culture is produced, used, and given meaning in Britain is key to understanding its consumption abroad. Alasdair Brooks defines Britain here as England, Scotland, and Wales, and adopts an expanded definition of the nineteenth century to span the start of the Industrial Revolution through the end of Britain’s role as a global power, roughly 1750-1940. Emphasis is on everyday household objects, the category most ignored by archaeologists and other scholars of the nineteenth century.

An effort is made to highlight diversity by drawing on academic and commercial archaeology, considering mass-produced goods commonly recovered archaeologically, and consulting uncommon or unconventional datasets. For example, Carolyn White’s chapter on hair curlers fills an important gap in published data on hair accessories and C. Broughton Anderson’s chapter approaches written leases as a form of material culture. Some datasets like these leases are not directly comparable with overseas assemblages, but the methods with which they are approached are transferrable to other contexts.

While most chapters address the value of British material culture to international studies, some demonstrate how international historical archaeology can contribute to research in Britain. Also, some make explicit international comparisons, while others offer approaches or datasets potentially applicable or comparable abroad. Authors also seek to address topics like function, economics, status, and meaning commonly explored by archaeologists working overseas, themes that make these studies more relevant for an international audience.

Other topics include ceramic tableware decoration, government excise marks on stoneware bottles, animal bones, elite dining habits, figurines and other miniature objects, and coffins and coffin fittings. These objects come from urban and rural sites associated with lower, middle, and upper classes, including residences, potteries, churches and cathedrals, and cemeteries. Interpretive frameworks address themes of state control, elite rituals, landscape transformations, social status and identity, material quality, mass production, and consumption.

This book is of most relevance to historical archaeologists, but will also be of interest to other scholars of nineteenth century material culture. Of most use to archaeologists in British Columbia is the chapter by Alastair Brooks, Aileen Connor, and Rachel Clarke on an assemblage of ceramic tableware from working-class contexts in a small regional English town, c. 1700-1900, with emphasis on changing decorative techniques across this period. In particular, it critically assesses an apparent American preference for lightly decorated ceramics and a preference in the British Empire for more brightly coloured wares.

Equally useful is Penny Crook’s method for recording, assessing, and comparing the quality of consumer goods recovered archaeologically by analyzing flaws in glass and ceramics, in this case from nineteenth century working-class assemblages in England and Australia. In doing so, it offers an additional line of evidence for studying and comparing consumer habits across households. Also valuable is James Symonds’ concluding discussion of the book’s contributions and the context he provides of emerging industrialization, mass production, and consumer society.

This strong volume of well-crafted papers enhances our understanding of nineteenth century British material culture. However, these studies represent only the beginning of what needs to be more systematic research on various categories of objects, including detailed analyses of entire assemblages. The choice of case studies, while intentionally diverse, is idiosyncratic, the product of a conference session rather than a systematic examination of all major categories of artifacts commonly found on nineteenth century sites. As such, only some chapters will be of direct use to most archaeologists. As Symonds notes, there remains a need for additional in-depth studies of other objects from a range of settings, but this ideal does not diminish the wider message this volume seeks to convey or the quality of the papers collected here.

The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century
Alasdair Brooks, editor
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press & Society for Historical Archaeology, 2015. 390 pp. $90.00