Home | Contact Us | Search:  

Part 4: Making a Living in Rural America: The Archaeology of Work

In industrial nations around the world, workers spend at least one-third of the day performing a service or producing a commodity to sell. In pre-industrial societies, workers often devote even more time to production. Our jobs frequently define who we are and how we live. Thus the world of work offers historical archaeologists innumerable opportunities to study how past people made their living and how they thought about their lives.

Have you ever traveled down the highway and seen abandoned farmhouses, mills, fences, or fields? Have you wondered who lived there and worked there, and what happened to them? Archaeologists view every agricultural and industrial site as unique: we want to discover what these past builders and producers learned and whether this technology still has value. By piecing together the fragments of artifacts we dig up with information from historical documents, building and landscape remains, and oral histories, we can open a window into the everyday lives of rural Americans.

Over the years, we have learned to apply archaeological methods to study industrial features as large as canals and as small as the privy pits in the canal-diggers’ backyards. We can only understand the ‘big picture’ by linking workers and their daily lives to the technological and engineering developments that guided their work, and to the things they made. Working with historians of technology and social historians, we’re learning about the Industrial Revolution as a process of change. The process followed different courses in different places at different times, influenced by a complex array of environmental, political, and economic forces, and by the cultural experiences and practices of the local people.

Projects in the Book

(Click on bold link to view an excerpt)

Copyright © The Society for Historical Archaeology 2005.
Permission required to reprint or link to this website. Inquire with webmaster@sha.org