The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750-1850.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Schmidt, Albert J.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750-1850 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Tarlow, Sarah
Accession Number: 209577980
Full Text: The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750-1850. By Sarah Tarlow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii plus 222 pp. $88).

Any historian working in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British history and worth his salt is familiar with the notion of Improvement. He thinks immediately of improver landholders like those in the Midlands or Scottish Highlands who by either enclosures or "clearances" changed their respective landscapes and work ethic forever. But Tarlow's work is not about encloser landlords; nor, for that matter, Manchester cotton lords and Liverpool slavers--many of whom, no doubt, entertained notions of Improvement.

So what then does Tarlow offer in the way of new insights on Improver doings? As the title suggests, Tarlow's is not a general work or even one of current or past digs. Rather, it is really about archaeological periodization and theory and the place of Improvement in it. In Tarlow's own words, she has

After noting things which the book is not, she emphasizes what it is, "a framework which I hope can be employed, adapted or rejected by others in the project of developing a theoretically sophisticated later historical archaeology in Britain." (pp. 1-2).

Whether the author's attempt to organize a specific period in British historical archaeology around the idea of Improvement will succeed is not immediately evident; however, the reasoning behind it seems sound enough. Tarlow shows how related disciplines--history, historical geography and other disciplines--"demonstrate that there are clear connections in the way that urban and rural landscapes, institutions of reform, the use of materials and the conditions of the working people all developed at this time." What she really does with notable success is to "show how local and technical details can link to big phenomena in the cultural history of ideas. ... [how] the cultural meanings of modernity can be read in a rubbish pit." (p. 201) As one who scoured a bottle dump at the far end of his own rural Connecticut stone wall, I can attest to the gratification of those findings which had clear historical/cultural implications.

As the author noted she could not in her small volume address all aspects of Improvement: she includes no chapters on manufactures, commerce, and transportation. Those, however, on agriculture, the rural landscape, towns, and people are very informative. The latter, on improving people, is a important contribution to the 'Improver' mold, and the one on "The Right Stuff", the archaeology of bleach works, window glass, transfer printed wares, and rubbish pits, is perhaps the best of the lot.

This provocative archaeology text should prod its readers--particularly those in archaeology--to think 'big", operating under the rubric of Improvement/ Enlightenment. In doing so, they should partake of diverse history--economic, technological, landscape, environmental, agricultural, and architectural, to name the obvious. The archaeological focus on 'things' yields endless insights for archaeologists and historians alike, who, if they are imaginative, will discern the significance of new and "improved" as well as old things. In this sense the regenerated docklands of Liverpool, London, Clydeside Glasgow, and Salford and their present culture offer a new dimension of improver contexualizing.

Albert J. Schmidt

Quinnipiac College of Law and George Washington University
chosen to focus on aspects of the material evidence of the period
  which throw light on what I consider to be an important and
  characteristic aspect of the period: the idea of Improvement. My ...
  aim here is to provide an enhanced historical and theoretical context
  for existing and future work; to complement and contextualise the
  numerous pieces of small scale and meticulous work that have been
  produced in industrial, post-medieval and landscape archaeology.
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