The history of the modern world is often framed in terms of a series of changes and processes operating at an unprecedented rate and scale: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Improvement, the Industrial Revolution, Capitalism. The particular optimism and ambition of such changes is encapsulated in the idea of ‘Reformations’. This suggests change that is active, ‘Improving’ and large scale. It also emphasises the notion that the subjects of change – landscapes, towns, buildings, processes, people – can be ‘re-formed’, made again (and made ‘better’). Re-formation, however, also refers to the process of reconstructing people, through institutions such as prisons, asylums and schools, through philanthropic experiments and social engineering in planned settlements or Improved housing, through new modes of communication changing ways of thinking and interacting. These changes are not necessarily sudden and cataclysmic, as is suggested by the term ‘revolution’ (as in the agricultural, industrial or consumer revolutions); they can be gradual and incremental.
This theme is in many ways concerned with the ways in which archaeology of the modern period engages with other disciplines through shared questions and preoccupations. Archaeological research can comment upon, develop and question our understanding of the key over-arching historical narratives of the modern past. Archaeology provides a critical perspective on these narratives by problematising grand concepts such as ‘capitalism’ and providing a way to explore their local manifestations. Archaeology can contribute more than illustrative examples that add colour to essentially historical debates; it can develop sophisticated accounts of the ways in which landscapes, objects, buildings and places create and express new and changing understandings of the world and relationships with it. The questions considered here are not narrowly Scottish in their significance, but of global relevance. The way that Scotland leads, falls behind, matches or diverges from these global processes is of central interest, and the engagement of local developments with national, international and global ones is key to this framework, as will be considered in subsequent sections. One of archaeology’s great strengths is its ability to look at the details of how processes played out in practice and in context, providing us with the capacity to challenge and refine received ideas about the past.
This chapter will briefly set out some of the dominant historical themes which archaeology can address and which can be understood through the concept of ‘reformation’. Reformation, or re-formation, contains the sense of making again, and this has often been an explicit agenda for ‘reformers’ of the modern period, as they have critiqued old forms of religion, society, economy and personhood and sought to tear down the traditional edifices of society and, in their place, form new religious sects, societies, economies and identities. Re-formations of people, places and society have attributed central importance to the physical world – to the making of places, landscapes, towns, and objects that promote and embody the ideals of reformation. As such, ‘reformation’ demands consideration in any archaeological analysis of the modern past
Research under this theme must, though, adopt a questioning stance to the reformations it studies. It is important to explore assumptions about the nature of these reformations by researching dissent, resistance, continuity in the face of change and the heterogeneity and contextuality of responses to the reformation of the modern world. Not everyone would have been content to see old practices rejected or abandoned, or joined the consensus view of what reformed institutions should look like. In material practice, evidence of continuity, re-use, adaptation – or indeed of overt, violent resistance – testifies to the complex range of responses to reformation.
This chapter is thematically organised and, inevitably, there is a compression of diachronic historical process. Clearly, the capitalism of the 1660s is not the same as that of the 1850s. Some of the themes discussed here relate especially strongly to one period or another within the long time frame of the modern past. However, a strength of the archaeological approach is its ability to put change in its long-term context, examining the pace and scale of reformations, their precursors and afterlives.