2.4 Improvement

Although often associated with the changes to the rural landscape of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and indeed considered in this sense in Section 7 – People and Place), Dalglish ( 2003) and Tarlow ( 2007) have argued that Improvement can be understood as an ameliorative ethic that cross-cut many areas of society at the time. Improvement was frequently discussed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in relation to the urban environment, the self and the working classes as well as industry, communication and society. Improvement is also perhaps the paramount value of utopian thinkers and experimenters such as Robert Owen of New Lanark (see the ScARF Case Study: New Lanark).  Although such ‘utopian’ thought was marginal and in some ways extreme, it was nevertheless significant in terms of its influence and because it distilled the essence of the Improvement ethic of the period (see Tarlow 2002, Breen 2006 for discussion of the potential of ‘the archaeology of utopia’).

An Improvement ethic affected not only the management of agricultural and rural estates, but also the reshaping of towns and urban areas.  The construction of planned housing with a common front line and a unified style, often classically influenced; the provision of clean water and sewage disposal; the widening, paving, lighting, cleaning ,draining and policing of streets; the establishment of open areas such as parks and public gardens; and the foundation of institutional and communal buildings such as town halls, schools, places of worship, Literary and Philosophical Associations, reading rooms and libraries, as well as hospitals, asylums, prisons, and universities all indicate the modern view that a clean, orderly and beautiful physical environment will produce a clean, orderly and Improved society.

Amidst the archaeology of industrialisation and mining, attention should also be paid to prospects for self-improvement provided by Reading Societies (Crawford 1996; Leadhills Reading Society). Founded in 1741, the Leadhills Reading Society was the first subscription library to be established for the self-improvement of mineworkers. A second library was established in the neighbouring mining village of Wanlockhead in 1756. These initiatives therefore predate by several decades the New Lanark project of Robert Owen, and illustrate the diversity of the developmental history archaeology of industrial and mining communities. The modern view of this diversity can only be enhanced by the application of archaeological techniques to the study of its constituent elements.

The term ‘Improvement’ is chosen to denote these various re-formations in the modern era because it was the most widely used term at the time, and applied to everything from self-betterment to the beautification of towns, as well as increasing agricultural productivity and industrial production.  It does not, of course, imply that people in the contemporary world should or do regard those changes as necessarily ‘for the better’.  In fact, one of the important purposes of archaeology of this period is to find appropriate ways to critique the progressivist narrative of improvement in traditional histories, without succumbing to the nostalgic Romanticism of idealising the ‘pre-modern’.  Improvement was, as much as anything else, a practical and material project, and archaeological research therefore has a significant part to play in understanding the meanings and the tangible implications and impacts of the idea of Improvement for people’s lives.

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