The archaeological resources of the early modern and modern periods in Argyll are rich, complex, and understudied. As has often been the case, study of the last five hundred years has been hampered by the misperception that the existence of documentary records negates the need to study, explore, and preserve the built and material heritage. It is notable, for example, that Graham Ritchie’s (1997) Archaeology of Argyll stops at the end of the Norse period, implying that later periods are out with the purview of archaeology. The significance of the last five hundred years in the history of the region, and of Scotland more broadly, cannot be overstated. The events and material transformations of the period provide the foundation for understanding the contemporary landscape and have considerable value for local community identity as well as sustainability. We are surrounded by the material traces of processes including European expansion, the rise of capitalism, Improvement, industrialisation, and globalisation, yet these traces are, more often than not, under-appreciated and under threat. This research framework, therefore, argues for the importance of addressing the wealth of the heritage of the recent past, while setting out a series of themes to help guide decision-making and research agendas.
Explorations of the character of Argyll’s early modern and modern archaeology should be situated within the broader disciplines of post-medieval/ historical archaeology. Archaeological approaches to the period 1600-1900 have developed in disparate fashions in different parts of the world. In the British Isles, the period is generally referred to as the ‘post-medieval’ and until recently, post-medieval archaeology tended to concentrate upon the period before 1750, with later sites perceived to be the remit of industrial archaeology (Mytum 2016; Horning and Palmer 2009). Over the last 10-15 years however, there has been a broadening of the discipline and a relaxation of firm boundaries between periods, as reflected in the ScARF Research Agenda: Modern Scotland: Archaeology, the Modern past and the Modern present (Hall and Price 2012) and the ScARF Marine and Maritime Panel report (Atkinson and Hale 2012). The ScARF panel report clearly states that archaeology ‘Is the study of the relationship between people and their material environment…. [as such] how could we hope to understand the history of modern life without the archaeological perspective?’ (Hall and Price 2012, iii). Moving beyond the British Isles, on a global scale, the study of the last five hundred years falls within the remit of the discipline of historical archaeology. Initially developed in North America and primarily focused upon tracing the material correlates of European expansion, the field has expanded to address all aspects of human experience from roughly 1550 to the present day. Historical archaeology has also expanded globally, with particularly flourishing research communities established in Australasia (Lawrence and Davies 2010) the Caribbean (Armstrong 2013), South America (especially Brazil, see Funari 1997), Scandinavia (Naum and Nordin 2013), and the Iberian Peninsula (Gomez and Casimiro 2013), with important work taking places in a range of African countries (eg Jopela and Fredriksen 2015, Pikirayi 2013).
Wherever research is taking place, the challenges of pursuing historical archaeology are myriad. The wealth of source materials available is both the key advantage and disadvantage for the field. For the last half century, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have worked to demonstrate the value of a multi-source approach to the relatively recent past. The best research in historical archaeology recognises that no one source can provide a complete picture of past experience. Documentary sources, material sources, and ethnographic sources are sometimes complementary, but more often either talk past one another, or are actively contradictory. It is in those spaces that some of the most interesting stories can emerge. Documentary sources for the period in question are dominated by official records and the writings of a very limited sector of society. As such, they often tell us very little at all about the experiences of the majority of people. As documentary sources are themselves the creation of individuals, even if acting on behalf of an institution, inevitably they contain biases. Rather than accepting that historical records provide us with the facts that archaeology can perhaps illuminate, we should consider what Napoleon once said “What is history, but a fable agreed on”. Documents are not objective records, but neither are material sources. All sources are capable of being misread or misunderstood in the present. Similarly, oral histories and oral traditions, while of considerable value to the study of the period, cannot be taken at face value. So while the early modern and modern period in Argyll may be blest with a wealth of sources, interrogating those sources is not straightforward.
In addition to wrangling over how best to balance source materials, the historiography of post-medieval/ historical archaeology is replete with discourses over the temporal scope of the discipline. Exactly what is modern, and when does the so-called modern period begin? Clearly individuals did not wake up one day and declare themselves to be post-medieval or modern. Such divisions are heuristic devices employed by scholars. The impacts of processes like capitalism were not uniformly felt around the globe, nor even uniformly experienced within the same region. So it should be understood at the outset in bracketing the period under study as that time period from 1600 onwards, this research framework explicitly does not argue for any notable break in human experience in the year 1600. This is merely a division of convenience in keeping with standard practice.