An archaeological light age: On modernity, urbanism and the materiality of light-based technologies

Society of Historical Archaeology conference, Washington DC
I have recently returned from the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference held in Washington DC. I was fortunate to take part in Krysta Ryzewski and Laura McAtackney’s session on the theme of ‘Contemporary and Historical Archaeologies of the City’, held on Friday, January 8th.

The session explored “the form, function and continuous material (re)creation” of the city as a manifestation of notions of modernity. The 15 speakers were asked to reflect on the challenges of researching cities in the recent past, for instance, “issues of scale, competing temporalities, excessive but partial material remains, and the need to incorporate human interactions.” The different scales presented in the papers ranged from an individual to a street to transnational relationships. The archaeology of identity, particularly the process through which place is claimed and lost, was another key theme. Furthermore, as Laura McAtackney noted in her concluding remarks, many of the projects that were presented in the session contained elements of participatory action research, seeking not only to understand but to collaborate with communities in order to effect positive change. In her eloquent presentation on the Homeless Heritage Project in the cities of York and Bristol Rachael Kiddey commented that homelessness is a state of being rather than an identity (‘the homeless’) and that her collaboration with individuals experiencing homelessness was expressed in terms of their being colleagues rather than informants or subjects of the research. This reminded me of the Science Shop model (or Community Based Participatory Research) where the relationship between communities and the university is reorientated toward the community asking questions and hence guiding research directions rather than the academy telling communities what it thinks they need to know: a more humble relationship.

Other ‘take-aways’ (presentations that sparked a new question, idea or were in some way inspirational) included Emma Dwyer‘s work on parochialism as a form of community tradition (governance and pride in architecture in an inner-city area of Liverpool); Zada Komara‘s deconstruction of urban and rural identities within Jenkins, Kentucky, a company coal town in the mountains. This would make an excellent paper at the forthcoming CHAT conference in Orkney on the theme of Rurality. Laura McAtackney‘s exploration of the archaeology of sectarianism in Belfast and the role of gendered placemaking through public art and memorials; and Krysta Ryzewski’s discussion of the forced displacement of the community of Roosevelt Park outside Grand Central Station, Detroit in the early 20th century. And I finally got the answer to why the station building has so many floors.

An archaeological light age: On modernity, urbanism and the materiality of light-based technologies
I spoke on research I am conducting on the inter-relationships between light, lighting technology and the creation, transformation and communication of industrial heritage, drawing on case studies in Japan, London, UK and the Ruhr region of Germany.

In my paper, I argued that since the inception of electric lighting in the 19th century, artificial light has been central to experiences of being urban, of being industrious, of being modern. Electric lighting has extended the hours of productivity in factories and workplaces, it has structured cities and it has been used to control and monitor the urban population. Light has created entertainment and atmosphere through the illumination of public buildings, festivals and public art.  Light means ‘open for business.’ Light can be spectacular but it is also mundane: it illuminates the private, the domestic sphere. As David Nasaw said lighting transformed the city from a “dark and treacherous netherworld into a glittering multi-coloured wonderland” (Nasaw 1999, 6 quoted in Edensor 2013, 426).

Since the 1980s, there has been a growing interest in light within the humanities and also within urban planning and studies of science and technology. While historians such as Chris Otter tell a story of ever-brightening urban space, anthropologists and material culture specialists Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr Sørensen’s argue that light is  both a material and social practice (2007). The geographer Tim Edensor has considered the effect of light and different forms of light and dark – gloaming, gloom, shadow etc. (2013), part of a burgeoning interest in geographies of the dark, of the night. Edensor notes that artificial light has been portrayed as a mechanism for the colonisation of the night, a process that is “synonymous with the industrial age” (2013, 425).

Edensor suggests that urban scholarship requires a more sensitive approach to lighting and darkness within urban space; one that “recognises the ways in which the power of each condition draws upon the relationalities and innumerable intersections of dark and light” (2013, 423).” In turn, one can return to Tanizaki’s seminal 1933 essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows and his argument that some objects are best appreciated in softer, darker light – Japanese art (e.g., lacquerware, calligraphy etc.). After reading Edensor and Tanizaki, I wondered of the potential for studying objects in conditions of shadow and darkness rather than white light.

Since urban regeneration, lighting technology has been widely implemented across the Ruhr region in Germany to present and promote its former industrial sites along the  400km Route der Industriekultur. Steelworks are floodlit at night for nocturnal tourism, landmark structures are illuminated and light art has been installed on mine heaps as a memorial to the region’s industrial history and culture. The Hansa Coking plant in Dortmund (image above) operates night-time tours. Cooling towers and belt conveyors are lit with blue light to symbolise the movement of water and coal. In a visit in February 2014 I took part in a night-time walk, buildings appearing lit as art objects while structural elements are unified or disconnected by light and darkness. As an aside an interesting rewilding initiative is being conducted on site.

“Visitors to this industrial monument are confronted with an exciting scenario of industrial history and newly evolving life, for we make no attempt to tame the rampant natural growth of the plants and trees which have sprung up amid the protected monuments, the rust and decay” (Hansa Coking Plant).

An image of a chemical plant in Himeji, Japan

In 1910, the French scientist George Claude first presented neon lighting to the public at the Paris International Exposition. Some twenty years later neon arrived in Tokyo and led to a revolution in commercial advertising (neonism) which can be seen in many cities in Japan. The view of the Japanese cities of Osaka and Kobe from Mount Maya is one of ‘Japan’s Big Three Night Views’ and it is also called ‘The Ten Million Dollar Night View.’ The term the ‘The Million Dollar Night View’ was coined after World War II when the cost of electric lighting in Kobe was roughly one million dollars. Since then, the tradition has kept up with urban development and the view has been promoted to ‘Ten Million.’ There is a particular night-time aesthetic that the Japanese are used to enjoying and participating in. In 2014, I examined the phenomena of Kojo Yakei (night-time factory views), a form of popular domestic tourism that takes city dwellers out to waterside industrial locations to take photographs of industrial structures.

Dark Skies
Urban illumination appears to be entering a new era of innovation with an increase in the variety of equipment, techniques and aesthetics, for instance, OLED and smart lighting. In the volume Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and the City the editors make the point that with increasing brightness light has become invisible. The technology is less visible and in consequence perhaps we have lost our sense of awe. This is where Kojo Yakei comes in. It is impossible to ignore the factories at night. An important aspect of my research has been taking archaeological practice out at night, of performing nocturnal archaeologies. I no longer assume that fieldwork, and in consequence, my recording of sites should take place during daylight. I realise now that that a daycentric approach to fieldwork was a habit, a convention I had unconsciously seen and repeated without thought. But I am left wondering if it is possible to have a truly nocturnal experience in the city? Or to put it another way, with all of this light does the night in the city still exist?

There are those who are calling for darkened skies. The International Dark Sky Movement campaigns for reduced lighting, promoting the Milky Way as cultural and natural heritage but also arguing that light pollution affects the circadian rhythms of humans and nocturnal organisms -after all we share the city with other species (Gallan and Gibson 2011). In Let There Be Night Paul Bogard (2008) argued that the night is endangered, it is a type of threatened ecology.  Historically, there are also many examples of ‘lights off’ from curfews to fogs (London’s nickname the ‘Big Smoke’  – until the 1956 Clean Air Act), wartime ‘black-outs’ and power cuts.

On the question of challenges in conducting urban research lighting is one example of a mutable material. I have written elsewhere on the future challenges and opportunities in studying materials and technologies (Orange 2014) – this mutability presents new opportunities for archaeologists of the recent past.

The industrial archaeology of the future is, after all, being created in the here and now. We could look at the materials and technologies which are trickling downfrom the aerospace and automotive industries into civil engineering projects: fibre-reinforced composites and smart materials which can change their properties in response to external conditions (Orange 2014, 67).

The scale of my research sites within the case studies that I am examining needs to make sense and to be manageable. The Greater Tokyo area covers 13,500 square km and numerous cities but, fortunately, the tours concentrate on waterfront locations. Takeda has written on theme parks as cities in miniature that are easier to grasp and comprehend when the city itself is so large (1995). The industrial waterfront in Japan is marketed and experienced as an industrial theme park, albeit a working zone, and I am therefore approaching it as such. In keeping with many archaeologies of the contemporary world I try to remain open to the mundane, for instance, the lighting of car parking lots, suburban streets and shop frontages.


Mikkel Bille and Tim Sorensen (2007) ‘An anthropology of luminosity: the agency of light’ In Journal of Material Culture Vol. 12(3): 263–284

Paul Bogard (2008) Let there be night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark. University of Nevada Press.

Tim Edensor (2013) ‘The Gloomy City: Rethinking the Relationship between Light and Dark’ In Urban Studies.

Ben Gallan and Christopher Gibson (2011) ‘New dawn or new dusk? Beyond the binary of day and night’, In Environment and Planning A, 43 (11), 2509-2515.

Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenöhrl and Katharina Krause (Editors) (2014) Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and the City. Routledge

David Nasaw (1999) Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements.Harvard University Press.

Hilary Orange (2014) ‘Changing technology, practice and values: What is the future of Industrial Archaeology?’ In Patrimonio: Arqueologia Industrial. Revista Oficial de la Oficina Estatel de Conservacion Historica de Puerto Rico, 6, 64-69

Chris Otter (2008) The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910, University of Chicago Press

Takeda, M (1995) ‘The city and its model: a civilisation’s mechanism for self-expression as the object of tourism’, Senri Ethnological Studies, 38: 105-24

Jun’ichirō Tanisaki (1933) In Praise of Shadows. Vintage Classics

Notes: Presented at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference in Washington DC on Friday, 8th January in the session ‘Historical and contemporary archaeologies of the city’ organised by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski.  

To cite: Orange, H (2016) ‘An archaeological light age: On modernity, urbanism and the materiality of light-based technologies’



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