James Symonds
Anniversary Research Lecturer in Historical Archaeology



Dr James Symonds, BA (Hons) (Sheffield), Cert Archaeol (Oxon),PhD (Sheffield), FSA, FSA (SCOT), MIfA.  I specialize in global historical archaeology (c.AD 1400-present). My interests include the study of capitalism, colonialism, landscapes of Improvement and Diaspora, urban and industrial archaeology, and the archaeology of poverty. I have undertaken fieldwork  in the Isle of South Uist (Western Isles, Scotland), Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island (Canada), Lapland (Finland), and west Bohemia (Czech Republic). For the last 20 years I have concentrated on the historical archaeology of 18th and 19th century communities, with occasional forays into the 20th century. I am currently devising a project to explore the archaeology of conflict in 17th century Europe.



Although trained as prehistorian, my research over the last 15 years has explored the comparatively recent past. My scholarly interests are wide-ranging, but have for the most part focused on the landscapes and material life of subaltern groups from AD 1750 to present. My engagement with modern world historical archaeology has led me to explore aspects of capitalism, improvement, colonialism, diaspora, and ethnicity, and may be characterized as being anthropologically-informed, and influenced by post-processual and postcolonial theory. I believe that the fascination and challenge of historical archaeology lies in its particularity and to this end I have eschewed overarching frameworks and  ‘grand historical narratives’ and have instead stressed the importance of exploring  diversity and meaning at local level.

Improvement, Landscape, and Society, in the Western Isles

My doctoral thesis investigated the impact of agrarian capitalism upon eighteenth and nineteenth century communities in the Isle of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides.  I explored the physical evidence for Improvement, such as the abandonment and relocation of settlements, the introduction of new building types, and the drainage and enclosure of land for sheep farming. My thesis combined anthropological theory, folklore, oral history, and archaeological evidence to identify the highly-localized responses to change, including forms of  resistance, that were employed by the Gaelic population of the islands in the period 1760-1900. My book South Uist: An Archaeology & History, co-authored with Mike Parker Pearson & Niall Sharples, summarises the findings of this research, along with other work undertaken as part of Sheffield University’s long running SEARCH project in the Outer Hebrides

Social archaeologies of industrialization

Within industrial archaeology I have advocated the importance of brownfield sites as a source of information about the recent past within the context of major re-development projects, and have stressed the need to combine evidence from buried archaeology, standing buildings, and a variety of other sources in an effort to create socially useful narratives which can inform urban regeneration and place-shaping agendas. Research in Sheffield focused upon the Sheffield metals trades and my edited book The Historical Archaeology of the Sheffield Cutlery and Tableware industry 1750-1900 won the Association for Industrial Archaeology's Main Fieldwork and Recording Award in 2003. My 2004 co-edited book (with Eleanor Casella) Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions stirred up considerable debate among traditional industrial archaeologists, and Dr Audrey Horning (University of Leicester), described the volume as marking ‘a critical turning point in the expansion of industrial archaeology to include theoretically-informed social as well as technological analyses.’


The Material Roots of Modernization in Northern Finland (c. AD 1500-1800)

In the first half of the 17th century Swedish imperial ambitions led to an unprecedented level of town-building in the Nordic region, and no fewer than eight towns were founded on the north coast of the Gulf of Bothnia.This project, undertaken in collaboration with scholars from the Universities of Oulu, and Helsinki, explores the long term material roots of modernization and the development of urbanization in the circumpolar region of Finnish Lapland, and the neighbouring region of Ostrobothnia. Research focuses on the towns of Oulu (founded 1607) and Tornio (founded 1621) which were established within two decades of one another, but developed in very different ways. The significance of this research work is twofold. First, it provides a closely-dated corpus of artefactual and architectural material from a European setting to contrast with evidence from more well-known early 17th century colonial sites in the New World (e.g. Jamestown, founded 1607). Secondly, the examination of Oulu and Tornio, two of the most northerly towns in the 17th century world, has allowed ideas of marginality and the interaction of incoming groups with the indigenous Sami to be critically re-assessed.  


External activities


  • Docent (Associate Professor) in Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu (Finland)
  • Research Associate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Boston
  • Research Associate of the International Polar Heritage Committee (ICOMOS)


  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London
  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
  • Member of the Institute for Archaeologists

Editorial duties

Invited talks and conferences

  • 2010 Aug    Invited to deliver paper on industrial archaeology. Re-using the Industrial Past? ICOHTEC/TICCIH Work lab and joint conference. Tampere, Finland.
  • 2010 April    Invited to deliver lectures on urban and historical archaeology to the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, University of Umea, Sweden.
  • 2010    Uncovering Sheffield’s Metallurgical Past. The Ken Barraclough Memorial Lecture 2010. Sheffield Mechanical Engineering Association Annual Members’ Dinner, Royal Victoria Hotel, Sheffield, 23rd March.
  • 2010    Unearthing Steel City: Archaeologies of Industrial Sheffield The Friends of York Archaeological Trust. Central Methodist Chapel, York, 3rd March.
  • 2010    (with Vessa-Pekka Herva, Risto Nurmi, Timo Ylimaunu)  The Russian-Swedish border of 1809 and the built environment in Northern Finland.  Maritimhistorisk Konferes, Bottnisk Kontakt XV. Tornedalens landskapmuseum I samarrbte med kulturkansliet I Haparanda, Aines konstmuseum och Norrbottens museum. Tornio, Finland, 5-7th February.
  • 2010    Session discussant, 19th-century British Material studies. Society for Historical & Underwater Archaeology Annual conference, Amelia Island, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, 6th-9th January.
  • 2009    Keynote, Heritage-led regeneration and the industrial past: a view from
  • post-industrial Britain. Luoghi dell’Archeologia e Usi Contemporanei
  • (Archaeology’s Places and Contemporary Uses)  School of Architectural Design, University IUAV of Venice. Italy, 19th November.
  • 2009    Discussant, Modern Materials: the archaeology of things from the early modern, modern and contemporary world. CHAT Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 16th-18th October.
  • 2009    (with Timo Ylimaunu, Risto Nurmi,) Pottery Dogs and Gossip Mirrors; Engendering household spaces in Early Modern Finland. Paper presented to Modern Materials: the archaeology of things from the early modern, modern and contemporary world. CHAT Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 16th-18th October.
  • 2009    Invited to offer keynote address (invitation declined) In a Global Context: Australia’s archaeological evidence of the Globalisation process. Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & Australian Institute for maritime Archaeology Annual Conference, Launceston, Tasmania, 24th-26th September.
  • 2009    Keynote discussant, The Poverty Trap? Abject and object perspectives on the lives of slum dogs and other down-and-outs. Poverty in Depth Symposium, University of York, and York Archaeological Trust, King’s Manor, 6th-8th July.
  • 2009    Unearthing Steel City: Archaeologies of Industrial Sheffield. Public lecture, part of the New Ground season of art, music, and literature to celebrate the opening of the new Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Humanities Research Institute, 15th June.
  • 2009    Diaspora and Identity, Highland Scots and the British Atlantic World. Invited lecture to undergraduate students. Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, 7th May.
  • 2009    Tornio, Lapland, The most northerly town in the 17th century world. Invited presentation. Northern Archaeological Research Seminar Series, Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, 6th May.

Contact details

James Symonds
Department of Archaeology
University of York
The King's Manor