On Monday 4 December 2023, I wil be taking part in a roundtable hosted by Isabel Pérez and University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Study (IASH). I wil introduce my research in a wider discussion of how we narrate waste and wasting practices.
Some tickets for attendees remain – see contact below.
This roundtable sets to discuss current theories linking waste with the present global socio-environmental crisis, namely theories of the Wasteocene, from a narrative perspective. Roundtable speakers will reflect upon their own academic approach to waste (both theoretically and methodologically) while exploring different (counter-)narrative approaches to waste and wasting in a broad sense (e.g.: literary, artistic, audio/visual, historical, or political narratives), and connecting them with related processes/practices such as colonialism and extractivism. See attachment for full description. The roundtable is facilitated and supported by The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh (IASH) and the Susan Manning Workshop Fund.
Advance registration is required for space is limited. To RSVP, please contact the symposium organiser, Isabel Pérez email@example.com.
As the year draws to a close I am happy to announce another two project outputs. After the SAA Chicago 2022 session I organised (along with Matt Edgeworth and Jeff Benajmin), we have put together a special journal forum for Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, entitled: ‘Making Ground: The Archaeology of Waste Landscapes‘.
This has just been published online and comprises a collection of papers by myself and eight others. These examine how waste creates and reshapes our contemporary landscapes in many different ways. For example, land reclamations using waste rock or rubble can come to be mistaken for “natural” terrain after decades of familiar use. In other cases, waste-modified landscapes, such as industrial spoil heaps, are seen as eyesores and removed or reshaped better to resemble natural landforms. Whether perceived negatively or not, waste landscapes can nonetheless sometimes become social, material, ecological, creative and politically generative terrains, allowing opportunities for new activities and valuations to take place. It is the investigation of these complex associations and the valuations of such waste landscapes that the forum examines.
My own paper, “Gaining Ground: Bomb Rubble, Reclamation and Revenance” examines the complex resonances of millions onf tonnes of dumped bomb rubble at Hackney and Leyton marshes. I explore how the rubble of conflict, despite its violent origins, can nonetheless become generative with the reclaimed ground acting as place of sporting hertiage, memorial and contestation.
My paper and the introduction to the special forum can be viewed using the following links:
In the talk I will discuss the hidden history of Edinburgh’s artificial landscapes and the materials that were used in their construction. This shares new research into the how rubble and waste materials that make these landscapes can be used to tell the history of Edinburgh.
Taking us on a journey from land reclaimed from the Firth of Forth in Leith and Granton, down the Mound, and up West Lothian shale bings, the talk explores where rubble and waste material comes from, what it is made of, and how the landscapes made from waste are used today. By investigating this hidden material, we can learn something about how heritage and the environment have been valued at different times in Edinburgh’s recent past, and how ‘progress’ in one area may cause unexpected or negative consequences for another.
In person (includes drinks reception):
Date: Thursday 12 October 2023
Start time: 6pm
Venue: Greyfriars Charteris Centre, 138/140 Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9RR
Happy to announce another project output (hopefully the first of four this year), a book chapter entitled: “Of Blaes and Bings: The (Non)Toxic Heritage of the West Lothian Oil Shale Industry.” This is is open access and available here.
Abstract: This chapter explores the changing human valuations of oil shale waste – blaes – in the district of West Lothian, Scotland. Around 150 million cubic metres of this material remain here in vast heaps known as bings, the remnants of a short-lived but globally significant oil industry, active between 1851 and 1962. In following the changing perceptions and uses of blaes through its creation, exploitation, discard, and reuse, it becomes apparent that it is not easy to definitively apply the categories of ‘toxic’ and ‘non-toxic’ to such materials and their heritage associations. In exploring the shifting valuations of blaes and bings over the last 170 years, the chapter proposes a geosocial understanding of the heritage of hydrocarbon exploitation and its waste in the Anthropocene and suggests that such materials may yet prove useful to us in the face of the climate crisis.
As I move towards producing the final monograph for this project, I aim to post occasional rough (sometimes very rough) snippets of writing on all of the sites and topics that will be in the final publication. There may be typos ahead (apologies in advance).
This week I kick things off with my efforts to understand just what that strange artificial hill, the Beckton Alp is actually made of.
Opening 1870, the works would go onto be the largest gasworks in the world and remain today (in much reduced scale as gas storage and distribution centre). The name comes form the companies’ then Governor, Simon Adams Beck. The GLCC was established in 1812 with works in Westminster and gradually amalgamated an merged with other companies until becoming the largest gas supplier in London until its nationalisation in 1948. The gas (called ‘Town gas’ or coal gas) was produced by carbonising coal – heating it in sealed vessels – retorts whereby around 1/3 of the mass of coal was released as flammable gas that was then condensed and purified. What happens to the other 2/3 is equally interesting – the remains of the coal remained as coke while a series of other by-products were left, including coal tar and ammoniacal liquor, of which more below.
Beckton Products Works (then known as the ‘Tar and Liquor Works’) opened in 1879 on a 90 acre site adjacent to what is now the Beckton Alp and continued operating in until 1969. The opening of the works some nine years after the opening of the Gas Light & Coke Company gasworks itself was undertaken in response to the increasing realisation of the value that could be obtained from processing the two major coal gas waste products, coal tar and ammoniacal liquor. These were later supplemented by reprocessing of other by-products spent oxides (a by-product of from purifying coal gas), cyanogen liquor, and benzole.
Such substances, when further refined into different secondary materials, provided the feedstock for a huge range of industries in the East End and beyond in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is a long and complex history to the chemical and engineering innovations involved in processing this material (e.g. Townsend 2003; Leslie 2006; Hamper 2006), but broadly speaking, coal tar formed the basis for products including: anthracene (critical in dye stuff making e.g. for aniline dyes including red alizarin), creosote (used as waterproofing/staining for wood), napthalene oil (used in pesticides), carbolic oil (phenols; made into further products like to make plastics) and light oil.
The ammoniacal liquor component was also converted to sulphate of ammonia – a key coimponent in agricultural fertislisers, while the cyanogens were used to make the anti-caking agent, potassium ferrocynaide and the synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue. The sulphuric acid produced in the works was crucial to many different industries in East London but perhaps most notably for using oin galvanising steel; galvanised steel wires were used in vast quantities by the major submarine telegraph cable manufacturers on the Thames to the west of Beckton such as W.T. Henley’s Telegraph Works and Silver’s at North Woolwich.
Prior to the opening of the works the coal tar, liquors, and spent oxides were originally simply disposed of as waste material along with waste ash and clinker, prior to innovations in synthetic chemistry in the mid-nineteenth century and the realisation that vast sums could be made from processing them. As realisation of this value grew, those making town gas like the Gas Light & Coke Company (formed in 1812) who had originally dumped or sold off these ‘residual’ by-products began to take an interest in processing them themselves. Hence the eventual opening of the Products Works in 1879.
What ultimately remains after all the complexities of all this processing and re-processing this material varies through time. This is because in such Products works almost everything was reused it seems; one waste product was almost instnatenously transformed into the feedstock for something else. Yet, inevitably there must be something left that cannot be used, most likely in the form of ashes, clinker and waste chemicals.
What lies beneath?
Samantha MacBride has called coal ash a ‘constant material reminder of our past’ in its ultimate persistence in the environment from our long-standing addiction to burning coal (. Even in an era where coal ash is now relatively rare in age absent of open coal fires or (mostly without) coal power stations it remains in vast dumps, mixed into concrete and as ‘breeze’ blocks in construction. So is in the Beckton Alp simply, only, waste ashes from both the gasworks (i.e. leftover from the carbonisation of coal to make gas) and the last remainder of the processes of value extraction of the Products Works? It would seem not.
For one thing, the Alp is heavily contaminated; Iain Sinclair once noted ‘[t]he mound, so they say, is pure arsenic.’ (Sinclair 2003). While slightly fanciful if taken literally, environmental reports do mention arsenic and other heavy metals. Yet contamination is nbot all that is here. Apparently thousands of tons of clay were dumped on top of the waste from the construction of the British Library, though I am yet to find compelling documentary evidence for this. That said, one source suggest the site was capped with at least 1m of clay by 1979 along with a further 300mm of topsoil (Wood and Griffiths 1994, 99).
Further investigation as part of the proposed redevelopment plans for Beckton after the Work’s closure in 1969, commissioned a scientific study of the Alp and provide a more comprehensive answer:
The “Beckton Alps” were built up first from spent gas lime, then spent oxide and boiler ash and clinker. Spent sulphuric acid containing sulphonated hydrocarbons and other tar acid impurities has been dumped in a pit near the South end. An area near the north end was covered with “blue” spent oxide with a high proportion of Prussian Blue.
The report goes on to say:
In recent years the tip has been used for dumping soft tar and a large area consists of lagoons of tar which has hardened on the surface but is very soft underneath. Builders’ rubble has also been dumped on the tip in recent months.
(London Dockland Study Team 1973, 59)
Spent oxides are the name given to the varieties of by-products produced from purifying coal gas after carbonisation (ie. Resulting from the coal gas mking process, rather than the Products Works). Different forms of this purification were developed over time but as indicate dby the report, just quoted, the earliest forms used lime while later processes used iron ore. These materials removed sulphur and other materials form the gas production processes allow its calorific value to be raised and for it to be safely used.
The iron-based process spent oxides were themselves processed en mass to created sulphuric acid in the product works (Townsend 2003) but it seems that much of this material was also dumped, including at Beckton. As well as the Alp, this material seems to be located to the east of the products work. Correspondence between Kubrick’s crew and the North Thames Gas Board during the filming of Full Metal Jacket instructs them to avoid a sealed off area of the site which is marked as ‘spent oxide dump’ for example.
So, under the ruins of the ski slope and a rapidly developing mostly self-seeded ecosystem, the Alp – unsurprisingly – contains numerous chemical toxins. However these toxins are not simply waste but also a reminder of the vast array of products and chemical inovations that took place here. Perhaps recognising this, in an unrealised project for the ‘Big Art Project’ (a 2009 Channel 4 series) Antony Gormley proposed installing a gigantic 35 metre high molecular model of ‘arsenic petrocholride’ (most likely actually arsenic trichloride; others have said gallium arsenide) on the Alp. He said at the time: ‘I like the idea that, somehow, what was hidden beneath in molecular form could be made apparent above in sculptural form.’ (in Hanly, Smith, and Wardle 2009, loc. 00:47:23).
Little information survives on this proposed art project but it would have been quite something! To be continued….
Leslie, Esther. 2006. Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry. London: Reaktion Books.
London Dockland Study Team. 1973. Docklands: Redevelopment Proposals for East London Vol.2, Appendices. London: R. Travers Morgan & Partners.
MacBride, Samantha. 2013. “The Archeology of Coal Ash: An Industrial-Urban Solid Waste at the Dawn of the Hydrocarbon Economy.” IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 39 (1/2): 23–39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43958425.
Wood, A A, and C M Griffiths. 1994. “Debate: Contaminated Sites Are Being over-Engineered. the Case for. (Case against by c.m. Griffiths Follows).” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Civil Engineering 102 (3): 97–101. https://doi.org/10.1680/icien.1994.26765.
The blog has been updated (finally) As I approach the final year(s) of this project this blog will be updated more regularly, given I now have lots of research to share!
For now, I have begun updating information on each site and the events pages.
This week in the Reimagining Waste Landscapes seminar series, author Cal Flyn talked about about the ecology and psychology of abandoned places, and her new book, Islands of Abandonment. Cal gave a really evocative presentation and we had a great session with questions afterwards. Shortly after the session concluded Cal was named Young Writer of the Year 2021 at an award ceremony in London – congratulations!
If you missed the talk on Wednesday, check out the recording here!
The series continues next week online with Ed Hollis (ECA, University of Edinburgh) in a talk entitled ‘Narrating a Wasted Landscape: exploring architectural heritage in an industrial town in Bengal’. Ed will discuss his ongoing research in coal mining landscapes in West Bengal and the potential for different ways of narrating waste.
In subsequent weeks we have John Brown (ECA) and Antonia Thomas (UHI) – excitingly these talks will also take place in person at ECA you can book this option (listed as separate events) via the Eventbrite Collectionpage. If you have already booked for online you can always cancel that order and book a new in person order if in Edinburgh.
TheReimagining Waste Landscapesseminar series continued this week with a presentation from artist Susan Trangmar, who talked about ‘Waste in an English Landscape’ and her ongoing responses to waste landscapes of Dungeness, Kent. If you missed it, check out the recording here!
Next week we have author Cal Flyn talking about about the ecology and psychology of abandoned places, as explored in her new book, Islands of Abandonment. Join online at 4pm on Wednesday 23 February by signing up via Eventbrite!
Jacob Doherty is Lecturer in Anthropology of Development at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. He specialises in urban and environmental anthropology. His research grapples with how African cities are responding to the entwined issues of economic inequality and environmental justice. He has conducted ethnographic research in Uganda, the Ivory Coast, and the United States, examining the everyday infrastructures through which urban residents construct and provision their lives, focusing particularly on waste and mobility.
I’m running an exciting new seminar series on waste landscapes at Edinburgh College of Art and hosted online (and in March, hopefully also in person)! Some great speakers from a range of backgrounds including artists, authors, anthropologists and archaeologists!
Runs 9 February to 23 March [no seminar 16 March].
Seminars begin at 16:00 and are streamed via Collaborate.