A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Steelmaking in its heyday was such a massively intricate enterprise that
people "listened" to the mill in different ways. For steelworkers, it was
the roaring, explosive energy of a newly tapped blast furnace or the
glowing of the coke works and slag dump at night. For me, it was the wail
of the saws pruning the steel beams that stamped America's urban landscape
with its unique signature, the skyscraper.
However one listened to the mill, being part of "the Steel," as it was
known to those of us who grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was a source
of pride. "Steelworkers believe their skills set them above anyone else in
manufacturing," wrote John Strohmeyer, former editor of the Bethlehem
Globe-Times, in his book Crisis in Bethlehem. "Robots can assemble
automobiles. But it takes uncommon talent, a strong body, and a mind that
knows no fear to be able to transform piles of red dirt and scrap into the
molten metal that is poured, rolled, and pounded into the various shapes
that support the mainframes of civilization."
Without doubt, the experience of growing up in the shadow of the Steel
forged my own approach to archaeology, giving me a special understanding of
the tension that archaeologists often see in emerging states or towns.
There, as at any of America's smokestack industries, centralized, or
vertical authority, could clash with local forms of decision-making: chiefs
and kings pitted against authority vested horizontally across society in
clans, secret societies, or guilds. The saddest thing about the November
1995 termination of iron smelting and steel rolling at the Bethlehem plant
was that the four-mile-long industrial behemoth was already organized along
horizontal lines of authority that might have been its salvation.
Roderick J. McIntosh is professor of anthropology at Rice University.