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Listening to the Mill Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Roderick J. McIntosh

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.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America