Images from the Bakken

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t usually just post pictures (oh, wait, I guess I do), but I thought I would today as I recover from a few days of Bakken adventures.

An abandoned man camp near Tioga:

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Another near Wheelock, ND:

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An abandoned “dry” camp:

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Pallets:

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I know we shouldn’t call them “man camps”:

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Communal space:

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Work and flares:

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Another reminder that we’re not the first newcomers on the northern plains:

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The Persistent Memory of a Soviet Mining Town

July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was pretty excited to finally get my hands on E. Andreassen, H.B. Bjerck, and B. Olson’s Persistent Memories: Pyramiden, a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic (Trondheim 2010). This book is an archaeological essay that combines haunting photography with reflective text to provide the reader with an intimate portrait of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden. The town was abandoned for close to a decade after the Russian company that established the settlement after World War II closed the mine in the late 1990s. The team of Norwegian archaeologists and a photographer arrived in 2006 nearly a decade after the last permanent resident had departed.

Despite the town’s completely modern history, the archaeologists understood that there were very few traditional documentary records of life in the town and arrived to document its state. In a relatively short essay, the authors bring the town back to life through careful attention to the remains. 

There are a few ways in which the author’s research intersects with our work in the man camps of Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota.

1. Non-Places. The authors consider the status of Pyramiden as a non-place. The formal plan, the cookie cutter residences, and the position of the town as a heterotopia (a realized utopian space), created a settlement that has few distinct features outside of the global standard of a hypermodern “Sovietness”. Moreover, the provisional and short term character of any community created by the inhabitants created few opportunities for the inhabitants to fuse their identity to the character of the location. It maybe that the radical isolation of the site and the absence of longterm human settlement in the area necessitated the status of the Pyramiden as a non-place. It may have also been both formal and informal policies designed to enforce uniformity among the workers and managers at the site that robbed the place of the distinct character associated with “place-ness”. 

2. Housing and Homes (and Class). While the authors suggest that Pyramiden was a non-place, they nevertheless recognized efforts workers in the mine to personalize their spaces. In fact, there seems to have been greater signs of individualization among workers than those of the mangers and elites. Not only did workers decorate their apartments with symbols of global consumer culture, but they also customized their spaces with improvised shelves, art, and furnishings. In contrast, the larger and more comfortable apartments of the management classes showed less signs of customization and efforts to establish individual identities. Perhaps managers stayed less time at Pyramiden or had greater pressure to conform to a homogenized standards or corporate expectations, as the authors suggest.

In the North Dakota man camps, we noticed a similar characteristic between workers who lived in RV parks and those who lived in the standardized man-camps provided by the larger corporations. The former group tends to work in industries peripheral, but vital to the main work in the oil patch (truck repair, truck driving, equipment cleaning, and various contract services). The latter work in the core industries associated with jobs on drilling or fracking rigs or with large contractors that provide large scale services to the companies in the patch. The former tend to be independent or quasi-independent contractors, whereas the latter are company men. A similar division in how various groups individualized their living space occurred in the early days of the Texas boom.

3. Margins. One thing about Pyramiden is clear: it is situated in an intensely marginal environment. Perched at the foot of the Arctic Mt. Pyramiden and surrounded by glaciers and the sea, the town was visited only once a year by a supply ship. A helipad provided the only other physical link to the outside work. The need for an entirely self-sufficient community and the remains left behind demonstrate the close link between the expense of bringing material to the Arctic and the value of removing the remains.

In short, the persistence of Pyramiden and its arrangement as a “non-place” is at least partially a product of its marginal location and the expense of transporting the aspects of consumer culture that we deploy in a range of distinct ways to mark our modern identities. There are general parallels between the location of Pyraminden and the marginal position of the man camps in western North Dakota. The creation of a new society ex nihilo and the tenuous physical connections with the core demands a particular kind of engagement with the environment.

4. Provisional Discard. Distinct discard practices often characterize communities in marginal environment or situated at the periphery. One of the most significant features of the community at Pyramiden is the absence of substantial dump. As the Russian managers of the community explained, the inhabitants reused and repurposed as much of the material as possible and material that could not be repurposed or consumed completely rarely came to the site. Food scraps were fed to pigs, left over paint or solvents needed for one project were used in others, and workshops and apartments were filled with recycled and repurposed tools and equipment.

 The man camps of North Dakota show a similar assemblage of recycled and repurposed material – from the ubiquitous shipping pallet to piles of pvc pipe left behind by departing RVs for the next residents of a camp. Like the residents of Pyramiden, the inhabitants of short-term settlements in the Bakken oil patch tend to travel light and find new uses for objects that might be cast aside closer to the core. 

5. Formation Processes. The greatest disappointment in reading this book was its relative lack of attention to formation processes. The site as a ruin or as a haunting reminder of the earlier activities and lives takes center stage whereas the post abandonment processes that created the site for archaeologists and photographer become interference or, at worst, the romantic residue of a life in ruins.

This is a missed opportunity, to my mind, as our modern world (filled with non-places) so rarely decays slowly in the face of nature without massive human intervention. Pyramiden is a place where its abrupt abandonment has left it exposed to nature in a way so rare in our modern world. More could be made of the processes that transformed the settlement since its abandonment and how man-made materials situate themselves in their environment.

You can check out some of the book on Google Books or – even cooler in some ways – on Google Maps!  

Man Camps in May: Some More Observations

May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

This past week I spent a few days scouting in the Bakken in advance of the North Dakota Man Camp Project’s first field season of the summer at the end of the month. He will be going out to the Bakken to administer a survey on behalf of another agency. This agency asked that we administer the survey on the basis of our camp typology and was open to adding some questions to the survey to help with our research. (For the uninitiated, we argue that there are three types of camps, cleverly named Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3).

We hope to also do some interviews, and Kyle Cassidy will once again join the team to do some more photography of the characters and landscapes of the Bakken. This is a bit nerve wracking for me because I’ll be in Cyprus while Bret is heading up our research team, but I think we’re on the same page technically and conceptually.

This past week’s trip was the first I made since writing the first draft of an article on our work. There is something about writing that makes my observations all the more tangible and real. So it felt some addition pressure to check on some of the observations that I made in the article on our trip this week.    

1. Camps and Abandonment. One of my favorite arguments (which I think was initially offered by Richard Rothaus) was that Type 3 camps might leave the greatest signature in the landscape because they are the least integrated with the modern methods of trash disposal and have the least investment in any particular place. The short duration of many Type 3 encampments would obviously moderate the accumulation of substantial quantities of discard, but the circumstances of their abandonment could have a more significant impact on the materials left behind. I’ve written about this before here.

We revisited the Type 2/Type 3 camp that we initially documented in August 2012 and returned to in February 2013. This camp had been abruptly abandoned in the winter of 2013 and there was a significant assemblage left behind. When we returned to this camp this week, we discovered that the most conspicuous trash was removed from the site. Plastic silverware, beer cans (Coors Light), bottle caps (Corona), fragments of broken styrofoam, pieces of a small grill, and a few other objects. The cement brick fire pit that was still visible in February. was disassembled and moved to another location near some other RVs in the area leaving only the ash deposit from the past fires behind.

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We also noted signs of abandoned or declining map camps throughout our study area. We observed a “dry” Type 2 (that is a Type 2 with electricity but no water) that had numerous open lots after being nearly filled in August 2012. We also observed a Type 2 that had been completely abandoned and was strewn with trash, abandoned RVs, fragments of insulation and bit of architecture most notably the plywood mudrooms leaned against the side of many RVs. We would have spent some time documenting this camp, but the gentleman onsite seemed pretty uninterested in having us around. Fortunately, Bret Weber left his business card with the man so if he changed his mind, he can let us know. He was the one of the few unpleasant characters we have encountered in the Bakken.

2. Where are the Type 3 camps? The proximity of the Type 3 camp described above site to a group of new apartment buildings probably accounts for why it was so thoroughly cleaned up. Many Type 3 camps, however, are less conspicuous (and perhaps this is by design as some of them are probably unpermitted or even squatters).  Others are incredibly short term and last only as long as is necessary for a particular activity. The small Type 3 shown below, for example, stood at a construction site, drew power from generators, and had a ports-john nearby.

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The small size, short duration of occupation, and sometimes hidden locations makes Type 3 camps particularly difficult to locate and document. These aspect of Type 3 camps perhaps also makes them significant and suitable for archaeological investigation. 

3. Towns and Workforce Housing. Every time we go out to the Bakken we check out another small town that shows signs of infilling with mobile homes and RVs to serve as workforce housing. Certain patterns of land use in these towns are just beginning to appear. For example, two of our study sites developed around the closed schools in the communities. The available land around schools and the more robust utilities infrastructure probably accounted for this.

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We also noted that old towns provide appealing locations for short-term workforce housing. First, most of western North Dakota is dotted with small towns in various states of decline. The two towns pictured above had populations of 80 and 97 respectively (from over 200 in their boom times). These town are linked to major roads, have utility connects and some (albeit modest) amenities, and land. Moreover, they tend to be out of sight allowing for a kind of unsupervised growth. 

4. Seasonal Rhythm and Discard. The seasonal rhythms of camp life in Type 2 and Type 3 camps are particularly visible. We noted, for example, piles of plywood and foam insulation around the camps as residents de-winterized their units. We could also sometime tell if a RV entered the camp recently based on evidence for winterizing. 

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5. The Next Step. The more we traveled the area over the past year, the more we feel like we have a technical handle of what is going on in terms of the oil boom. This last week, we made our way south to Killdeer and Dickinson, North Dakota and saw much the same kind of development and organization as we saw around Watford City and Tioga. It may be that the time of extensive research is coming to a close and the next step is to document one or two camps at a very high resolution. We’re making plans now for another field trip in August (funding permitting). So, stay tuned.

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Abandonment

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve talked a good bit about about abandonment on this blog… 

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Archaeological “Signatures” of Byzantine Churches

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

This springs Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium is titled Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches. The symposium will feature speakers covering a range of topics central to discussions about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. My paper is among the last of the symposium and in a session called “Reading the Data/Reading the Future”.

I need to have abstract for my talk which is tentative titled “Looking across Chronological Boundaries”. The goal of the talk will be to bring together some of my work (largely with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew) that explores post-Byzantine archaeological sites and consider how what we’ve learned in this work can inform out study of Byzantine sites in a survey context. 

Readers of this blog are familiar with my work at the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara in the Eastern Corinthia. Here’s a link to our most recent paper.

You may be less familiar with some of my work with David Pettegrew and Tim Gregory in 2001 on the island of Kythera where we collected surface data from around a series of still standing Byzantine churches. The results told us little about the landscape around these churches during the Byzantine period, but shed some significant light on formation processes around these occasionally used monuments in the Greek countryside. Like our work around the deteriorating houses in Lakka Skoutara, our work around these churches revealed a countryside that was in constant transformation. 

The evidence for the constant transformation of the landscape pushes us to see even the surface record as the product of a series of complex formation processes rather than a palimpsest awaiting our careful gaze to produce a complete but occluded text. The remains in the countryside preserve a complex record of processes.

 

More from the Abandoned Periphery

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

This last week, the popular(-ish) blog Ghosts of North Dakota has announced a Kickstarter to fund a book based on their photographs of abandoned and declining towns in North Dakota. Here’s a link to their Kickstarter page. They’re looking to raise $12,175 and are about halfway there with over 60 backers. The deadline is October 10th.

The book’s authors Troy Larson and Terry Hinnekamp have worked to document photographically the abandoned landscapes of North Dakota since 2003. Their blog has collected their photographs and the photographs of others from various rural sites across North Dakota which they have indexed by place name. The tone of the site is Romantic and the photos often contrast the declining state of buildings with the stark blue of the North Dakota sky.

For many small towns in North Dakota, Ghosts of North Dakota becomes a useful reference page including census data and whatever bits of documentary knowledge exist for these towns. We used Ghosts of North Dakota during trips to Wheelock and Appam.

In fact, the photo of the Wheelock school on the Ghosts of North Dakota page dedicated to the town here. Gave us an idea of what the building once looked like. Presently, the building looks like this:

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Often residents of these towns or people with memories of them leave comments or contribute their own photographs or identifications to the pages dedicated to towns. In effect, what started may have started as a place to document declining communities and abandoned towns has become a place where communities can reconnect, share memories, and write their own history.

It will be instructive to understand whether the book will capture this aspect of the Ghosts of North Dakota.

The Abandoned Periphery

September 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

The recent fascination with abandonment porn has tended to emphasize the decline of urban areas and the decay and collapse of the once monumental urban infrastructures that supported centralized industrial activities. Less common are discussions of abandonment at the periphery. Some abandoned North Dakota landscapes have attracted attention for the picturesque character of abandoned farms, rusted vehicles, and collapsing fences. 

Chris Hedges’s and Joe Sacco’s new book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt offers another perspective on abandonment. Rather than the picturesque visions of days-gone-by or a center that did not hold, in the third chapter of the book – Days of Devastation – Hedges’s prose complemented by Sacco’s art looks at the destruction and abandonment in rural West Virginia where the coal that powered the now-abandoned factories was cut from mountains.  The ruins of communities, towns, buildings, and the landscape shed devastating light on the cost of prosperity.  Interviews punctuate almost archaeological descriptions of the communities left in ruins by the changing fortunes of the coal industry showing how the romantic abandonment of the failed-center drew down periphery through the long tendrils that connect monumental industry to rural communities which provided them with power.  

Here’s a short excerpt describing the town of Gary, West Virginia:

“Gary’s rutted streets are lined by empty clapboard houses with sagging roofs. Porches fall away from the buildings. Wooden steps are rotted. Rusted appliances, the frames of old cars, tires, and heaps of garbage lie scattered in front of rows of deserted dwellings or clog the brackets water in the creeks, where low-lying branches are tangled with plastic bags and bottles. Broaded-up storefronts, neglected chutes, the bleak brick remains of Gary High School, and the shuttered, flat-roofed stone bank building give the landscape the feel of a ravaged war zone. The spindly remains of chimneys jut up and out of the charred timbers of burned houses. The guts of most buildings, as in Camden, have been stripped of piping and copper for sale in the scrap yards. The gold dome of the empty Orthodox church disappeared one night when a thief somehow commandeered a crane. The train station, the restaurant, and the old company store, meticulously planned by Judge Albert Gary, the architecture of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel empire and the man for whom the town was named, are skeletal remains. Mobile homes stand empty along the side of the road, their siding and torn insulation flapping in the wind in tattered strips. There is no supermarket. Canned or packaged food, high in sodium, sugar, and preservatives, and fat along with cheap bottles of liquor, are sold at the local convenience store and gas station, located across the road from the drug market.”

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