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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve talked a good bit about about abandonment on this blog…
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.
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:
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.
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.”
December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
One reason I love Corinthian Matters is that David Pettegrew’s loyal bots constantly crawl the web looking for new academic articles on Corinth. As anyone who attempts to keep abreast of new scholarship on any topic knows, it is almost impossible to do so without some loyal human and software allies.Recently, he brought to my attention Amelia Brown’s recent contribution to the publication of the 6th biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity Conference from 2005 at the University of Illinois. Her article titled “Banditry or Catastrophe?: History, Archaeology, and Barbarian Raids on Roman Greece” takes on the perennial issue of the impact of raiding, rampaging, barbarians on the end of public, civic life in Late Roman Greece. She looks at the Costobocs, Heruls, and Goths in particular and makes the argument that there is very little archaeological evidence for these raiders. Moreover, the textual evidence that does exist is highly problematic and fits poorly with the long-standing empirical expectations held by more archaeologists. In other words, the destructive rampage of Alaric or the violent reconquest of Stilicho left almost no evidence in the archaeological record. Earlier thoughts to the contrary were almost always the product of overly optimistic interpretations of problematic contexts or have been overturned with revised ceramic chronologies introduced through the more controlled stratigraphic excavations.
This is fine. The ancients liked to punctuate their history with barbarian raids, natural disasters, and other catastrophic events as much as modern scholars. The catastrophic events fit ancient communities and narratives into a wider conversation by making heroism, treachery, or divine displeasure recognizable to an audience. Similarly, archaeologists have looked for episodes of catastrophe in their excavations to align archaeological contexts with known historical events (and if possible dates!). Just as real or imagined tragedies created relevance for individuals living in the past, Mediterranean archaeologists have treasured evidence tying their labors to historical experiences conjured so dramatically in texts. Just as Mediterranean archaeologists have become more confident in the autonomy of their own discipline, so have they gradually shrugged off the ties of the world that they excavate to textual traditions championed by generations of Classicists.
The result of this work is not just to call into question the past distilled from a carefully empirical reading of texts, but also to call into question the periodization schemes, narratives, and research agendas dictated by these texts. This has led to a sometimes violent rupture between traditions of humanistic scholarship that have contextualized research and teaching for centuries and the results of archaeological investigation. As you can imagine, research like Brown’s that asks us to re-interpret such basic narratives as those surrounding the end of the ancient world do more than challenge the narrative of ancient Greece, but bring into question the line between barbarian and civilized that has been so central to the differentiation between the glorious, civilized Classical past and the brutish, uncivilized, Medieval time.
By absolving the barbarians of some of the blame for the end of Classical public life, Brown has offered a modest challenge to the master narrative and begun the arduous process of using the very tools produced by a system that championed the Classical age to undermine its esteemed place in our society today.
August 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
My post today is a modest contribution to some work that Kostis Kourelis is doing over at his blog. On Monday, he offered a brief post on Byzantine roof construction. My colleagues and I at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project have been thinking a good bit about roof construction also.
Our interests in roofs derives from our study of a 6th century A.D. annex room associated with an early Christian basilica. It seems clear that the room was two storeys and had a heavy roof covered with thick, flat, “Kopetra” type tiles. The second floor had collapsed into the first and there is no evidence for whether the room had an internal support. We did, however, find some large plaster fragments that we have associate with the tops of the walls.
The most interesting fragment (and please excuse my sketch) looks like this:
The chunk of plaster preserves the impression of the beam that ran along the top of the wall. It also had the impression of the perpendicular rafter which sat atop the beam. On the top of the piece of plaster we discovered the impressions of reeds or small sticks. This must have been the layer of rushes, beanstalks or rushes described in the 4th century B.C. inscription cited in Kostis’ post. The tiles would have sat atop the reeds preserved in the plaster impression.
The plaster impression preserve some evidence for the construction process. It would seem that the wall beam and rafters were set into place and the gap between the rafters was filled with plaster (or a kind of mortar) immediately before the reeds were put in place atop of the rafters. The plaster or mortar would have had to be still wet for the small reeds to make an imprint. In effect, this piece of plaster preserves the roof as it was being built. This makes some sense, I suppose, because it ensured a strong seal between the roof and the wall to prevent water from entering the wall and weakening the rather humble used to bond the stones.
David Pettegrew and I have documented a series of roofs at the opposite end of their life cycle at the early to mid 20th century rural site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia (follow this link to an archive of over 600 photographs taken over 10 years at the site).
The roof of House 5 showed no evidence of the mud-and-reed layer between the tiles and roof structure although it is possible that this layer eroded away quite quickly as the roof deteriorated. The roof of house 5 appears to have been supported by some well-cut timber that set atop walls reinforced with cinder block suggesting that a fairly recent date of construction.
The roof of House 3 shows a similar construction style with the use of more rustic rafters. The mud plaster interior walls stood until early in this century (2001), but deteriorated rapidly after the roof collapsed.
House 14 was the only house in the settlement that preserved the mud-and-reed packing between the tiles and the rafters. This photograph is from 2001 and the packing remains barely visible. By 2009, the entire roof had collapsed and evidence for the mud layer under the roof tiles was lost.
The temptation to recycle the precious roof tiles even in our century manifest itself in the roof of our house 2. The first photo is from 2001 and the second from 2002.
August 3, 2011 § 2 Comments
Readers of this blog know that the arrival of a new Hesperia is not quite a good as Christmas, but probably as fun as a close relative returning home after a long trip. (You know the feeling, when you know that there are goodies for you in their bag.)
I was particularly excited to see the final publication of Jen Palinkas’ and James Herbst’s article on the “Roman Road Southeast of the Forum at Corinth“. First off, who’s ever heard of publishing a road. What makes this even more crazy is that the road wasn’t paved! Second, who knew so much could be said about a road. The article runs to close to 50 pages. Hesperia is one of the few places that would let someone publish a 50 page article on a road.
While most of the article is a detailed description of the road surface, road building technologies (including water pipes, curbs, and sidewalks) and the relationship of the road to its surrounding structures. The first surfaces detected in excavation date to between the late 1st c. BC and the mid 1st century AD. The excavators are then able to piece together the development of the road through to the 12th or 13th century A.D.
The detailed description of the relationships between the curbs, the water pipes running beneath the road, and the sidewalks (installed around the mid-2nd century) is particularly interesting. At one point (p. 299) they argue that a water drain pipe was installed by tunneling “under the road surface”. What would that look like to the excavators and how would one know that something was tunneled under a solid surface?
I was also curious about the character of the ceramic assemblages associated with the various levels of the road. We are told that at later levels (phase 5 dating from the late 4th to 12th century) “were distinguished from the road layers of earlier phases by their larger and more frequent pebble and tile inclusions, perhaps a result of waste brought by demolition and ruin of the domus that spilled over into the street.” (p. 307). This got me wondering what the assemblages from earlier phases of the wall looked like? This, of course, could tell us something about how ceramic depositional processes in an urban environment worked. Was the material domestic waste? Or was it (like in later periods, apparently) construction or destruction debris?
Some of the discussion of the sidewalks is pretty fascinating too. The east sidewalk was carefully preserved at its original level whereas the west side rose consistent with the level of the road. When I read this, I immediately began to think of my buddy Eric Poehler’s work on the roads of Pompeii (which Palinkas and Herbst cite elsewhere) and wondered whether the uneven elevation related to the movement of wheeled traffic along the road. If wheeled-traffic tended to stay to one side of the road, then the curb or even the sidewalk would incur regular damage that would require repair and perhaps account for its change in elevation.
The most interesting part of the article for me, is the description of the life cycle of the road in relation to its surroundings. The growth of the urban fabric and the maintenance of the road transformed how someone would encounter and experience the road in the landscape. The earliest levels of the road preserved the surface of the route provided relatively unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside as one approached the city of Corinth. Later level, preserved a road that took the more traditional form of an urban thoroughfare, walled in by the expanding urban sprawl of the city of Corinth. As the city contracted in the 5th century, the unobstructed vistas returned to travelers along the road and the surface fell into increasing disrepair.
I have knee-jerk reaction to any archaeological publication that seems to argue for the material decline in the urban fabric in the 4th-6th century. But I’ll concede that the evidence for the deteriorating condition of this road seem to confirm a view that the urban fabric was undergoing some kind of significant change – at least in this area – after the 4th century. That the road continued to function in some way as late as the 12th and 13th century, however, indicates that local memory and practices continued even as the fabric of the community shifted through time.
(One minor bummer is that this volume of Hesperia seems to have published directly to Jstor. I think this must be a good thing for them as now the archive of older volumes and other American School of Classical Studies at Athens publications and the most recent volumes of Hesperia are together in one place. The downside, is that my institution seemed to have access to Hesperi when it lived on the Atypon Link, but now, it does not seem to have a subscription to Hesperia’s new home. I need to figure this all out, but it’s a bummer either way.)
February 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve spent the past two days wandering the streets of Milan. We’ve done the best we can to retrace the steps of St. Ambrose and paid particular attention to his 4th century foundations. While little of these foundations survive in any sort of pristine state, the basic plan of four churches still exists.
San Lorenzo is the most architecturally complex (and unlikely to have been founded by Ambrose himself). It originally featured a square, double-shelled, tretrachonc rising to a wood roof. The apsidal exedrae were massive and the central square of the church communicated with the external shell through colonnades. Today the church rises to an octagonal dome, but enough of its original plan survives that it is easy to reconstruct. External to central core of the church are a gaggle of earlier, contemporary, and chapels. The eastern atrium opened onto a colonnaded street part which survives.
San Simpliciano was closed, but we were able to observe the complex history of the building. The massive transept finds echoes in churches across the Balkans throughout the 5th and 6th centuries:
San Nazaro, consecrated as St. Ambrose’s Holy Apostles, is similar to the 4th century church in Constantinople of the same name. It wasn’t open and it was too crowded by other buildings to photograph very successfully (and it was rainy and I was hungry).
I did, however, photograph a nicely preserved section of the Late Roman city wall: