An Archaeology of Care at the Society for Historical Archaeology

Richard Rothaus and I have been bandied about the idea of an “archaeology of care” for a couple years now. Richard’s contribution to our 2014 Punk Archaeology volume probably prompted this discussion, and it developed more fully in a blog post, our podcast, and an article for the North Dakota Humanities Council’s On Second Thought magazine (read it here). 

The paper will appear in a panel titled: “The Archaeology of Care: Rethinking Priorities in Archaeological Engagement.” And our buddy Kostis Kourelis has submitted an abstract for a paper titled: “The Archaeology of Refugee Crises in Greece: Diachronic Cultural Landscapes.” Read his abstract here.

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)
Richard Rothaus, William Caraher, Bret Weber

The University of North Dakota Man Camp project has used archaeology to engage seriously the issues of workforce housing and industrial landscapes in the Bakken. Our work proceeds with a focus not on the ebullience (or catastrophe) of the Bakken, but rather on the material culture of housing in a dynamic extractive landscape. We do not advocate, nor do we analyze or make policy recommendations. Our work in the field epitomizes, however, an archaeology of care for the communities in which we work. Our conversations in the field, attention to detail, and willingness to take seriously the everyday life of individuals and communities creates a connection between the wider world (which we represent, oddly enough) and their very personal experience. Our recognition of, and interest in, the agency of individuals buffered by incomprehensibly large forces has value for the academic and non-academic communities.

A Career in Landscapes

We have about one more week of field work on the Western Argolid Regional Project. The project has been at full strength for the last three and a half weeks and the field teams have been remarkably efficient, averaging about .3 sq km per day.

I’m tired. My body aches, and fieldwork has increasingly become an exercise in pacing, energy management, and hydration as teams wrap up surveying difficult units or work on special documentation projects across our survey area.

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It dawned on me that this could be my final field season on a major project in my career. I’m in my mid-40s and by the time this project is published and my other projects are done, I’ll be pushing 50.

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Whatever type of fieldwork I do as a 50 year old won’t be the same – or probably even similar to what I’m doing now. Last week, I went on one more hike just to check if a web of goat tracks could have been a route between two areas of our survey zone.

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It was obviously a way, but clearly not a route (much less a path or road). These long walks were my archaeological calling card for years, particularly in the Eastern Corinthia, but after this week’s hike, I’m pretty sure my boots will be reserved for the more mundane and low impact tasks like keeping my socks clean.

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The biggest thing I’ll miss (other than, you know, finding stuff and the bizarre conversations one has while stomping through dense maquis in the Greek countryside) are the unexpected vistas that appear as one rounds craggy hills or looks back on ones path.

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They seem to scale endlessly across ever shifting foregrounds and backgrounds. Hills become ridges, ridges become plateaus, plateaus become fields. The landscape goes from olive trees and plough marks to fields and the countryside. Paths so obvious from maps or photographs disappear into vegetation.

I’m sad that I’ll likely never again hike around with the same sense purpose as I did last week and on-and-off over the previous 20 years.

Houses and Landscapes in the Western Argolid

This week we had a chance to check out some nice early-20th-century seasonal houses in the Western Argolid. 

I got a little bit of artificial tilt-shiftiness in the image probably because of the haziness of the ridges in the background and my playing a bit with aperture settings.  



A nice example of a heavy layer of mud-mortar used along the top of the wall.


And a really nice example of the layering of tiles, mud, and reeds to form a water tight seal for the roof:


A Balkan-style long house where half of the house is set aside for animals (and in this case milking and cheese making) and other half for living space. 





A well-built, mud-brick dividing wall between the living quarters and the area for animals: 


And some mappers, team leaders, and field walkers in the landscape:







Failed Conclusions

I’ve been slogging my way through a very short article on the possible role of the North Dakota Man Camp Project in contributing to recent interest the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration.

I set up the problem as one of impermanence and abundance. Undocumented and forced migrants often move from one impermanent camp to the next at the margins of more settled communities which are committed to preventing these contingent populations from leaving a lasting trace in the landscape. Workforce housing in western North Dakota follows this practice exactly as the established tows in the region worked to curtail the establishment of crew camps and other forms of housing for temporary workers. They did this for reasons ranging from xenophobia to a desire to expand the local tax base, encourage the settlement of families, and limit the long-term impact of the boomtown growth. From an archaeological perspective, these short-term character of these settlements and the attitude surrounding their creation will obscure their archaeological impact on the landscape. The undocumented migrants that these sites housed will likely remain rather invisible in an archaeological record that privileges long-term, iterative, settlement practices which slowly create archaeological deposits.


At the same time, our modern world enjoys an unprecedented abundance of stuff. The mass production and distribution of objects has created a modern landscape that is densely arrayed with discarded objects. The residents of workforce housing sites demonstrate both a remarkable ingenuity in modifying their spaces, often RVs, to adapt to the North Dakota climate, the needs of year-round occupation, and the desire to project some individuality in the relative uniformity of the RV park. Objects abound from wood shipping pallets to outdoor furniture, appliances, equipment, vehicles, and grills, fire pits and weight sets.

In other words, workforce housing sites in the Bakken manifest this tension between abundance and impermanence. Somehow I need to conclude a paper that establishes this tension and make reference to ideas like “an archaeology of care,” the potential of tourism to serve as a lens for critiquing the modern landscape, and our responsibility for creating an persistent archive to both document and memorialize these events even after the archaeological record slips from view.

Wish me luck.

Landscapes, Olive Sieves, Tiles, and Pallets

Another week in the landscape of the Western Argolid brought another little assemblage. This time we discovered four or five olive sieves in a group. An olive sieve removes leaves and twigs from the olives making it easier to prepare the olives for pressing or curing.

They’re little studies in design and improvisation with bike wheels, snow fencing, chicken wire, and rebar attached to improvised frames and boxes. 





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We also checked out a few small houses that dot the olive groves. Most of them look pretty recent in date, but they have collapsed roofs and tile scatters. 

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And, of course, landscapes:

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Oh, and pallets!


Bakken Man Camps and the Archaeology of Refugees

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly (so slowly!) pecking away on a short article for a special forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that looks at the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration. Since much of the movement into the Bakken is literally undocumented and can speak to the kinds of short-term settlement change that is taking place on a global scale, I think the work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project can speak to these issues.

So here are some of my words:

Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch

It is with some hesitation that we offer an archaeology of temporary labor in the Bakken oil patch as a contribution to a volume on forced migration and refugees. After all, it would be easy to categorize the experiences of economic migrants in the Bakken as a separate historical and even moral category from that of the migrants who have fled catastrophic military or political events. At the same time, we would gently content that our experience documenting the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch offers some useful lessons for archaeologies of the 21st century. Our work speaks to several issues that resonate across archaeology of contemporary world: the accelerated pace of the capital, the kaleidoscopic oscillations between cores and peripheries, the increasing fluidity of populations and places, and the fraught potential for the practice of archaeology to authorize the experience of displaced groups.

The North Dakota Man Camp Project has used both ethnographic and archaeological techniques to document the wide range of short-term workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch. Improvements in both drilling and fracking technology in the early 21st century and high oil prices re-opened the Bakken and Three Forks formation to large-scale exploitation. The global economic crisis begun in 2008 accelerated the arrival of workers from around the U.S. While some of these workers were brought to the region as employees of multinational corporations like Halliburton or Schlumberger and housed in mobile work force housing camps provided by global logistics companies like Target Logistics, many others moved to the area with the hope of finding employment in the oil patch. The small and historically remote communities of western North Dakota were unprepared for the influx of workers and many of the first wave of workers arriving in North Dakota squatted in public parks, lived in RVs in the Walmart parking lot, and negotiated unfavorable deals to park their RVs, rent bedrooms, or stay in local hotels.

If the absence of model projects for the politically and ethically productive engagement with refugee and force migrants has hindered our ability to produce new archaeologies of this phenomenon, it might be worthwhile to look at similar phenomenon in a global context. Saskia Sassens’ book Expulsions argues that the development of “advanced capitalism” has transformed both economic and social relationships on a global scale. As Arrendt and Agamben have recognized, the displacement of people is more than just the movement of people from one situation to another, but the displacement of an individual’s rights from the guarantees derived from status as citizens of a particular state to a new status dependent on a new set of political realities, definitions, and relationships. This situation does not deprive the refugee of all agency, of course, and Agamben has argued that the refugee has the potential to disrupt the political order of the nation-state by creating a space of for a kind of “pure human” to emerge in the gap between the individual as human and the individual as citizen.

If Agamben recognizes the transformative potential of the refugee as a “disquieting element” in the political order of the nation-state, the spaces of the western North Dakota Bakken Oil patch represent a different expression of the deterritorialization of the individual. The movement of individuals into the Bakken followed the global flow of capital which ignores national boundaries, demographics, and culture. Transnational companies contract with global logistics firms to import prefabricated crew camps which accommodate the largely male workforce involved in extractive industries. These “man camps” are set up to optimize access to work sites, leverage existing local infrastructure, and to allow for the rapid deployment of personnel to remote locations. Their modular design allows for them to be adapted to a range of environments and needs and generators, water treatment plants, cafeterias, laundries, security systems, and leisure spaces allow these camps to exist in self-contained and self-sustaining ways. For residents of these facilities, the space of the prefabricated crew camp seek to standardize the experience of temporary residence and to maximize the labor extracted from each individual. The space of the crew camp is a “non place” with no distinguishing features to complicate or disrupt the seamless deployment of local, human capital.

WARP Gear: Pants, Watches, and Socks

I like stuff. Readers of this blog know that my interest in things extends from by interest in archaeology, things, and ancient artifacts to modern audiophile gear and the things that archaeologists use in the field. As the first week of Western Argolid Regional Project is almost done, I wanted to share some of my new favorite things.

Last spring, Richard Rothaus and I chatted at some length about what’s in our bags, our trucks, and our archaeological tool kits. A few years earlier, I presented what was in my bag. Most of that still holds, with a few exceptions. For example, I’ve upgraded my headphones, my amplifier, and my portable music player. I accidentally left my beloved Wonpro plug strip in the Polis storerooms. Otherwise, my bag looks pretty much the same.   

I did add a little gear to person, though, that makes intensive pedestrian survey and archaeological fieldwork, in general, better.

1. Mountain Khakis. A few years ago on a lark, I bought a pair of Moutain Khakis to wear in the field. These pants changed my life. For the past four field seasons I’ve worn them almost every day in the field. They’re thick enough to prevent all but the most insistent thorns from getting through and they’re cotton which breathes well in the hot Mediterranean summer. These are canvass pants. They’re great. Get them for field work.

2. Seiko Watches. I wear a watch in the field for lots of reasons. Mostly I like to wear a watch, and, in particular, I like to wear a mechanical watch. It’s not that digital and quartz watches aren’t fine things, but for the dollar, a well-made mechanical watch is the way to go, and they don’t have batteries to worry about. Last year, I relied on a trusty Seiko 5, a more or less bullet proof Seiko watch that runs about $50 on Amazon. This year, I upgraded to something a bit more rugged, a Seiko dive watch, and a SRP777 in particular. This watch is a reproduction of the iconic 6309 diver made in the 1970s and 1980s which was known for its cushion shape and slightly recessed, polished bezel. It has a solid, mid-range, Seiko movement in it, is hacking, automatic, and hand winds. I get about two days of reserve on it. It’s a nice watch and great field work piece.

3. Smart Wool socks. Dimitri Nakassis mentioned these socks to me last year in an offhand way, and when I started looking for a some field socks this spring, they were there staring at me at a local sporting good store. So I got a few pairs to trial this season. So far, they’re great. Not only are they super comfortable, but they dry super quickly which is important when quick turn around after washing is important.  

The First Days of the Western Argolid Regional Project 2016

Today was the first full field day of the final full field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP). It was immeasurably better than the first full day of the project last year and probably a bit better than our first field day in 2014.

While we still have some open plains around the Inachos river, for this season, our survey area is a striking mix of narrow valleys and steep hill slopes. 


Oranges, apricots, olives, peaches, vineyards, and the occasional pomegranate trees, planted in neat rows organize our survey units.



More than any other year, we’ll have to contend with the early modern and modern landscape.

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So think of us as we stagger to our cars at 6:30 in the morning.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Reposted from

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. New York: Orbit Publishing 2015.

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It’s summertime and many of us are traveling. I’m in Cyprus and Greece and NDQ’s other editor is in Germany. In fact, a “high-level editorial correspondence” (is this really a thing?) preceding this review involved travel delays, complications, and adventures. There is nothing like travel to transform my view of the world and my place in it.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora, is a summer travel novel. It’s set in the summertime of humanity when interstellar travel and the tools to colonize distant planets are possible. Robinson’s novel tracks the final stage of a multi-generational voyage of an interstellar starship destined for a system which contained a number of planets suitable for human habitation. The 2000-odd occupants of the massive starship first contend with an increasingly imbalanced ecology within their sealed environment as they approach the end of their journey. Then they have to negotiate the challenges of setting up a permanent habitation on a new planet. Finally, they have to negotiate the possibility of their destination not being suited to human life, and make the difficult choice either to return home or stay for good.

Robinson excels in describing the tyrannical boredom of long-distance travel.  The time aboard the starship as it approaches the Tau Ceti system was profoundly mundane even as the vessel showed signs of its age, and Devi, the mother of the novels main protagonist, fretted and hustled her way from zone to zone trying to keep the ship’s 24 spinning, sealed habitats in balance. The balance between freedom for the ships inhabitants and the control needed to maintain safe and sustainable operation tended toward tyranny. But this is familiar to any travelers who has had to endure the indignities of TSA procedures and the regimented reality of modern air travel where we surrender control of our bodies to the cramped capitalism of corporate finance. Pilgrimage today, at least by air, offers a (sometimes literally) twisted version of Victor Turner’s egalitarian, if not downright utopian, communitas.

Their arrival at Aurora, an apparently habitable moon orbiting planet e in the Tau Ceti system, was likewise familiar to any traveler. The need to approach their new home deliberately tempered their excitement of pulling into orbit and depositing the first colonists on its windswept surface. The travelers, who were the sixth or seventh generation born on the ship, had to wait for the shuttles to transport them to the surface, for the camps to be built, and for scientists to determine that the surface is safe. Anyone who has arrived at a foreign airport knows the feeling of waiting to disembark, to pass through passport control, to collect luggage, and to make it through customs. Without trivializing the dramatic tension in Robinson’s descriptions, he captures an almost universal experience of arrival.

Robinson’s descriptions of the surface of Mars made his Mars Trilogy a landmark in contemporary science fiction, and his description of Aurora is very much in that tradition. Robinson presents an uncanny world surrounded with water, with month-long days, scouring wind, and towering waves. His view of the rocky, lifeless, incised planet lacks any conspicuous dependence on Terran (Earth) analogues leaving the reader to supply them and quickly discard them. Like a visit to any foreign land, analogies can only go so far toward making a new place familiar. The fate of the colonists on Aurora speak eloquently to the limits of travel and the challenges of fully inhabiting a different place.

Robinson’s novel does more than narrate a 26th-century travelers tale. In fact, the narrator of the multi-generational voyage is, at least in part, the starship itself. The quantum computer slowly develops consciousness over the course of the over 300 year journey and through contact with the ship’s inhabitants. Like a futuristic version of Latour’s famous Aramis, the ship gradually comes to understand its own relationship with its passengers. In a kind of playful irony, the ship contemplates the limits of human agency during the voyage and decides more often than not that humans should have less control over their fate. Ultimately, the ship’s passengers descendgently into a chemically induced hibernation and the ship assumes control of the voyage.

The final part of the book encounters Freya, the daughter of Devi, playing in the sea on a reconstructed beach. It’s a fitting place for Robinson to end his novel. Aurora offers a beachhead of sorts between the present and the future, between home and abroad, and between an expansive sense of human potential and the stark realities of our limited agency.

Robinson speaks to the tension between living in both a local and global way during our podcast interview with him here.

Bill Caraher is an rather undistinguished associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.