Camps Ancient and Modern

I just finished Charlie Hailey’s book called Camps. It’s an architectural study of camps and consists of examples of camps from around the world and through history.  The study divides camps into three types: camps of autonomy, camps of control, and camps of necessity.  Camps of autonomy are camps that are characterized by the goal of autonomy and independence (as the name might suggest!), whereas camps of control and necessity are opposite sides of the same coin. The former rely on the form of the camp to control its occupants or to project control into a potentially dangerous situation; the latter are camps that emerge as responses to circumstances beyond the occupants control (refugee situations, survival camps, et c.). The line between these two types of camp tends to blur.

I began to think about camps largely in the context of man or work camps in the western part of North Dakota. The camps typically consist of temporary trailers arranged very close to work sites (if not on the sites themselves). These temporary housing units were often brought from other places of temporary settlement like the Olympic village in Vancouver or in camps used to house people displaced from Hurricane Katrina. The trailers are a response to both the limited infrastructure existing in a peripheral area as well as the unwillingness to invest in substantial investment in an area by the companies that arrive looking to extract oil. These camps also reflect the global system not only for resource extraction, but also for managing temporary populations whether they are athletes, refugees from natural disasters, or groups looking to work in remote locations. The camps, their residents, and the natural resources that they work to extract combine to produce a low-investment, temporary pattern of settlement across the landscape.

These camps cross the various categories proposed by Hailey and represent spaces of control (particularly when they are provided by local employers), spaces of autonomy as they function on the fringes of local utilities (water cisterns are sometimes visible in aerial photographs), infrastructure, and community, and spaces of necessity as the work population in the Western part of the state settled in camps owing to the lack of existing infrastructure in the area. The autonomy and necessity of the camps overlap when they provide housing for groups of individuals who live and work on the periphery of infrastructure, social bonds, and the economic systems.

I also got to thinking about a camp that I published in the Corinthia. I argued that a fieldstone fortification on the height of Mt. Oneion along the south boundary of the Isthmus as a “fortified camp” that served the needs of military forces who sought to secure access to the Peloponnesus in the Hellenistic era. Like the work camps in North Dakota that fortified camp on Mt. Oneion was not designed for any enduring way – the roughly built field stone walls provided protection for structures that housed the forces encamped there – and these camps were also dependent on wide ranging geopolitical systems and events that were not necessarily under the control of the local population. Moreover, the location of the camps on Mt. Oneion is peripheral to settlement, cultivated ground, and political space.

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Our site in Cyprus – Pyla-Vigla – is likewise a peripheral settlement and the habitation appears to have been quite short lived. We have suggested that the site was a base for local mercenaries. Like the fortified camp on Mt. Oneion, the fortification wall appears to have been the most substantial investment on the site. The domestic structures on the interior of the site show only modest architectural investment. Simple stone sockles would have supported mudbrick walls and the absence of rooftile suggests thatched roofs. The floors were packed earth. In one trench we observed the rapid reconstruction or modification of the building perhaps over the course of a decade or two. Like. Mt. Oneion, the site it removed from the centers of political power, situated at a natural border (on the sea and at the periphery of the territory of Kition), and immediate surroundings of the site offer little in the way of economic incentives.

Of course, our archaeological work on the site embraces some of the practices of camp. Our base of operations on site involve almost no investment in the site (plastic furniture, shade provided by vehicles, et c.). One of my favorite practices is that at the end of the season we backfill the trenches. We cover the collapsed walls with a blue tarpaulin (which we always call trapampoline) which echoes the ubiquitous “blue tarp” associated with provisional camps around the world. By backfilling the trenches we follow a different set of camping practices by “leaving no trace’.  It not only preserves the archaeological remains, but also returns the space to the condition it was prior to our arrival. Hailey has some great descriptions of the methods used to restore the desert site of Burning Man festival at the conclusions of the event. They organizers walk transects across the site looking for trash. They also use gridded collection areas to sample other areas to ensure that the dried lake bed is spotless on their departure. The archaeological scrutiny employed by this group to preserve the natural beauty of the Burning Man site, provides a nice contrast to efforts by archaeologist to document the traces of human life in the landscape. Both practices represent efforts to view the landscape as radically separate from present human activities. This notion of people being alienated from the landscape is central to the mystic and allure the camp.

One Comment

  1. I watched a gypsy camp site over about 10 years, off & on, on the waterfront just outside Nauplion. A band of at least 10 large tents, maybe 60 people Whatever they dropped lay where it fell — tin cans, fragments of cloth, the occasional bone or shoe. No ceramics. No ordure. The water source was run-off in the ditches [lots of chemicals on the adjacent fields, dead donkey in near ditch). Laundry done by laying things out in the rain, or wearing them into the sea.

    The next band camped in the same place, picked up nothing, dropped their own stuff. A small group of gypsies, different dialect, quite open to chatting with foreigners, camped to the side of the droppings-area when no one else was there, kept their camp quite clean. The main camping area remained the same, a group every couple of years, though in 1987 it was smaller than the first I had seen in 1977. Nothing ever picked up. This area now has been cleaned off & built over with the commercial expansion.


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