A Rough Sketch of Work in the North Dakota Work Camps

As readers of this blog know, I’m slowing articulating a small archaeological fieldwork project that will focus on the material culture, architecture, and landscape associated with work camps in western North Dakota.

This project is part of a larger collaborative initiative recently funded by our Vice President of Research that has brought together scholars from Social Work, Indian Studies, and Anthropology to investigate social change in the oil producing Bakken Counties of North Dakota. As part of coordinating our disparate efforts, we all decided to write up a proposal, in informal language, that would describe our goals.

We have also begun to collect bibliography using Zotero. We have a growing bibliography on the social impact of oil booms and the archaeology of work camps and other sites of natural resource extraction. We are also collecting media reports, newspaper article, blog posts and the like that refer to boomtowns particularly in the western part of North Dakota. Follow the links above to check them out. If you’ve been putting off using Zotero to collect citation, now is the time to start! They have just released Zotero 3.0 which is a lovely and powerful stand alone piece of citation management software which integrates seamlessly with Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. It’s a pleasure to use and free and open source!

Here’s my informal proposal:

A Proposal for The Archaeology of Work Camps in Western North Dakota


The last 40 years has seen a “boom” in the study of industrial archaeology. Work camps and community have formed central features in the conversation among archaeologist of both the recent and distant past.  Work camps and the communities that they housed played a key role in the extraction of natural resources on a global scale and, locally, in the settlement of the American west. Archaeological study of these communities has demonstrated how they both reinforced social divisions based on race, wealth, education, and job, but also allowed for remarkable opportunities for social and economic mobility and transgressive behavior. Most archaeologists have recognized in the material left behind from these camps evidence for resistance to existing social norms at the economic and, indeed, geographic margins of American society.  As messy, gritty, discordant Foucualdian heterotopias, work camps – like the frontier itself in Turner’s naive imagination – provided a model for an American future.

Architectural historians, likewise, have begun to develop a sustained interest in short-term housing and settlement prompted in large part by the use of temporary housing in the aftermath of Katrina and the well-publicized use of camps during the global refugee crises that have dominated the last 60s years. Coincidentally, the recent interest in temporary housing and the structure of highly contingent communities has returned to the American west in the study of dynamic communities in places like Slab City, California and Quartzite, Arizona where two very different groups have availed themselves to the margins of settlement to create dynamic, contingent communities. As some pundits and scholars have noted, the dynamic nature of the communities among refugees, at Slab City and in the Bakken counties find parallels with the flexibility preached in the post-industrial economy, in cutting edge models of American higher education, and in the playful workspaces of high-tech start ups. If the 19th century mining camp represented one possible future for American society, then perhaps the post-Katrina refugee camp, the Bakken Man Camp, and the conventicle of RVers gathering in Quartzite suggest another potential future.

In the humanities more generally, this interest in short-term or temporary habitation strategies and community echoes the so-called “spatial turn” or “material turn” in the humanities which recognizes the fundamentally spatial and material character of human relations. By documenting the material signature, physical organization, and the complex places that work camps occupy in the landscape of western North Dakota, this project seeks to represent these contingent communities in a spatial way.

Methods and Questions

From the perspective of methodology, the study of existing work camps has the potential to shed light on the complexities of the formation processes that produce archaeological sites. While contemporary practices and material present significantly different challenges for archaeologists, documenting basic discard patterns associated with short term settlement practices could provide useful archaeological analogues for understanding past site formation. Moreover, it serves as important documentation for future archaeological work in the region which will inevitably have to deal with the remains of temporary and short-term settlement associated with the oils boom.

By documenting discard practices, site organization, and settlement patterns, an archaeologist can record the material environment that both shapes and is shaped by social interactions. Archaeologists have long harbored the conceit that objects can tell us things that oral and textual sources cannot. Careful and systematic documentation of work camps provides a way to produce the material signature of social, economic, and political relationships. Ideally this work will include both the sanctioned work camps as well as the myriad alternative settlement practices ranging from “hotcotting”  to unsanctioned camps that have appeared in private and public space and various forms of quasi-legal and illegal squatting among individuals and communities working in the Bakken oil fields.

Finally, while archaeological documentation has typically focused at the scale of the trench or the site, recent work in the field has sought to step back from the individual site to consider the landscape as a scale of human society.  The landscape of western North Dakota has entered a period of particularly dynamic change. These changes are set against a landscape that already wears the marks of human exploitation. Photography of the western landscape – in both its “pristine glory” and as the tamed mistress of American economic exceptionalism – has played a key roll in how we imagine the normative landscapes. By placing man-camps and other installations in their relationship to older images of rural space, we not only problematize the aesthetics of exploitation, but also document the character of rapid change.

Any study of the impact and form of economic phenomenon risks being interpreted as subversive or manipulated in such a way as to discredit the authenticity and honesty of the findings. Recognizing that this risk is particular acute in environments where economically powerful interest already feel embattled. To attempt to guard against these pressures, the project will include aspects of “guerrilla archaeology” where low-impact fieldwork that attempts to document a range of different habitation sites with a minimum of collaboration or collusion with sources of local authority.


My research plan calls for 2 short trips to the Bakken Counties. The first trip will focus on issues of identification and access to proposed study sites.  This trip will be guided both by data collected from western sources and through the careful study of recent satellite photographs of the areas around New Town and Williston.  Reasonable estimates of distances and some basic procedures for documenting visible material culture will help to determine the equipment and number of people required to document the work camps successfully.

A second trip will occur in the summer months (July or August) and be a maximum of 7 days. This trip will involve primary data collection from a specific group of sites using GPS, photography, forms, and notebooks.  I hope to document I would also like to collaborate, if possible, with a photographer and, if possible, with some local archaeologists familiar with the challenges and opportunities of working in the Bakken counties.

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