Fragments of the Contemporary Past in the Bakken Oil Patch

Over the past year, most archaeologists who hear about my fieldwork project in the man camps of the Bakken Oil Patch assume that I’m doing ethnoarchaeological research. I am partially to blame for this because I have tended to compare my work to my research into settlement in Cyprus and Greece. In fact, at one point our resident contract archaeologist suggested that what we were doing wasn’t archaeology at all.

That being said, I often struggled to articulate what an archaeology of the contemporary past was. In fact, the idea of the contemporary past was so strange and paradoxical to most people that it seemed intended to baffle.

This past weekend, I finally got around to reading Rodney Harrison’s “Surface Assemblages. Toward and Archaeology in and of the Present” (Archaeological Dialogues 18 (2011), 141-161 with discussion). He argues that an archaeology of the present promotes a shift from an archaeology dominated by the metaphor of uncovering and excavating to an archaeology shaped by the metaphor of the surface assemblage. The surface assemblage locates the archaeologist and objects on the same plane and recognizes the archaeological activity – particularly the reassembling scattered fragments into a whole – as something that occurs in the present. Thus archaeology of the contemporary world is not a departure from standard archaeological practice, but the natural extension of our interest in things. Collaborating with Bret Weber and Aaron Barth who are collecting interviews in the same places where Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and I are documenting material culture makes our effort to place people and things in the same physical and intellectual space more explicit. Just as architecture requires a different kind of documentation from ceramics or portable goods, people require a different form of documentation from their houses and other objects; people in this assessment are simply another kind of thing.

Several of the respondents to Harrison’s article did point out that this kind of approach is only valuable if it produces new knowledge in the context of a particular project. As our work continues to develop we are finding more and more productive analysis within our seemingly descriptive moments. For example, at the larger institutional man camps (Type 1 camps) we generally talk to staff and management; at the Type 2 and 3 camps, we talk to residents. This is as much a “bias” in our data collection as a reflection of the structure of the camps themselves. The researcher and material and human objects of research exist in the same place and co-create the description. In this sense, the camps, the residents, the staff, and the researchers are all part of a single assemblage produced through natural and cultural processes.

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