The Bakken as Taskscape

Over the weekend, I re-read Tim Ingold’s influential article “The Temporality of Landscapes” to revisit his idea of taskscapes (World Archaeology 25 (1993), 152-174). Ingold locates the complex idea of taskscape at the intersection of the relational character of landscape and temporality. Landscapes as lived spaces constitute the relationships between various animate and inanimate agents. Various scales of time – from the momentary and personal to the geological, cyclical, and historical – mediate these relationships and influence their physical manifestation. At its core, then, taskscapes represent the space and time where actors perform tasks of various kinds. 

Ingold’s interest in temporality drew me to his work mainly because the discourse surrounding the Bakken was so explicitly temporal. The term “oil boom” implies something short in duration and the construction of temporary housing for the Bakken workforce recognizes that temporality plays a key role in how participants construct the landscape discursively. Long time residents define their landscapes stratigraphically as “before the Boom” and “since the Boom”. In fact, our own efforts to document the “archaeology” of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch likewise intersects with a discourse steeped in issues of temporality as we articulate how deploy archaeological practices designed to study the past in a contemporary setting.

Moreover, agency in the context of the Bakken boom cuts already recognizes both human and non-human players in the formation of the taskscape. Oil, for example, flows at its own rate and comes out of the ground in its own time. Trucks punish roads leaving deep impressions in the macadam and asphalt. Truckers contend with the roads and the relentless flow of oil as workers in casing toil to the rhythm of the drill. The sound of the oil pumps echoes the beating of a heart and punctuates the  Farmers work the surface of the ground and worry about who owns the rights to the strata below their crops and houses.  People, oil, roads, machines, and housing interlace to form the taskscape of the Bakken Boom.

Our own work as archaeologists engages and forms this taskscape as well. We work amidst the people and objects that we study. They change at a pace that seems to intentionally undermine the expectations that the physical remains of the past are static objects of study as in traditional archaeology. In fact, as we stay in the man camps and negotiate the rutted roads and avoid trucks and chase the leading edge of the Boom, we participate in the same taskscape as the people and things we study. Our short visits, temporary lodging, and sense of being a newcomer (not to mention transport in a large, macho truck) fits into the taskscape that we study by echoing the experiences of many of the other human agents participating in the Bakken boom. 

Thus, Ingold’s taskscapes provides us with a useful heuristic to understand the intersection of our own work and the transformation of the western North Dakota Bakken landscape. It has the utility of echoing aspects of the discourse common to participants in and observers of the Boom, embraces both human and non-human actors in the creation of temporally defined space, and makes room for the methodological positioning of archaeologists studying the “contemporary past”.  


  1. Richard MacNeill February 19, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks Bill, a highly relevant contemporary approach to “landscape” that has resonance for understanding and modelling early (for that matter continuing) development in the gold-field “boom” areas of Victoria, Australia, and bridging the gap between topographic analysis and post-processual interpretation.


    1. Richard,

      Thanks!! I have begun to look over some of the research from both Victoria and also Queensland.

      Any key citations I should check out?



      1. No citations, Bill, but something I intend to look more closely at. It’s worth reading “Dolly’s Creek” (Lawrence 2000) for an interpretation of settlement against a background of patterns of movement in the
        Gold Fields. also “Mapping History
        An analysis of site locations in the northwestern Dominican Republic”, de Ruiter, Leiden 2012 (downloadable) for a mention.
        Ask Tim & Lita for my contact details. Happy to let you know should I find more.

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