Formation Processes in the Man Camps of the Bakken Oil Patch

One of the first things people assume when they hear that I’m doing archaeological work in the Bakken Oil Patch is that I’m doing some kind of ethnoarchaeological research. They can quickly see the parallels between short-term settlements around the world and the so-called “man camps” of the Bakken and even grasp the potential parallels among settlements associated with extractive industries on the periphery around the world. While we have worked to keep this from being the main focus of our work and focused instead on “archaeology of the contemporary past” as an interpretative paradigm over the more accessible ethnoarchaeology, we nevertheless cannot avoid observing how formation processes shape the archaeological landscape visible in the man camps of Western North Dakota.

In the article currently underway, I spend about 2000 words discussing how attention to formation processes informs our analysis of the camps. First and foremost, we have worked to describe the temporary workforce housing as a temporary phenomenon. In other words, we reflect on how both the individuals housed in man camps and the physical structures themselves would – in some way – depart from the landscape. For the Type 1 camps, we observed how most of the camps including housing units and infrastructure were mobile and modular. They sat on leveled gravel areas and invested little in poured concrete slabs or foundations. Type 2 and 3 camps consisted primarily of mobile homes and RVs which could likewise be moved by their owners to new locations leaving very little behind. A level gravel bed, masts for power and hooks ups for sewage and water were the only real infrastructure that consistently appeared in Type 2 camps. Type 3 camps often lacked even these basic improvements. The design of man camps privileged mobility and limited investment in the local environment, and this ensured that relatively little would be left behind compared to more permanent settlement types.

The short duration of many of these settlements will also mitigate against the development of robust assemblages of material. As archaeologists who study settlements associated with extractive industries have noted, frequently habitation often leaves relatively little behind not only because the residents took everything of value from the settlement on departure, but also because the lifespan of the settlement was often just a decade or two. One of the key factors in the production of robust assemblages of material associated with settlement in time. The longer a settlement persists, the more small scale discard practices produce assemblages recognizable to archaeological research. 

That being said, we were aware that various discard practices contributed to the material “signature” of man camps in the landscape both now and in the future. While Type 1 and many Type 2 camps had formal arrangements for the removal of trash from the camp sites, Type 3 camps lacked this basic infrastructure and are more likely to be surrounded by a halo of trash. Residents of these very short term, but infrastructure poor settlements appear to discard plastic containers, coolers, trash, camp style chairs and tables, scavenged objects like cable spools and shipping pallets, pvc pipes, and other unused objects immediately outside the main habitation areas. Larger Type 2 camps showed indication of recycling practices with re-usable objects set aside provisionally for re-use. Piles of shipping pallets and pvc pipes sit at the limits of the camp collected from residents who moved on and made available to new arrivals to make their units more comfortable. Shipping pallets are particularly useful in Type 2 and 3 camps where they serve purposes ranging from elevated walkways to fences and supports for campers. PVC pipes connect units to sewage and water supplies. It is difficult to know how long these “provisional discard” areas will persist in the landscape after residents begin to abandon the camp, but as the number of individuals departing begins to exceed the number of new residents, it seems likely that these area will collect more material unless some kind of intentional intervention occurs. Moreover, Type 2 and 3 camps are likely to produce more material associated with the oil industry as the clean line between domestic life and work life blurs

Finally, the location of workforce housing at both a global periphery and at the periphery of local settlement influenced formation processes. The lack of existing settlement in the area ensured that settlements were rather low density scattered amidst the industrial and extractive industries throughout the Bakken Oil Patch. The absence of large scale, nucleated settlement produces a “continuous carpet” of low-density settlement across the landscape. This will, in turn, leave behind a scatter of habitation-associated debris interspersed with industrial discard related to both oil production and related industries.  

As we continue to think about how our research could influence policies in the Western North Dakota, understanding how the remains from workforce housing will shape future landscapes in the region is part of a larger interest in the ecological and environmental impact of the Bakken boom. It could also help us recognize what kind of interventions are necessary to make life for new arrivals easier in the patch and ensure that residents can adapt to the changing shape of the boom.

For more on my work in the “man camps” of the Bakken go here. For the first part of this work-in-progress article go here. I’m off to give an interview to Prairie Public Radio this morning and this blog post has helped me consolidate drifting ideas. 

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