Man Camp Methods

Today the intrepid Bret Weber and I are heading west for my regular tour of the Bakken oil patch. Regular readers of this blog know that my destination is work force housing and my goals are to produce an archaeology of the contemporary “man camp”. Regular visits are imperative in this rapidly changing environment and we are still coming to terms with how to document diachronically a social and archaeological phenomenon that is unstable and dynamic.

Prior to this trip to the man camps, I’ve spent the last month editing the final publication of our intensive survey at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. Our work there was heavily informed by methodology, and we endeavored to demonstrate how a consistent method produced data sets that led to particular interpretations. This need for a consistent method and procedure is central to what we did on Cyprus as archaeologists. 

This carried over into our work in the Bakken. Our initial venture into the camps involved documenting camps on individual forms and describing units with photography and another set of forms. The goal was always to sample the kinds of units present in each camp and to describe the facility in general way as well. I think we imagined that these forms would be the basic description of the camp and to some extent, the location and place within our basic typology has remained more or less stable. 

This weeks trip will mark our fifth data collecting trip into the Bakken and we have moved well beyond the capacities of our rather simple data collecting strategies. On the one hand, we probably need to identify single camps or sites and collect a massively robust data set from them designed to describe every unit and associated object. Returning over time will involve charting the development of the units and the objects that constitute the camp. David Pettegrew and I did a similar project at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia over a 10 year span. This kind of myopic approach, however, would push our infrastructure and time to the very limits and involve – invariably- ignoring larger regional trends for the sake of intensive documentation. 

On the other hand, traveling from site to site across the Bakken provides a large scale perspective on a number of different phenomena associated with workforce housing – ranging from very short term housing at construction sites which conform to our Type 3 camps to large scale prefabricated housing developments which conform – loosely – to our Type 1 camps. These camps continue to fit into our typology, but they clearly challenge our functional, economic, and social assumptions. Short term housing at a construction site is not a “grapes of wrath” story, and a subdivision of prefab houses is not the same as a corporate Target Logistics style camp. These are observations that come only from large scale documentation of the region.

Moreover, as the oil exploration and extraction expand different areas of the region encounter workforce housing in different ways. In fact, we are heading north in the wilds of Divide County (pop. ca. 2000) and Burke County to see how areas with extraordinarily low population densities accommodate the requirements of oil extraction. This regional approach requires more agile modes of documentation and a certain amount of flexibility in approach.

This week’s trip will for me, at least, focus on developing a consistent method to document camps that compromises between a regional approach and an approach that focuses on the development of individual camps through time.

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