I’ve been thinking about roads a bit over the last month. First, my colleagues with the Western Argolid Regional Project and I are giving a paper this week at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on roads, routes and abandoned villages. I then had an interesting conversation about the role of roads as a form of local power in the Bakken oil patch. Finally, I enjoyed parts of Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox’s book Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (Cornell 2014).
Dimitri Nakassis and I drew upon some of the early research in the Western Argolid to argue that roads and routes play a key role in constructing a “contingent countryside” in Greece. We identified three abandoned sites – two settlements and a fortification – and argue that they make sense in a landscape understood through a series of dynamic connections linking mountain villages to intermediate lands that ring the fertile plain. Families from mountain villages used these intermediate lands as a source for both winter pasture and hardy crops that did not require irrigation. Rugged, but well-defined mountain roads marked the social and economic relationship between mountain villages and their intermediate lands, but these routes had limited value to the state which invested in major arteries linking politically and economically important villages to the major regional markets. The state supported the paving of these major routes for carts and then motorized transportation over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, and in time, these major routes came to dominate the structure of settlement across the landscape. The spread of roads complemented the political organization of the state and the development of institutions like schools and government in towns linked to the center by roads further transformed the relationship between settlements. Roads, then, reflected both growing influence of the state on the structure of settlement in the 20th century. Abandoned villages and other rural places reflect social relationships that the material authority of the state has overwritten.
Roads have been an important focus of attention in the Bakken oil patch. From tragic road accidents to the need for greater investment in core infrastructure, roads have were a key issue in how people have come to understand the impact of the Bakken boom. Historically, routes linking western North Dakota to market and production centers elsewhere shaped settlement in this region. A grid of local roads provided access for farmers to plots of land at a remove from major overland or rail lines. The maintenance of these local roads remains a concern of the county, whereas major interstates – like US Route 2 and 85 or state roads in the area – are under the control of extra-regional entities. As a result, major arteries into the Bakken are developed much more quickly than local routes and with an eye toward state and even national economic interests. At the same time, the county does have the right to close or limit access to roads and many of the rural roads designed to provide access to agricultural land and homesteads are now routes plied by heavy trucks accessing remote oil wells. The tension between the interests of the state and the interests of local communities plays out in attitudes toward roads through the area.
Finally, Harvey and Knox’s book, Roads, provides a convenient set of comparative and conceptual tools to articulate the role of roads in the political, economic, and social life of communities. My reading focused primarily on the sections related to the state involvement in road building in Peru and how this both formalized and disrupted relationships between communities and settlement patterns there. While none of this counts as profound, I do think that the relative invisibility of roads as archaeological artifacts in regional level survey has perhaps led to their under appreciation as a structuring element in both pre-modern and modern settlement.