An Archaeology of Care: Toward a Definition

Last year, Richard Rothaus and I floated an idea called “The Archaeology of Care” and published a short article in the North Dakota Humanities Council’s magazine On Second Thought. For a brief history of our use of the phrase, go here.

In a couple of weeks. Ricard, Bret Weber, and I are giving a paper on the Archaeology of Care at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting titled: “An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)” in a panel titled “Archaeologies of Care: Rethinking Priorities in Archaeological Engagement”.

As we worked on that paper, we started to think a bit about how to define archaeology of care. Here’s my first, halting efforts along those lines:

There has been a good bit of substantive conversation over the past two decades on constructing an archaeology that is more ethnically responsible and that actively questions the colonial, capitalistic, and, at times, anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. These trends have crystalized across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices that have, generally speaking, fallen under the broadly define approaches of community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and various forms of public outreach. In general, these approaches seek to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and find shared values in archaeological practice and archaeological knowledge. The implementation of these practices range from the critical involvement of indigenous communities in the production of useful archaeological knowledge, the involvement of local groups in archaeological practices, and meaningful efforts of outreach and public history that seek to recognize the plurality of meanings present in the archaeological record.

“Archaeology of Care” is a contribution to these larger trends toward an ethical archaeology. For our project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and ethnographic (or more properly, oral history) research in the Bakken oil patch. As we documented work force housing sites across the region, our colleagues from the departments of history and social work, recorded resident’s stories. Invariably, however, residents of the workforce housing sites approach the archaeological team and inquired about our work. We explained our project, methods, and goals, and even individuals who did not consent to being formally recorded generally expressed interest in our work. During this informal interaction between the residents of the Bakken and the project archaeologist, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for both parties. The residents of the area expressed an appreciative interest that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study and recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically. This moment connected our research goals with the experiences of individuals living and working in the Bakken oil boom. Moreover, in the case of the Bakken, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same modern expectations for how a range of social actors assigns significant to events or individuals. After all, university researchers contributed in part to the discovery of the Bakken oil patch and extractive industries – whatever their complicity in challenging climate science – are deeply modern and scientific in their approach to collecting and transporting natural resources. Archaeological and historical research, therefore, shares a social significance with those discourses that frame extractive industries. In other words, our presence there and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. 

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