Archaeology Out of the Box

This spring, Bret Weber and I were invited to contribute to a volume called Archaeology Out-of-the-Box edited by Hans Barnard. Over the past nine or ten months, we’ve turned some ideas around in our heads in an effort to find something genuinely creative to say about our now mostly concluded field work in the Bakken Oil Patch

During the summer, I had the chance to read Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s book, The Hundreds. The book entirely consists of short (hundred words or so) essays that bounced back and forth between Berlant and Stewart during the book’s gestation. As one might expect from these authors, the fragments throughout the book are affective and elegant. They don’t so much produce an argument as draw the reader across a range of emotional states and entice us to peer through narrow windows into the complex emotional lives of others.

While the substance of this book probably is not suitable for archaeology (although recent arguments for an affective archaeology are compelling), the form continues to intrigue me. So much of archaeological work deals with fragments, and archaeologists spend most of their time organizing these fragments of and from the past into relationships. This got me and Bret thinking about whether we could present our work from the Bakken in a way that preserved some of the fragmentary nature of both our evidence and our understanding of the oil boom, the folks who worked there, and its material culture. 

Over the course of our field work in the Bakken we collected over a hundred hours of interviews with workers, residents, and officials. These interviews have largely been transcribed. We also have a series of notebooks describing individual “man camps” that include counts of units, the condition of the facility, and various other notes that allowed us to track the changing material landscape of the Bakken. These notes and interviews have resulted in a series of publications. We also have over ten thousand photographs and hours of video shot during our time in the Bakken as well as the art produced through various collaborating photographers and visual artists. 

A plan for our “Out of the Box” project will be a series of 100 word (or less) passages mined from our interviews, notes, and publications. Because of limits on the number of figures, we can only use 3 to 5 images. The editors have asked that our article be between 3000 and 5000 words. This means that we can have no more than 40, 100-word fragments, to allow space for bibliography and a short (100 word!) introduction. 

Part of the what made our work in the Bakken successful (or at least intellectually stimulating) is that the team travelled together between our often dispersed study sites and talked about what we saw and how we understood the changing landscape of western North Dakota. The back-and-forth between me, Bret Weber, and Richard Rothaus shaped our perspectives and ultimately our publications. To capture this interaction as part of how we constructed and understood the Bakken, Bret and I will offer alternating fragments. Just as our conversations bounced back and forth ideas, evidence, and perspectives, our “hundreds” will also show how our different ways of reading, experiencing, and expressing the Bakken create meaningful assemblages.

Unlike traditional archaeological publications which connect evidence through various arguments for causality, our approach will be to allow the reader to connect our fragment of evidence speculating on our thinking, in part, or supplying their own understanding of the relationship between the fragments. A brief introduction will present the notion of parataxis and how it contributes to how we understand archaeological assemblages. I’d like to argue that an archaeology of the contemporary world relies particularly on parataxis in assemblages because it locates the archaeologist in the same time as our evidence. Because our ideas of causality rely on the diachronic nature of evidence and our own position outside of the time that we study, situating objects as contemporary with ourselves and one another makes constructing the traditional patterns of causality impossible. In its place, we invite the reader to respond to our fragmented assemblage immediately, to empathize, to allow evidence and experience to affect our perspectives, and to see the contemporary world not as the culmination of the past or as basis for a particular future, but as a series of encounters that can be emergent as well as foreclosed. 

Our archaeology out of the box is both a critique of archaeological epistemology as well as an offering of an archaeology grounded in the shifting ground of personal and shared experiences.

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