Starting the Final Chapter

This month, I’m starting the final chapter of my short book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. I’ve blogged a ton about this book and you can read what I’ve written so far here.

The final chapter is a pendant to my first chapter. Just as the first chapter introduced the Alamogordo Atari Expedition of 2014 and anchored my book in the “garbology” of Bill Rathje, the final chapter will use my work in the Bakken oil patch to situate the archaeology of the contemporary world in global questions of precarity and climate change. 

The first few paragraphs follow my usual formula for each chapter as I try to evoke some cultural history to offer a broader context for the archaeology of the contemporary.

So here’s the start to chapter 8, which I’ve tentative titled Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change: 

The first chapter of this book began in 2014 with me standing in a New Mexico landfill documenting the excavation of a deposit of Atari games. The final chapter will begin in 2012 with me standing in an RV park housing workers who have come to western North Dakota during the Bakken Oil Boom. The North Dakota Man Camp Project conducted its inaugural season of fieldwork starting at a dusty camp on the outskirt of Tioga, North Dakota. The town of Tioga calls itself the “Oil Capital of North Dakota” from its perch atop the Nesson Anticline which has produced oil at a commercial scale since 1951 when the Iverson Well #1 came in. Booms in the 1950s and the 1980s brought thousands of workers not only to Tioga, but to the sparsely populated counties of western North Dakota. Invariably, local housing stock proved inadequate to accommodate the influx of workers who resorted to a wide range of temporary, mobile, and ad hoc solutions. The North Dakota Man Camp Project team visited the Bakken over a dozen times to document the various ways forms of boom-time workforce house. Our team combined archaeologists with an architectural historian, a historian and social worker with a specialization in housing, and artists, students, and colleagues committed to the documentation and study of 21st century Bakken oil boom.

The early 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom grabbed international media headlines and introduced the term “man camp” to American vocabulary (Caraher et al. 2016). Alec Soth’s famous photo of an oil smeared worker sitting atop an overturned oil drum on the North Dakota prairie evoked the desolation of the place and the rugged, masculine labor associated with extractive industries. The photo appeared on the cover of the widely circulated New York Times Magazine in 2013 and similar coverage appeared in The Atlantic, Harpers, National Geographic, and the Washington Post at around the same time (Becker 2016). The journalists drawn to the Bakken produced a series of thoughtful books that situated the Bakken in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis and the “Great Recession” and amid the improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technologies, a renewed push to national energy independence and the longstanding hope of getting rich (e.g. Gold 2014; Rao 2018; Briody 2017; McLean 2018). Artists and writers have also looked to the Bakken for inspiration and critique (e.g. Dunham 2016; Brorby et al. 2016; Brorby 2017; Anderson 2017; Sayles 2020). Commercial paperbacks (e.g. Martin 2017) and television series followed playing on the reputation of the oil patch as a kind of new “Wild West” where the potential of the frontier and freedom of lawlessness intersect to produce the ideal backdrop for transgressive tales of violence, capitalism, and wealth.

Needless to say, we encountered very little of the Wild West in our work in the Bakken. Instead, we documented a wide range of efforts to adapt often temporary housing conditions to the North Dakota weather, to expectations developed over the last half-century of suburbia, and to preserve flexibility in the face of the growing precarity of the “gig economy.”

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