The Bakken Outside the Box

Last year, I submitted one of my favorite little articles. It was co-authored with Bret Weber and is called “Bakken Hundreds.” You can read it here.

The article is a contribution to a volume called Archaeology Outside of the Box and we thought our piece would fit the main trust of the volume toward more unconventional archaeological projects and more unusual forms of writing about archaeology. Alas, when the reviews came back, we were told that our article was too far outside the box, but, our editor intervened and suggested that we might satisfy the reviewers with a long footnote. This would allow us to keep the structure of our article intact, while also contextualizing our project more formally. 

Because I’m really focused on other things at the moment, I’m using this blog space to work a bit on this footnote. For the various references, check out the the article here and as always, any and all feedback is welcome!

The North Dakota Man Camp project began in 2012 and sought to document the social, architecture, and archaeological conditions at work force housing sites in the Bakken Oil Patch of Western North Dakota. The project is directed by the archaeologists and historians, William Caraher and Richard Rothaus, and the social worker and historical Bret Weber, and over its seven year history included collaborations with architectural historian and archaeologist, Kostis Kourelis; visual artists, John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, and Ryan Stander; and colleagues in social work and history. The project team documented over 50 workforce using textual descriptions, photography, video, and over 100 hours of unstructured interviews with residents. These sites ranged in character from informal and illegal squats in tree lines near construction sites, which we called “Type 3” camps to large RV parks or “Type 2” camps and state-of-the-art camps provided by global logistics companies, which were “Type 1” camps in our typology. The main phase of the project concluded in 2018, but low-level fieldwork is ongoing with periodic visits to Western North Dakota continuing on an irregular basis. 

The 2008-2018 Bakken oil boom was the third such boom in Western North Dakota with earlier booms occurring in the 1950s and late-1970s and early 1980s (Conway 2020). The improvement in of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology in the early 21st-century and the high price of oil (which we included in the following article) encouraged oil companies to return to the Bakken and Three Forks formation. By April 2014, the thousands of Bakken oil wells were producing over one-million barrels of oil per day from sites concentrated mainly in Mountrail, Williams, and McKenzie Counties. The rapid rate of exploration and drilling along with the increase in production, drew tens of thousands workers to the region not only to work in the oil industry directly, but also to work in construction and service industries necessary to support the growing population. As had happened in previous booms, the increase in population outpaced housing and a wide range of temporary housing situations filled the gap (Caraher et al. 2020). 

Our original goal was to document and analyze workforce housing conditions and to produce a dataset that could inform historical and policy studies in the future. Our work in the Bakken, however, revealed more than just creative adaptions to the precarious employment, inadequate housing, and extreme weather. As the following article attempts to communicate, field work in the Bakken was also deeply affecting. The fieldwork team encountered diverse attitudes and situations that reflected the struggles, hopes, and experiences of workers in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the tireless efforts to negotiate the promises of middle-class life against contingencies of the global extractive economy. While our other publications provide a more scholarly view of our work in the Bakken (Weber et al. 2014; Caraher 2016; Caraher et al 2016; Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2020; Rothaus et al. 2021), this article seeks to offer an affective view of our experiences in this landscape and serve as a reminder that archaeology, especially of the contemporary world (e.g. Gonzalez-Ruibal 2019) is as much about our critical, reflective engagement with the contemporary situation, as the material context for the present. 

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