The Archaeology of Oil Production: Part 1

Readers of this blog know that I have a long simmering interest in extractive landscapes that date to my work in the Bakken patch. As a result, I jumped at the chance to write a chapter on the archaeology of oil production for a volume on the archaeology of plastics. In fact, I’m irrationally excited about writing this up. 

Here are the first two sections of it. I’m pretty pleased with the sites and places of oil. Most of this section derives from grey papers produced by various groups nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places or the Historical American Engineering Record. These super granular reporting formulas do exactly what I hoped (and needed) they would do in that they show how most sites of oil production only make sense in a dense network of physical, institutional, infrastructural, and financial relationships. 

As per usual, if you have suggestions, opinions, or observations, I’d love to hear ‘em! 

Archaeology of Oil Production


Oil production is a central element in the modern world. It is the primary engine for economic growth. By offering a promise of continuous economic growth, the use of fossil fuels and oil in particular, powered not only the rise of industrial capitalism, but also the aspirations for equality at the heart of global democracy (Mitchell 2011; Morris 2015). Over the last 70 years, oil has shaped the global order and fueled decolonization, nationalism, military conflict, and post-national formations. In this context, the narratives and sites associated with oil discovery often represent the pride of communities and moments of optimism for a better future. Counter narratives abound, however, that regard oil production sites as places of broken promises, social dislocation, and environmental destruction (Sinclair 192x; Munif 1987). The growing concern about global climate change has intensified critiques associated both with the direct role that oil production and consumption plays in carbon emissions and the indirect role that oil plays in supporting global consumer culture and distributed production practices.

Despite the widespread awareness of the role that oil has played in the development of the contemporary world, the material culture of oil production are nearly as expansive as its consequences. As a result, archaeologists and heritage professionals interested in the contemporary world have struggled to adapt tools often designed to document and preserve spatially defined sites to the requirements of a phenomenon that operates on a much more expansive and often global scale. Moreover, the rate at which landscapes associated with oil production can change through the natural limits of the resource, shifting economic priorities, and military and political conflict has created a moving target for researchers. The ability of significant quantities of capital — workers, equipment, housing, and infrastructure — to appear in a region and then disappear parallels the liquidity of oil itself which represents its greatest asset as a source of energy. The liquidity of oil contrasts with the seeming permanence of the oil reserves themselves and the investment in the “downstream” infrastructure associated with oil refineries (Hein 2018). While these more permanent fixtures in the oil production process have occasionally received attention, they too present challenges for the archaeologist. As this brief contribution will discuss in more detail below, their location at the end of substantial transport networks, the dangers associated with the work, the presence of proprietary technology, and the long term toxic traces left behind from refining can make access difficult. These fixed sites represent nodes in global networks of political and financial actors, institutions, technologies, histories, and places. These networks, in turn, trace the wider impact of oil production which often exceeds the scales of conventional archaeological practices.

The following contribution will attempt to the existing archaeological and heritage work on individual sites associated with oil production with a bias toward those in the United States. This is largely a concession to my greater familiarity with North American examples documented under the auspices of the Nation Register of Historic Place and the Historic American Engineering Record. The second section will consider efforts to consider the materiality of oil production in an integrated, global context. While archaeologists have generally not contributed this kind of work, it nevertheless offers interpretative contexts for future single and multisite archaeological research. The final section will focus on a case study from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and demonstrate how archaeology might integrate global and local perspectives in the understanding of a specific productive landscape.

Sites and Places of Oil

Starting in the 1920s, the material legacy of oil production attracted the interest of archaeologists and heritage professionals. The establishment of the Allegheny National Forest in 1923 incorporated parts of the 19th century oil fields in western Pennsylvania which continued to produce at a small scale well into the 20th century. Photo documentation of these sites in the 1920s and 1930s anticipated more systematic documentation in the 1990s under standards established by the Historical American Engineer Record. Scholars often regard the recovery of commercially viable oil, at the Drake Well in 1859, near the town of Titusville in Western Pennsylvania as the founding moment in the modern oil industry. The subsequent oil boom in the region followed a similar trajectory to other resource booms with the arrival of workforce eager to reap the potential rewards offered by this new commodity. Over the next fifty years, the region’s various oil fields saw the construction of numerous drill rigs, wells, pumps, power stations, tank farms, pipelines, and rail connections as well as camps and towns designed to serve the oil industry. While most of the features that remain in the national forest and documented over the course of HAER assessments in the mid-1990s date to the turn of the 20th century, they nevertheless offer insights into the technologies used to facilitate oil production. Pennsylvania oil drillers adapted most of their drilling technology from the techniques used to drill for water in the region including cable tool drilling methods which relied on the impact of a bit dropped along a cable to shatter the rock at the bottom (Ross 1996, 13). Distinct from rotary drill bits employed in Texas and elsewhere in the West in the early 20th century, cable tool drilling was sufficient for relatively soft stone and shallow depths in Pennsylvania and by the 1870s drillers in the region had incorporated casing to prevent the collapse of wells during the drilling process. While the use of metal casing would become a standard feature of oil wells into the 21st century, the most distinctive and persistent characteristic of the Pennsylvania oil production was the use of central power stations to provide power to pumps which drew the oil out of non-flowing wells. Central powerhouses supported the development of wells located with the immediate vicinity of the power station and also removed the steam and later gasoline driven motors from proximity to the well themselves and their flammable resource. The maintenance of these circular powerhouses required regular attention, but also the radiating web of power rods driving the individual pumps demanded an understanding of the terrain and the larger landscape as well (Ross 1994, 76). Unlike contemporary oil fields where much of the infrastructure designed to connect wells to distribution networks, for example, exists underground, the rods emanating from central power stations make clear the interconnected nature of resources extraction on a literal and practical level.

Most efforts to document the heritage of oil production have focused on individual sites. For example, over a dozen individual oil wells from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and California are now listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. These well have generally marked the opening of various oil fields of varying degrees of regional and national significance. The documentation of the wells as frequently stressed their existing state as their integration within a wider network of relationships that facilitated commercially viable oil production. For example, Pico Canyon #4 Well in California dates to 1877 and this commercially viable well revived the oil industry in the state which had languished through the previous decade. The proximity of the Pico Canyon field to a refinery at Lyon’s Station encouraged its development, but the founding of the Pioneer Refinery in Newhall and its connection to Pico Canyon by a two-inch diameter gravity pipeline and access to the Southern Pacific Railroad line made this well particularly profitable. Of course, not all similar investments in infrastructure necessarily yielded similar results. The infamous Tea Pot Dome field in Wyoming saw massive investment from 1922-1927 before production ceased for nearly 50 years. A recent survey of the field as part of a Historic American Engineering Record documented the remains of not only oil wells, but storage tanks, pipelines, compression stations, bridges, and other features associated oil production. The Sinclair Consolidated Oil Company’s concession to develop of the Teapot Dome Field, thanks to significant bribes paid to President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall, also involved constructing several camps to house workers in this relatively remote location and provided some of them with electricity, heat, telephones, and sewage. In 2015, foundations, some bridges, capped wells, and some parts of the sewage system are all that remained in 2015.

The efforts to document sites associated with oil production in the US parallel those elsewhere in the world. For example, Canada has recognized the significance of the first commercial oil field in Oil Springs, Ontario with several wells, a central power station for pumping, and various tanks associated with oil production. Iran has designated as heritage sites associated with the discover and commercialization of oil in Khuzestan Province where a museum dedicated to petroleum history exists amid historic sites associated with the early-20th century origins of the Masjed Soleyman oil field (Amirkhani et al. 2021). The archaeology and heritage of oil foregrounds the understanding that individual sites—whether these are wells, refineries, or powerhouses—only have meaning within wider networks of related installations necessary for the transportation, refining, and distribution of oil as well as the attraction and maintenance of a worker, securing financing for the undertaking, and negotiating governmental and diplomatic regulations and obstacles. As a result, the archaeology of oil production encourages research that follows the viscous flow oil and capital as it traces relationship between various sites, institutions, technologies, and places.

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