The best prospectus that I ever wrote for my dissertation was after it was largely complete. It appears that it is also easier to write an introduction to a book after the book is complete rather than before.
Below is a description of the organization of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This is a significantly revised final section of my introduction. My hope is that it frames my book in a way that reflects what it is rather than what I may have (at various points) hoped it would be. This means that I owned up to several of my chapter being more “discursive” than I perhaps would have liked them to be when I was envisioning the book. At the same time, I also realize that discursive is how I roll a lot of the time. We’ll see if this admission of guilt will satisfy the series editors, but I feel better about my introduction.
The Organization of this Book
This book seeks to explore key issues in the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. My approach is anchored in two case studies which divide the book into two parts. The first part of the book unpacks the excavation of an assemblage of Atari game cartridges in the New Mexico desert in 2014 and the second part of the book explores a decade of study associated with the 21st century Bakken oil boom in Western North Dakota with particular attention to workforce housing. Each part of the book constitutes a protracted and unorthodox case study that follows the deep and reflexive dive into the research that informed my analysis of the Atari excavations and the Bakken. In effect, then, the book is both a case study in the sense that it explores distinctive material assemblages associated with two specific contexts in the contemporary world, but also a case study in the sense that it shows how these two assemblages open onto the development of the field. Because the archaeology of the contemporary world assumes the contemporaneity of the field itself and the objects of study, the following chapters go to some length to demonstrate the link between the way in which we use archaeology to study the present my own place as an archaeologist and participant in the disciplinary and cultural trends. I largely present these in brief preludes to each chapter that serve to reinforce my own “ego reference point” of the archaeologist in relation to the chapters.
My dependence on the case study approach also accounts for the unevenness of my coverage of the field. This also reflects the challenges of writing a book that reflects the archaeology of the general experiences of a period, and one that is defined as being rather specifically contemporary with the archaeologist, rather than particularly bounded by set of conditions (e.g. labor, race, consumer practices, incarcerations, urbanism, et c.) or a period in the past. That said, I did my best to tease out the broadest implication of both my case studies and experiences both as an authentic reproduction of my decade long study of these periods and in an effort to be fair and representative to the contributors the field.
Thus the first part of the book starts at the edge of a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where a massive excavator removes domestic waste from above an assemblage of Atari games. The first chapter describes the stratigraphy of the landfill excavation in some detail demonstrating that archaeology of the contemporary world can involve traditional methods of documentation. Chapter two locates the excavation of the Atari games within both a concern for the waste produced by American consumer culture and the tradition of the “garbology” instigated by Bill Rathje’s Garbage project. It traces how archaeology of trash started as a way to gain insights into discard practices associated with particular groups of people. Contemporary studies of garbage recognizes that it has the potential to tell transnational stories that speak as much to processes and the interplay between trash and individuals under various waste regimes. This more expansive view of garbology parallels recent approaches to things that are the topic of Chapter three. This chapter follows the Atari case study from childhood memories of wanting to buy the latest Atari game to the stinky mess at the edge of the Alamogordo landfill. This leads to a more expansive consideration of things in archaeology and across the social sciences and points to how new attitudes toward agency complicate views of consumption and the production of culture and distinctive experiences. Chapter four completes the first case study by extending our reflection on archaeology of the contemporary American experience of media starting with famous record collections, recording studios and music venues and continuing through the archaeological investigations associated with various forms of digital media related to the Atari games that we were excavating. Much like contemporary trash and consumer goods, these objects produce a distributed American experience that traces expansive networks that of interrelated, but contemporary experiences. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of how archaeology as a discipline leverages these same networks and experiences to produce knowledge in the 21st century. Thus, the recursive relationship between the American experience and the emerging field of the archaeology of the contemporary world manifests in itself in the tools and practices that archaeologists use to understand their world.
Chapter five begins the book’s second case study which focuses on the archaeology of contemporary oil production and labor in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota. This chapter seeks to contextualize the experience of workers who flooded the Bakken region of North Dakota in search of jobs in the aftermath of subprime mortgage crisis and resulting recession of the early twenty-first century. Their scramble for housing which often included camping in public parks or living in RVs in the Williston, ND Walmart parking lot revealed the connection between economic displacement, housing, and marginalization. In an effort to contextualize these experiences, this chapter considers the important work of archaeologist of the contemporary world on migrants, borders, and homelessness as a way to consider how borders, marginal places, and displacement contributes to the experience of contemporary American life. Chapter six is among the more discursive chapters of this book in that it considers the role that institutional housing played in on military bases, college campuses, and residential schools. Like workforce housing in the Bakken, bases and schools sought both to promote orderly life and to obfuscate, whenever possible, signs of resistance or disorder. Archaeology of contemporary and historical sites has revealed the tensions between the carefully managed public appearance of these sites — which often taken on a global scale — and the experiences of their residents. Chapter seven continues to consider the interplay between the American and the global by considering topics important to the study of the contemporary city in both a chronologically broad American context and the geographically expansive transnational context. The ruins of the post-war and post-industrial American city speak to trends in the global economy that shifted manufacturing from American cities to cities in the “Global South.” The remains of an industrial past form a dramatic backdrop for ongoing racial violence, protests, and various forms of urban redevelopment which draw upon historical and transnational precedents. The final chapter of the book will attempt to tie some of the threads introduced in chapters five, six, and seven together in recent archaeological research in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While the work in the Bakken primarily focused on workforce housing with its connections to military, institutional, and urban forms, our time in the Bakken and our attention to human cost of the oil industry also forced us to consider issues that went well beyond the temporal and geographic limits of Western North Dakota. As a result, the final chapter will also introduce some remarks on how the archaeology of the contemporary world has engaged with issues of global climate change. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the idea of the Anthropocene, which seeks to describe the human impact on the Earth in geological terms. The interest in the Anthropocene among archaeologists of the contemporary world offers yet another example of how the very notion of the “contemporary” defies tidy definition and how the contemporary American experience can be planetary in scope.