Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s the first fall Friday here in North Dakotaland and people are greeting each other with the phrase “Fall has sprung!”

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The sports calendar is as exciting as ever with NBA, NFL, MLB, and NASCAR. The Formula 1 circus is in Russia, the IPL is going full tilt, and there are a gaggle of significant fights this weekend as well headlined by the fighting Charlo brothers.

Of course, there is always work to be done with an NDQ deadline on October 1, a book review languishing as a blog post, and a field manual to pretty up. I’m also keen to get to work on my next book chapter. But life is like that, I suppose: there are always more thing that we want to do than we have time to get done.

For now, I’ll satisfy myself with a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

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BillCaraher 2020 Sep 20

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Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: Six Chapters

A couple of years ago, I watched one of my buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

To date, I have completed six chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the six of the first seven chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

What are things like at the University of North Dakota?

It now seems there are a few new questions in nearly every conversation: Are you online or face-to-face? How are [COVID related] things there [on your campus]? How is your institution handling things? Will you come back after Thanksgiving? What is your institution’s plan for the spring? How many cases?

Since this seems to be a topic of significant interest, I thought that I’d give a little review of what’s happening at UND.

First, our COVID numbers are really good. This morning, the UND COVID dashboard tells me that we have about 44 self-reported cases (39 are students) in the campus community. This is down from over 400 in late August. We seem to be averaging around (and, yeah, I’m too lazy to run the numbers) 5 new cases a day over the last few weeks and at present have 52 people in quarantine or isolation at local hotels. 

We also test about 3 days a week and judging by the numbers, these tests are attended and convenient.   

Second, it would appear that UND’s numbers are not major factor in the number of cases in Grand Forks County. In other words, the influx of college students do not seem to be aa major influence on number of COVID cases in town. I suspect that UND’s aggressive testing, mask policies, contact tracing, and capacity to quarantine and isolate both infected and exposed students has helped stem the kind of rapidly spreading outbreak that many folks feared. UND has averaged 5.3 new cases per day over the last 7 days while Grand Forks has averaged close to 25 new cases per day.

These numbers are less comparable if they’re not normalized per, say, 100,000 or whatever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the total size of the the UND population (students, faculty, and staff) to normalize that number. More than that the Grand Forks dashboard seems to offer average number of cases per 100,000 which is not something that I can easily compare to data from UND’s dashboard which shows NEW cases per day because it’s not clear how many individuals have recovered. In any event, this kind of fuzziness is understandable because the two dashboard have different goals. The county’s dashboard is trying to understand the number of active COVID cases to get a sense for the potential spread of COVID whereas the UND dashboard is concerned about the rate of its spread.

Third, I continue to teach face-to-face and have a new appreciation for being in the classroom. My classes however, have been impacted by COVIDs. Not only have some of my students been isolated or quarantined for various lengths of time, but my larger class (45 students) is being taught as a hybrid course. I meet once a week for about 40 minutes with 3 groups of 15 students. The rest of the class takes place online.

In my experience students have been incredibly conscientious about mask wearing and social distancing. I’ve felt no need to police university COVID policies in my classes and students seem respectful of both their own personal space and that of their fellow students.

That being said, I think some discontinuities in the digital environment have made seamless communication between students and faculty a bit more challenging than I expected. Students tend to prefer Snapchat and group texts to communicate, whereas my official correspondence remains confined to Blackboard and email (and frankly, I don’t want to be on a student Snapchat or group text chain!).

That being said, I’m excited to participate in a program funded, I suspect, by CARES money, designed to help us develop more effective hybrid classes moving forward.

I’ve also discovered that with all the uncertainty students (and I suspect colleagues as well!) constantly waver back and forth between the desire for structure – due dates, regular class meetings, clear expectations – and flexibility. Trying to strike that balance will continue to be a challenge for me especially since I tend toward a very flexible approach to teaching and expectations.

Finally, our community has not enforced a mask mandate and has generally done little officially to manage the spread of COVID. That being said (and I know there are those who will disagree with me), most of the people I see out and about wear masks and social distance. I suspect more people stay home than feel a need to go out to socialize. And I think that there is a strong sense that we’re all in this together that connects town and gown. 

The numbers in North Dakota have received national attention for their continued rise even as other states have made serious strides in controlling the spread of COVID. In our community, I remain guardedly optimistic that the combination of thoughtful policies by UND and a strong sense of cohesion among residents in Grand Forks county will prevent major spikes. If we can make it into the cooler months of the winter when socialize naturally slows down and isolation becomes a normal state for much of the community, we might be spared the worst of the COVID surge. Only time will tell. 

Finalizing a Survey Field Manual

A few years ago, I casually floated the idea that projects should publish their field manuals. This was in conjunction with the publication of the Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual (by Guy Sanders, Sarah James and Alicia Carter Johnson) by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. There was a pretty tepid response with a number of project directors agreeing that this was a good idea in theory, but no one took me up on the suggestion and submitted a manuscript.

I’m still very open to the idea and I’d love to publish a manual from any of the iconic excavations in the Mediterranean! Field manuals represent the crucial link between methods (and methodology) and field practices that often have a significant impact on the kind of knowledge a project produces. They also provide insight into project and situation specific constraints, offer a kind of paradata (as well as metadata) for the project’s data, and give some indication of the work conditions and work rhythms present on site. Manuals also have pedagogical value as both evidence for how students learn archaeology on the ground and as examples in the classroom for how methodology plays out in the field. Finally, a publicly available field manual provides the kind of transparency that is good practice for the discipline. 

As part of The Digital Press’s project to publish the Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual we also published an archived list of project manuals which is available here.

Part of the challenge, of course, in publishing a field manual is that field manuals tend to be dynamic documents that change over time. Even for a relatively short project, such as our Western Argolid Regional Project, the manual underwent a number of changes over its four seasons of use. We were particularly fortunate to have active and engaged survey team leaders who provided not only input into the manual itself, but also helped us revise it each year. As a result, publishing a final manual is not as simple as just formatting a document and sending it to an archival repository like tDAR. We spent some time (by we, I meant, mostly Sarah James) revising our manual and providing some additional context so that a working document can be useful to someone not familiar with all the ins-and-outs of our specific project, its history, and goals. This morning, I’m going to go through it one last time and provide a brief preface that situates this finalized manuscript in the history of our project and our field work. 

Here’s my draft of the preface:


Field manuals are living documents which not only are adapted over the life of a project to suit the needs of each field season, but are interpreted daily in the field and workspaces of a project. This document is no different.

This finalized manual from the Western Argolid Regional Project is an effort to produce an honest version of the manual that both reflects the day-to-day practices of the project as well as our regular efforts to adapt the manual to the needs of the teams and slight shifts in our methods. As a result, this is a composite document that conflates and combines any number of adjustments offered by team leaders particularly during the first two field seasons of the project. For example, we developed our site revisit procedures over the first two seasons and settled on a procedure during our time in the field. There were also adjustments made to how we documented artifacts in the project storeroom in response to requests from local officials. We have included these changes in this document to reflect our practices in the field and in artifact processing. We made these changes in consultation with our team leaders who are the co-authors of this finalized text because the both made this manual work in the field and made the text itself better.

We also added an introduction that provides some broader context for the project, its goals, and its methodology. We have also added a number of appendices that reproduce our unit form, a field guide to surface visibility and conditions, and a list of abbreviations for artifact types within the Chronotype system.

The goal of publishing this document is to preserve a record of our field practices as well as to offer a resources to other projects looking to follow similar methods in their work. In the interest in making the genealogy of field practices somewhat easier to trace through grey paper documents such as field manuals, we have released this under an open-access, by-attribution, share-alike license. This allows anyone to use freely the text of this manual, but requires that this manual be cited and any future documents based on this manual to be made available under a similar open access license.

Archaeology on Campus

This weekend, I read Russell K. Skowronek and Kenneth E. Lewis’s ten-year-old Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia (2010). It is an edited collection of articles that deal with excavations on American college campuses. The book is very solid and while it does not contribute much to the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, it does help situate archaeological work on college and university campuses in a broader context.

Here are a few thoughts on this book that will contribute to my ongoing chapter writing:

1. College Archaeology and Historical Archaeology. I was aware of many of the campus archaeology projects presented in this volume, but, in many cases, I did not realize how long-standing this work was. In fact, campus archaeology is essentially as old was historical archaeology itself with important projects at Harvard and the University of South Carolina beginning in the 1970s just as historical archaeology itself was finding its footing in the US.

I was a bit surprised, however, that despite being contemporary with the emergence of historical archaeology, the studies presented in the volume seem not to engage much (or at least explicitly) with Orser’s famous “haunts” of capitalism, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. Of course, one could easily enough argue that the campus itself is so saturated with these four elements of contemporary society that explicit references to these themes would be insultingly redundant. That being said, it is interesting to me how little the articles in this book engaged the larger issues at play in historical archaeology (in contrast, say, to the work of Laurie Wilkie in her The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) published the same year.)  

2. As Public Archaeology. Excavations on college and university campuses have produced excellent opportunities of public archaeology. The visibility of campus excavations, the long-standing interest in campuses as places of memory (see below), and the interest in tradition and history that supports many aspects of campus life, positioned archaeological work as a natural extension of the kind of public history that already saturates college and university life.

It is hardly surprising that many of the excavations featured in this book took place on campuses that take particular pride in their “antiquity”: Harvard, William and Mary, UNC, and Michigan State. The interest in the early days of these campuses (even if the excavations failed to produce “Thomas Jefferson’s lost pocket watch”) complemented and amplified existing historical claims and arguments for persistence and venerability that characterize so much university “boiler plate” marketing material.

It may well be that good archaeology makes good marketing.    

3. The Limits of Text. Most universities have histories that trace the develop of the institution and the associated “great” men and women who guided the schools through their formative years. In general, these histories emphasize key institutional developments – curricula, faculty accomplishments, campus construction, and founding of new divisions and programs – which are frequently well documented in university archives and annual publications.  

Less common are sources that shed light on student life. In some cases, this is because student life was varied and dispersed and more susceptible to the occasional glimpse than the sustained view. In other cases, student life, and the private life of campus in general, took place intentionally outside of public view in ways that were consistent with the rise of respectable bourgeois values across American life. Campus archaeology has shown a particular interest in the private aspects of campus life especially when they contradict the sanitized public documents presented in institutional history or complicate views of institutional history.  

4. Campus and Memory. Most university campuses serve as places of memory for students (and even some faculty) as a result documenting changes to campus over time becomes more than just an exercise in historical work. Campus archaeology has the opportunity to contribute to memory work by preserving layers of campus experiences even as the university campus undergoes consistent adaptation (see below). 

Most university campuses are festooned with monuments to real or imagined pasts. Memorials to departed students, member of the university community, administrators and leaders emphasize the persistence of the university campus. Campus excavation, in this context, offers a performative confirmation that the past matters and institutions will remember.

5. Documenting Adaptation. Of course, the counterpoint to the campus as a place of memory is the campus as a dynamic landscape continuously adapting to the new needs of the community and the institution’s mission. 

The excavations presented in this volume reveal campuses in almost constant flux and made clear that the adaptation of campus buildings did not always reveal itself in the formal textual record of the institutions. Much like the history of the private life of the campus community, the history of a campus in flux runs counter the prevailing trends in the institutional record which tends to emphasize the persistence of campus structures, spaces, and traditions.

The tension between memory and practice complements the tension between tradition and progress that stands at the center of the post-secondary mission.   

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It feels like Fall here in North Dakotaland with the temperatures slipping into the mid-30s at night and the trees starting to change. Even without the traditional bustle of the college campus, there’s something unmistakably collegiate about UND right now as our COVID numbers decline and an unmistakable sense of accomplishment in the air.

Like most Fall weekends, there is bustle as the semester continues to gather steam and the excuses not to be writing again pass into the background. There’s also baseball, football, and basketball all vying for my attention and the boxing on its traditional Mexican Independence Day date.

And, of course, as always, a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

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Three Things Thursday: Ruins, Books, and the Quarterly

Things are a bit busier than usual these days, so I thought I’d share some of the stuff rattling in my office with a little Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m pretty sure that I won’t write it, but someone should really pull together a review essay on recent books about ruins. I’m hoping to finish a short review of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities (2020), which I’ve drafted here, and a few weeks ago, I read and enjoyed Filipe Rojas’s The Pasts of Roman Anatolia (2019). I read and found useful parts of Simon Murray’s 2020 book, Performing Ruins, which stands at the intersection of archaeology, drama, and social critique. It wouldn’t be difficult to add Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling new edited volume Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (2020) or the massively collaborative Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (2020) volume to the list. Lynn Meskel’s  A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (2018) fits the theme on the basis of its title alone (I’ve blogged about it here) and Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) would fit into a larger conversation about ruins and ruination as well. Finally, Susan Stewart’s book, Ruin Lessons (2020) has been languishing on my “to read pile” for most of the year and I just need to suck it up and read it.

Obviously not all of these books consider ruins in the same way which perhaps makes a kind of comparative review a bit awkward. On the other hand, the range of different approaches to ruins could make a kind of oddly compelling essay in the right hands. 

Things the Second

It’s always great to get some media coverage for a book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This week the Williston Herald published a nice interview with Kyle Conway about Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. One thing that struck me about this article is that not only did it do more than just rely on the book’s press release, but it also — and perhaps more importantly — drove traffic to the book’s webpage. More than that, this traffic resulted in downloads. For an open access press like mine, downloads are a pretty precious commodity because they mean books are getting into people’s hands.

The Digital Press is also excited to announce that One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 is now available from The Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Proceeds from the books sold there will go to support the maintenance of the Commonwealth Monument. If you’re thinking about buying this remarkable little book, now is a great opportunity to buy it and make a difference.

Finally, over the past six months, Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2018) has become a surprise best seller for The Digital Press. Following on this success, Dr. Burin was invited to host one of Humanities ND’s “Brave Conversations” about the electoral college. The event is online and, frankly, a bit pricey at $50 for a non Humanities ND member, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it! You can check it out here.

Thing the Third

This time of year is, for the foreseeable future, NDQ time. This means I spend hours processing contributions to the Quarterly, organizing paperwork, and putting the volume into some semblance of order. I detailed my process here.

What makes this all tolerable is that I also get a chance to spend time again with our accepted submissions. This means re-reading the poetry, fiction, and essays that make their way into each issue of the Quarterly.

My excitement usually gets the better of me and I begin to share some of the content from the issue on the NDQ blog. This morning, I shared two of John Sibley Williams’ poems. Go and check them out here.

More on Campus Archaeology

At this point of the semester, I’m resorting to all sorts of gimmicks to keep some kind of writing discipline.

This morning I have a Zoom meeting at 8 am so my goal is to write until 8 am, do a quick edit after my Zoom call and then move on to my next impending catastrophe (which I believe is processing North Dakota Quarterly contributions). I’ll obviously post the results of my frantic writing morning. 

Here’s what I got today. It’s all part of a chapter for my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can read more about the book here and more about this particular chapter here.

This picks up where my last post left off.

Timothy Webmoor and his colleagues studied Building 500 on Stanford University’s campus prior during a phase of abandonment prior to its repurposing as the Stanford Archaeology Center. Their work applied a wide range of experimental techniques that sought to capture the complicated interplay between materials and objects associated with this building. From the start, they recognized in Building 500 a common kind of building on university campuses. It was neither a ruin of the kind that has attracted photographers to places like Detroit in pursuit of “ruin porn,” nor was it a building in continued, active use. The indeterminate state of the building, perhaps evocative of the process of revaluation described by Michael Thompson in his “rubbish theory,” obscures its status as a ruin as it undergoes continuous transformation into new, useful, forms. The constant regeneration of buildings across university campuses reflects the practical realities of these fixed investments and finds a parallel with the processes that encourage the refitting of buildings that make up the “tail” of military sites. Moreover, it produces “transitory ruins” that preserve signs of abandonment, ruination, reuse, and adaptation that challenge conventional archaeological practices and emphasize the ontologically blurriness of ruins as a category. For Webmoor and his team, this encouraged holistic practices of documentation that challenged archaeology’s traditional commitment to metrology and the dividing the whole into parts as a means of complete documentation. Instead, Webmoor employed overlapping practices of documentation that included both conventional practices such as photography and textual description as well as a range of video techniques, audio recordings, maps, illustration, and list making designed to represent the messiness and complexity of this building. For Webmoor, these approaches reflected an interest in understanding the materiality of the building as not simply a passive object awaiting documentation, but as an active participant in the archaeological process. The fluid responsiveness to the ruins themselves produced methods of documentation that emphasized a care for objects and their role in creating our shared world.

The application of these techniques to a building on a university campus may be more than an exercise in convenience. While Webmoor stresses the proximity of ruins in our daily lives, campus architecture represents a distinctly dynamic assemblage of buildings and experiences. Not only are campus buildings regularly adapted and repurposed to serve the needs of a changing group of students and faculty, but, perhaps paradoxically, they represent the material backdrop for students during a key transitional time in their social lives. This sense of attachment is manifest in the fondness of Zeta Psi members for their former house on campus and their concern that the new house has compromised the sense of brotherhood among more recent fraternity members (Wilkie 2010). Despite the significance of architecture to the experience of campus life, buildings are also continuously falling in and out of ruin and abandonment as they are repurposed to serve different functions and to maintain pace with the changing expectations of research, learning, and student life.

In 2018 and 2020, I worked with a small team of students to document two buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Our work was very much informed by Timothy Webmoor and his teams approach to Building 500 on Stanford’s campus, but also embraced many of the pedagogical goals articulated in the work of Wilk and Schiffer. The work in 2018 focused on a pair of buildings associated with an institution called Wesley College which after being a partner with the University of North Dakota for nearly 50 years was purchased by UND in the 1960s. The two buildings originally housed dormitories, classrooms, recital halls, and administrative offices for students who attended classes at both Wesley College and UND. After the purchase of the college, however, the buildings underwent significant renovations and served as laboratories, faculty and staff offices, and classrooms before being demolished in 2018 as part of a wider effort to reduce the campus footprint.

By the time our team gained access to the building, it was formally abandoned by its previous occupants and the classrooms, laboratories, and offices were no longer in use or accessible to the public. At the same time, the building remained cluttered with objects that were either too large to easily remove, outdated, disposable, or otherwise unsuitable for repurposing elsewhere on campus. We encouraged the students to pay as much attention to the material left behind as part of the buildings’ recent abandonment as the earlier transformation of the structures and traces remaining of their original use. The students embraced the tension between the more recent assemblage of abandoned objects – from obsolete computers to mid-century office furniture, hard-used classroom furnishings, and depreciated window airconditioners and laboratory technology – and traces of the early-20th uses of the buildings from the partly obscured proscenium arch of the original recital hall to the corner sinks remaining in offices and student names etched in windows and bricks that preserve the original function of the building as a dormitory. Following Webmoor’s lead we documented many of the rooms with video and photography and prepared “Latour Litanies” of objects left behind in offices and labs. We also worked with a member of the music department to record the sound of the recital hall, which while compromised by later architectural interventions, preserved an “echo” of its former acoustics. As part of that program, we recorded a final concert in the recital hall with a small live audience situated amid the discarded classroom furnishings. The acoustic signature of the building became part of another work that combined music, video, and performance as a way to situate the abandonment and demolition of these buildings as part of a larger critique of higher education in the US and on our campus. Finally, upon discovering that one of the buildings was a memorial to a soldier who died during World War I, we organized an public ceremony designed to recognize the memory of this individual as well as the demolition of this building nearly 100 years after the end of hostilities.

The combination of multimodal documentation practices and performance located the near contemporary use of this building amid a long tradition of adaptation and reuse. This not only complicated idea of abandonment and ruin on a university campus, but also revealed a range of strategies, practices, and temporalities that produced the assemblage left behind by the last occupants of the building. The prevalence of outdated technology, for example, suggested strategies designed to maintain obsolete and near-obsolete computers for certain kinds of technical uses. This may well have reflected the ebb and flow of resources acquired through research grants which allowed for the large scale updating of technology, but then encouraged the reuse and maintenance of this technology well beyond its typical use-life. We also encountered how architectural adaptation to early 20th century buildings transformed elaborate spaces designed to communicate masculine values and refinement into less distinctive, practical spaces. The formal living room of the male dormitory, Sayre Hall, featured coffered ceilings, wood panelling, mosaic tile floors, a fireplace, and large windows and French doors recreating the ambience of urban, male-only, early-century social clubs. The addition of a drop ceiling, wall-to-wall carpeting, modern doors, and wall plaster overwrote the prestige communicated through the earlier space and created a room well-suited, in its final phases, as a computer room for campus technology services. The more functional arrangement of the room made it essentially interchangeable with any number of similarly functional spaces on campus and susceptible to being demolished in an effort to reduce the practical footprint of campus buildings.

Archaeology of Parking in the Contemporary World

This weekend, when I should have been doing some more pressing, I read Eran Ben-Joseph’s Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking (MIT 2015). It’s a fun and vividly illustrated book which considers parking over time as well as a contemporary design challenge for architects and planners.

It’s a short book and fairly affordable as a paperback, so there’s not much sense in reviewing it. If you want to get a sense for the book, MIT Press has made a section available for free here

The book gave me a few thoughts (which seems like the most we can hope for at this point of 2020):

1. Parking Lot Stratigraphy. My wife and I have been working on a few projects that involve the history of the mid-century growth in Grand Forks and the history of transportation in and through the city. In both projects parking plays a key role as car become a ubiquitous concern for planners in the post-War city and reshape the city’s landscape from a reasonably compact grid of the downtown to the more sprawling later-20th century city defined by its four-lane arterial roads. 

In the mid-20th century the first shopping centers appeared in town on Washington Street which was a major arterial road in the city. Parking lots fronted these shopping centers and surrounded the newly constructed South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) the first indoor shopping mall in North Dakota. Today as then, the size of a parking lot is set in proportion to the interior space of the building that it is to serve. The ratio of parking to floor area, however, has shifted over the last 70 years as has the amount of room reserved for each parking spot. In general, lots are designed to balance between the need to accommodate the maximum number of cars on a peak shopping day and the need to avoid looking of empty and desolate. Ordinances dictating the design of lots, requirements for green spaces and trees, the need for drainage, and even barriers separating the lot from through roads further shape the form and density of parking in town. As a result, there should be some rough correspondence between the parking ratio (lot size: building floor area) and the date of the lot (if we allow for other variables). It would be intriguing to map this across mid-century commercial building and lots in town.

2. Parking Lot Innovation. Ben-Joseph argues that, when compared to other areas of architecture and design, parking lots not seen their share of innovation. His book made clear how dreadful most of Grand Forks’s surface parking lots really are.

North Dakota is the kind of town where parking is important. This is not only because we’ve well and truly embraced sprawl but also because for four months of the year it’s punishingly cold. Moreover the need for spaces to allow for snow removal (and the incredible persistence of snow over the course of the winter) create the need for a generous attitude toward surface parking. We’re also a growing town and parking lots (and shopping centers) often appear to be aspirational in the number of cars and shoppers that they can accommodate.

Even so, a recent survey on the University of North Dakota’s campus showed that we are significantly over supplied with parking. Moreover the recent number of high visibility store closures suggesting that some of their aspirations for shoppers and parking were miscalibrated. While UND continues to work to strategically eliminate excess parking (with the predictable hue and cry from students and staff), commercial parking – particularly along the Washington Street and 32nd Avenue corridors – continues to offer bleak vistas of empty lots surrounding closed (or closing) big box retailers. 

I can’t help but think that these lots are an under-utilized resource for our community especially during the six, non-winter months. Parking lots have long served as sites for informal commercial activities like flea markets, farmers markets, and “car boot sales” as well as various food and beer festivals. While Grand Forks has a fair number of these kinds of events, they tend to be concentrated downtown in the alleys and open spaces there. I wonder if our community might be well served by more events in the under-utilized parking lots of big box stores south of town? 

I also wonder whether the struggles of the community’s two shopping malls and various big box retailers might lead planners to think about lots with more flexible designs that allowed them to be repurposed in different ways as needs invariably change. Parking lots do have the advantage of being particularly well suited for informal activities and events and in an age where public spaces seem always to be at risk, parking lots do have the potential to be a kind of community commons.     

2. Parking Lots and Pandemics. It’s been pretty amazing how the humble parking lot has emerged as a key element in how we’re negotiating the current pandemic. Even here in the antipodes, parking lots have become the scene for drive-in movies and concerts. Parking lots are a requirement for the drive-through COVID testing that 

While I’ve not heard of it in Grand Forks, I know that several communities have used parking lots for drive-in churches (and since so many of our churches have generously aspirational parking lots, this would seem to be an ideal opportunity!). I’ve also not heard of parking lots being used as places for the community to gather to watch sporting events (presumably on a large screen!) or to share in other forms of community-building activities usually reserved for face-to-face gatherings. I keep thinking of a drive up food festival (which I recognize would expose servers to greater risk than patrons).

The great think about parking lots is that they are essentially blank canvases and represent the potential even in the desert of our car-focused culture.

From Camps to the Contemporary Campus

This morning, I finally got back to working on my long simmering book project, and I picked up where I left off well over a month ago. My current chapter is on military camps and college campuses. I had a completed draft of the first part of chapter done toward the end of July, and now I’m turning my attention to a brief survey of archaeological work on contemporary life on college campuses. 

Ideally, I’ll conclude this chapter with a brief summary of my work on the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

Here’s what I wrote today.

Christopher Tilley and Kate Cameron-Daum in their study of the activity of the Royal Marines in the East Devon Pebblebed heathlands noted that the unique landscape fo the pebblebed heathlands served the rigorous training undertaken by the Royal Marine Commandos in this landscape (2017). This landscape plays a key role in shaping the body of the soldiers as they endure grueling weeks of training activities set against human and natural features in this distinctive environment. From copses of trees and hills to paths, foxholes, and water features cut into the hard pebbly ground of the heath, the experience of training in this unforgiving terrain contributed to the sense of camaraderie among Royal Marines as well as their tactical abilities (Tilley and Cameron-Daum 2017, 84-123). Like the Nevada Test Site and the Woomera rocket range in South Australia, sites such as the East Devon heathlands formed part of the sprawling battlefield of the Cold War and in same cases to the 21st-century “War on Terror.”

The Cold War, however, did not play out only in military training and testing sites. American college and university campuses likewise contributed to the shaping of generations of citizens who contributed to the larger scientific, political, and cultural project that reinforced and critiqued the Cold War rivalry between totalizing views of democracy and capitalism and those of communism. As Laurie Wilkie’s brilliant study of the fraternity Zeta Psi on the University of California’s Berkeley campus has shown, fraternity life played a key role in shaping the white, male, upper class identities of the fraternity’s brotherhood. Through a careful and creative reading of material culture, architecture, and documentary sources, Wilkie traced the role that Zeta Psi fraternity played in shaping the identity of its brotherhood and reflecting and amplifying the larger social situation of American university life and culture in the late-19th and early-20th century. Her excavations of the two generations of Zeta Psi fraternity houses that had become the property of the University of California in the 1950s demonstrated the potential for archaeological work to reveal a nuanced and deeply human image of fraternity life that navigates a complex middle ground between the dystopian visions of fraternity life present in the mass media and the utopia aspirations of their founders (Wilkie 2010, 7-8).

Wilkie conducted an archaeological field school at the Zeta Psi fraternity house where she worked with students to document and excavate the site. This approach represents a significant trend in the discipline (Skowronek and Lewis 2010). On campus field schools not only offer more inclusive opportunities for students (Dutton et al. 2019) but also provide good opportunities for outreach to the campus community whose support is often vital to the sustainability of programs (Klein et al. 2018). The results of such field work invariably complicate the relationship between often-pious official histories of the campus community and evidence for the lived experience of student (and faculty life). Dutton’s discovery of bullet casings dating to the end of the 19th and early 20th century in excavations on Brown University’s campus suggest that students did not take contemporary on campus gun bans serious at that time (Dutton 2019, 307). Similarly, work at the former Zeta Psi house produced a significant number of alcohol bottles from the era of probation indicating that the residents of that house continued to consume alcohol despite the legal ban (Wilkie 2010, 195-199). These kinds of the disjunctures between official policies and rules and practices are ubiquitous in historical archaeology. In general, attention to the archaeology of the contemporary university and college campus’s has focused on the past. This is consistent with the often conservative attitudes toward campus life and the physical fabric common at American universities. The emphasis on tradition as a way to create memories shared across generations of students creates an environment where archaeology would complement the larger mission of the university in preserving and presenting its own past and image of persistence.

Several attempts, however, have been made to focus more narrowly on the archaeology of contemporary campus life. In the early 1980s, Wilk and Schiffer, for example, proposed a class that used the material culture of the University of Arizona as the basis for studying and documenting archaeological formation process, stratigraphy, survey, and hypothesis building as well as a more acute understanding of modern material culture (Wilk and Schiffer 1981). They started by introducing students to evidence for wear patterns, architectural stratigraphy, and discard patterns across campus on a material culture tour. Students were encouraged to develop hypotheses for these patterns and eventually document them on their own. More recently, Stacey Lynn Camp’s “Campus Trash Project” at the University of Idaho integrated some of the lesson of William Rathje’s garbology project with contemporary environmental and conservation concerns on the university campus (Camp 2010). Like most campus archaeology projects, part of the goal of Camp’s work was to train students in methods of intensive archaeological documentation. By documenting the distribution of trash across campus, the discard practices associated with regular events like tailgating, and the impact of trash on ecologically sensitive landscapes, Camp’s project sought also to inform policy decisions and propose better ways to manage discard on campus. In a similar project G. Logan Miller developed an archaeological methods class designed to documented the distribution of cigarette butts on the Illinois State campus (Miller 2017). The decision to document cigarette butts, in a time when many campuses are going smoke free and many see smoking to be in decline, served to demonstrate that archaeology can challenge the “hegemonic narrative“ found in the documentary records. Miller and his students were able to show the cigarette butts were most often recovered in high-traffic areas, but also that most cigarette butts were over a month old and likely moved from their original location of discard. This attentiveness to site formation, time, and distribution created a context that would allow for more refined analysis of his dataset. Their simple conclusion that smoking continues to occur at measurable levels on and around campus contributes to the larger trend in campus archaeology that seeks to complicate traditional narratives of campus life.