Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018

Over the last year, I’ve been whispering about this project a bit. Kyle Conway is editing an updated version of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (1958), and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will republish both original report and an updated slate of essays. The updated version will be titled Sixty Years of Boom and Bust The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018, and it will become a contributing volume to the Bakken Bookshelf and sit nice alongside The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016). 

Campbell et al 1958 dragged

If you’re interested in the original report, which anyone interested in North Dakota history should read. There’s a digital copy of the book available from The Digital Press’s page on the Internet Archive here (and if you’re interested in a paper copy one is available from Re-Ink Books in Delhi, India). 

Kyle Conway has sent me a little peek at the table of contents for the new version of the book. It looks fantastic:


1. Introduction: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust (2018), by Kyle Conway
2. Introduction and Summary (1958), by Bernt L. Wills, Ross B. Talbot, Samuel C. Kelley, Jr., and Robert B. Campbell

3. Physical Attributes of the Area (1958), by Bernt L. Wills
4. The Geographic Setting of the Bakken Oil Shale Play (2018), by Bradley C. Rundquist and Gregory S. Vandeberg 

5. Political Impact (1958), by Ross B. Talbot
6. Political Impacts (2018), by Andrea Olive

7. The Economic Impact of Oil Development (1958), by Samuel C. Kelley, Jr.
8. The Economic Consequences of Oil Development (2018), by David Flynn

9. Social Change in the Basin (1958), by Robert B. Campbell
10. Social Impacts of Oil Development (2018), by Rick Ruddell and Heather Ray
11. Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch (2018), by William Caraher and Bret Weber
12. Drinking, Drugs, and Long Waits: Community Members’ Perceptions of Living in a North Dakotan Boomtown (2018), by Karin L. Becker
13. Boomtown Bias: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws (2018), by Nikki Berg Burin

Appendix A: Methodology Note (1958)
Appendix B: Supplementary Tables (1958)

Kyle has also been playing around with the cover and grabbed a great photograph of Williston on his last visit to the area.


Ideally the book will drop toward the end of this year, but we’re probably dealing with the “long 2018” for this volume with an early 2019 publication date, but judging by the table of contents, I’m pretty sure that this book will be worth the wait.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Summer is having its last gasp this weekend here in North Dakotaland and taunting us with temperatures in the 90s and a kind of murky humidity that we don’t get very often here on the Northern Plains. My plan is to stay inside and to handle odds and ends before classes start on August 21st. Some of this involves finishing projects that I designated for the summer, some of this involves getting a running start into the summer, and some of this involves topping off the batteries before the semester begins. 

Of course, there will be some books and reading. 

(And some scheming on some new projects.)

And some quick hits and varia:

IMG 2550Frog Days

Making the Book: Protesting on Bended Knee

The essays have been copy edited, sent back to their authors, and some have even been returned to the publisher! Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent and Patriotism in 21st Century America, is slipping gently into the production phase at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Yesterday morning, I started to think about how the book would look. I will keep the book at the 5.5 x 8.5 size to keep some continuity with Eric’s Picking the President from 2017. I’ve made the margins a bit more generous on the inside of the page to give the text block a little more room from the binding. I will keep the formality of the Janson font because it suits the seriousness of the books topic. 

As for the first page of every chapter, Eric suggested that we try to use a font that evokes the Civil Rights era posters from the 1960s. Like everyone, I immediately grabbed an image of the famous I AM A MAN poster.


Of course, it was likely wood type or even hand lettered like many of the posters of that era, so it was a bit of a non starter. I did try a vaguely art deco Rosina, that I used on the cover of Haunted by Waters.

Protesting TemplateDraft4 copy

I’m not sure that this font really works even if I do love the low strokes on the E (and, on the A which would evoke the low stroke on the “A” in I AM A MAN.)

For all the pages, I’d like to continue my emerging house style of using a small icon next to the title of each contribution. In this case, I’m using the fist from the cover of the book, which I think will be rendered in a bit less of a sketchy style in the final version. It will also evoke the Black Power protests at the 1968 Olympics on October 16th, which will coincide with out release date for the book. 

Protesting cover1

I think I’ll go with a simpler sans serif font for the chapter titles. I’ve recently been enamored with FF Meta (which would allow for a little unintentional trolling, if you know the recent history of this font’s use).

Protesting TemplateDraft5 copy

I also need to breathe some more room into the header of the page. I am trying to get a bit more sensitive in my use of negative space to create both balance on the page and as a form of emphasis without changing font sizes and weights. (I have this idea that for some project in the future using the same fonts and sizes throughout using only all caps and negative space for for emphasis).

Protesting TemplateDraft6 copy

The single fine line beneath the title gives it a bit of a 1990s vibe. I might leave it out of the final version, but for nostalgic reasons (I spent most of the 1990s with my head buried in a book!), I’ll leave it in for now.

As always, I post this stuff here because I want feedback (and praise, of course, but also I also enjoy snarky criticism!). 


Three Things Wednesday: Fake News, Grass Kings, and NDQ

This week has ended up being a bit more hectic than I wanted, but it’s a good kind of hectic — a dry hectic, and when better for a good kind of hectic than the weeks running into the start of the academic year. So, today will just be three quick things that are hanging about my head as I gain momentum heading into the new semester.

1. Scale-Up and “Fake News.” One of the things that I’ll miss this fall (and this year) is teaching in UND’s large “Scale-Up” style classroom. I’m starting to work on ways to scale-down my large History 101 survey classes from 150-180 students to closer to 40 or 50 students. At the same time, I’m starting to think a little about how recent concerns about “fake news” could offer an interesting critical foil to how we think about the past. This could be further fueled by the reissue of James Loewen’s modern classical Lies My Teacher Told Me this fall.

There seems increasingly to be two views of the past: one is true and the other is fake. Anyone who knows anything about studying history realizes, of course, that our reading of the past is rarely (I’d contend never) black and white, and always shades of grey. This realization, however, isn’t really the problem. The problem is how do we arrange our shades of grey into a coherent image of the past. Any given issue might be fake or true, but the onus on the critic should always be oriented toward the relationship between a given point (or points) and our larger image of the past. 

Approaching the past in this way does two things. First, it shifts the conversation from authority (i.e. we know this thing because we trust this person) to argument (i.e. we know this thing because it makes sense). And, secondly, it emphasizes the causal relationship between events in the past and perspectives from the present. We’re constantly aware as historians how our own view of the past requires cohesion that is grounded in present understanding. Historians (and archaeologists) know this, of course, but I think that we sometimes forget to teach this to our students. 

2. Grass Kings. My buddy Kostis Kourelis sent my a copy of Matt Kindt’s and Tyler Jenkins’s graphic novel Grass Kings (2018) this past week. I’ve only started it, but one thing stands out to me. The plot revolves around the tension between the denizens of an autonomy trailer park kingdom (the Grass Kingdom) and the nearby town of Cargill. So far, the book has been a meditation on what it means to be free and what day-to-day conveniences are worth sacrificing for freedom.

The most striking thing to me about the book, though, is that the Grass Kingdom consists largely of refitted trailers, RVs, and at least one houseboat (as well as some old houses). This setting should be familiar to anyone interested in near future science fiction: William Gibson’s The Peripheral is set in and about an elaborately modified Mercedes RV and a heavily insulated 1970s airstream camper. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) similarly sets part of the action in “the stacks” which is a landscape of old RVs and trailers stacked in metal frames.

This view of the future has eerie echoes of some of the conversations and experiences that I had on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The rows of RVs set up on the North Dakotan prairie represented relative freedom for the residents especially compared to the more corporate “work force housing facilities” because they could live more as they pleased enjoying company, beers, and opportunities for self expression. They also could up and leave moving their dwelling and possessions with them if greener pastures presented themselves. On the other hand, life in the cold prairie winter in an small RV designed for short-term summer excursions seems like quite a sacrifice compared to the comforts offered by housing designed for more long-term or even permanent occupation.

What is clear is that in the near future (and perhaps today) housing and freedom are intimately related.    

3. Moving NDQ. I got the email last night and it would appear this week is moving week for North Dakota Quarterly. Over the past few months things have been slowly churning forward with NDQ as we move to a new publisher, prepare volume 85 for publication, and issue 86.1 (2019). The wolf closest to the sled these days is moving NDQ to a new office down the hall from our current digs in historic Merrifield Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. The new offices are a bit smaller, but we hope to put them to good use with a pretty vigorous publication schedule planned and a revived internship program in collaboration with UND’s program in writing and editing. 

As I’ve quipped on the Twitters, most of my responsibilities at NDQ editor involve putting books in boxes and taking them out! But sometimes, I do get to celebrate the successes of our authors (and by extension, our editors)

Small Town Archaeology

This weekend, Bret Weber, Eric Burin, and I conducted a little backyard archaeology. Actually, we helped Bret build a “French Drain” between his garage and his alley in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It happens that the garage is lower than the surrounding alleys meaning that water flowed down into his garage during heavy rains.

Our solution to the problem was partly inspired by my work over the past few years at the South Basilica at Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. This church was built across a natural drainage, on the slope of a hill that runs from the city to the coastal plain. As a result, the church must have constantly endured erosional problems particularly on its south wall which stood perpendicular the the flow of water down the drainage. The presence of a road upslope from the basilica did little to slow the flow of water to the south wall of the church. I have argued that the first basilica failed, in part, because of the struggle to manage this flow of water which likely ran down the slope, across an open courtyard and down the foundation trench of the basilica. The large scale reconstruction of the building in the late 7th (or early 8th) century involved the installation of a large rubble filled pit to the south of the church which would slow the flow of water and allow it to dissipate without pooling against the vulnerable church wall. We sketched out this argument here and will publish it in greater detail this winter.

The plan for Brett’s house was to build a drain along the south, alley side, of his garage that would catch the surface run off before it entered and pooled in his garage. This involved digging a trench and a reservoir with … a mini backhoe and filling this excavated area with cobble and gravel (and maybe drain tile).

IMG 2913

We did not dig this trench in a stratigraphic way nor did we sieve or carefully examine the material from the trench itself. That being said, the trench did reveal some interesting stratigraphy and some interesting objects, that I’ll post here in a future post.

The upper most level of the trench, the surface, was the packed gravel the is the common road surface for most alleys in Grand Forks. This layer was approximately 2 or 3 inches. Since we excavated on Bret’s property rather than in the alleyway, it seems likely that this level was part of the spill from the alley surface carried toward Bret’s garage by the flow of water, rather than the surface itself which I would imagine to be a good bit thicker. Below that was a layer of what appears to be soil that is about 4 or 5 inches in depth. Like the gravel surface in this area, I assume that this is slope wash.

Beneath this level, however, was 3-4 inch think level of black, charred material which included chunks of coal and what appears to be charcoal. This level appeared after scraping back the top levels as a couple of small patches:     

IMG 2901

But as our excavation continued it became clear that this was a level that extended for the entire length of the garage, 50 ft or so. It included many small pieces of window glass, table ware, bottles, as well as other material that suggests domestic discard. It was heavy, black, and burnt. The black level is visible in the photo below.

IMG 2903

Bret’s four-car garage was likely built in the 1940s or 1950s, but a smaller garage, probably an carriage house, existed on its footprint as early as 1897 according to Sanborn Maps for the neighborhood. This heavy burnt and coal-laced layer appears a bit deeper on the east side of the trench than on the west, but we didn’t measure it. The garage is evidence that an alley existed behind the house as early as the 1890s when this block (the Renkells Addition) first appears on the Sanborn Maps. Bret’s house is probably a few years earlier than that, and it may be noted on the Sanborn map from 1884 as one of the “5 dwgs, 2 barns.” 

On the western side of the trench, we excavated four foot deep reservoir. This revealed a 9 inch deep layer of soil below the burnt and coal. I would assume that this level represented a flood deposition at some point in the property’s history but it was below the level of the current garage so it likely pre-dated 1950s (perhaps it can be associated with the flood of 1897). Below it was a very clear, 2 inch thick surface of sand and clay. It’s visible as a light level in the photo below.

IMG 2905

I’m guessing that this was an early road or alley surface in the area, but without digging more, I am not entirely sure. Our rather careless backhoe excavation of this pit made it hard to isolate any particular context; moreover, there was a metal anchor of a “guy-wire” which presumably supported a now removed utility pole in the area. It was anchored below the sand and clay surface which suggested either that the surface was compromised by the installation of the anchor or that this anchor was associated with this level. 

The burnt, black coal level is baffling to me. It looks like the debris from a coal bin or the cleaning out of a furnace. Perhaps the unburned coal, clinkers, and ash were dumped in the alley way along with other household trash and over time developed into this substantial deposit. Are there parallels for this elsewhere? 


Heritage Interpreters and Reflexivity

Sara Perry has an intriguing article in the most recent issue of Advance in Archaeological Practice 6.3 (2018), “Why Are Heritage Interpreters Voiceless at the Trowel’s Edge? A Plea for Rewriting the Archaeological Workflow.” She proposes that heritage interpreters should have a greater role in the excavation (and, I would assume, survey) process rather than being introduced to projects only after archaeologists have concluded the excavation, description, and interpretative work. For Perry, heritage interpreters are individuals responsible for communicating the results – both material and digital – of archaeological work for a wider audience, but, perhaps more importantly, these individuals have value even for archaeologists who are not particularly concerned with communicating the results of their work to a broad audience.

Perry proposes that archaeologists include specialist heritage interpreters in the archaeological workflow, on the trowel’s edge as it were. For Perry, these heritage interpreters do more than simply mediate between the disciplinary work of archaeology and the larger interests of the general public, but also serve to democratize archaeological knowledge and knowledge of the past by making it available to both specialists and non-specialists. I found her light sketch of the concept of bodystorming (a play on the idea of brainstorming) particularly provocative in that embraces the idea that being on site or in a place provides a particular and productive environment for archaeological knowledge making and for the interaction between heritage specialists and various other archaeological workers.    

A deeper and more integrated role for heritage specialists intrigued me, particularly in light of some of my work on “slow archaeology” (and my most recent effort to resolve the relationship between more democratic ways of thinking and disciplinary practices). I’ve struggled recently to resolve the tensions between disciplinarity and specialization in archaeology – and its close ties to industrial practices with their Taylorist impulses toward fragmenting knowledge into discrete, specialized bits – and an alternative tradition of archaeological practice grounded in craft. Perry appears to advocate for a hybridized practice in archaeology that recognizes, on the one hand, the role of specialists (including heritage specialists) whose knowledge and efforts are coordinated through the industrial concept of “workflow.” On the other hand, she also understands the potential for this workflow to be recursive and non-linear and for specialists to share their specialized knowledge across the entire process of archaeological knowledge making. There is this contradiction between specialized knowledge and the linearity implicit in workflow and the recursive practices that allow all specialists to move from the trowels edge to the general public mediated by individuals, technical skills, and shared knowledge. Of course, Hodder’s concept of reflexivity at all stages of archaeological work already assumed that the concepts like workflow and disciplinary specialists were no more “siloed” than the boxes of the Harris Matrix (and its similarity to [work]flow charts) represented empirically equivalent past events. In other words, while Perry’s inclusion of heritage specialists at the trowel’s edge is unique, the idea that archaeological workflows are reflexive and recursive is well known in archaeological circles, at least in theory.

The real question in my mind remains: will the specialization of archaeological skills and knowledge within the existing structure of archaeological practices lead to more democratized knowledge of the past within the discipline of archaeology?

My work has become hung up on the tension between specialized knowledge and democratic knowledge is at the core of archaeological practice. On the one hand, industrial models of knowledge making insist that any almost any individual from the elite practitioners to the volunteer field walker can play a small part in archaeological knowledge making. In fact, certain aspects of mass democracy and industrialization have followed in lockstep. It is hardly surprising that an industrial model for producing educated students is the backbone for the American model of university education and recent efforts to streamline this further have involved reducing the reliance on disciplinary specialists even further through the use of adjuncts (who do not lack specialized skills, but whose role in the modern university is less dependent on their specialized knowledge and more dependent on qualifications established by the educational assembly line), various automated forms of content delivery, and other 21st century techniques. In other words, concepts like “workflow” tend toward the deskilling of specialists. Heritage specialists whose role becomes defined by archaeological workflow run the risk of deskilling and will have to work counter to the industrial logic implicit in these ways of seeing archaeological work.

On the other hand, I tend to advocated a muddled view of for an alternative archaeology that wavers between appeals to a model of benign anarchism and that of pre-industrial craft production. The latter offers a view of the discipline that tends toward hierarchy with individuals who possess superior abilities achieving the status of master and others, through their aspirations, being apprentices and journeymen (or whatever the gender neutral version of that term is). The former, however, offers a more radically democratic view of the discipline that levels the ground between specialists and non-specialists by de-privileging the voice of specialization. The risk is, it would seem to me, that this radically democratic view of archaeological anarchism removes the privilege of authorizing a particular view of the past from archaeologists or historians, but runs the risk of turning the power of the past over to the strongest voice or the majority.

This thinking strays a good bit from Perry’s intriguing article, but I think her work continues to poke and prod at the idea of archaeological specialization, archaeological practice, and the nature of archaeological knowledge. Her argument that heritage specialists should be present at the trowel’s edge is important and consistent with my view that archaeological knowledge is grounded in an understanding of practice and place. At the same time, her hybrid view of archaeological workflow offers a compelling challenge to how we think about the organization of archaeological practices both on the ground – in a practical sense – but also as they relate to archaeological knowledge making. To my mind, the latter issue is the most pressing as it existing at the fraught intersection of archaeological methods, process, specialization, expertise, community, and public and scholarly communications.   

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

My weekend plans involve a book, a backhoe, and lovely fall weather here in North Dakotaland. Mornings are crisp enough to almost hear the gentle trudge of students to classes and evenings are warm enough to provide the perfect backdrop to the revving car engines at the local short track. Early fall is probably the best time in North Dakota with the heavy heat of the Frog Days in the past and the threat of snow and chill of winter at least month away. 

(By the way, are India and England playing some kind of four-day test? What is going on?)

To help you enjoy the first breaths of fall, here’s a little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 2852The Team

Alone Together in a Small Town

I’m messing around with a series of little “small town vignettes” for theNorth Dakota Quarterly blog. I post them first here as kind of works in progress. This is the start of thenext one. If you want something a bit more substantive to chew on during the Frog Days of summer, check out Will Jensen’s story, “A Quiet Place to Hide”over at NDQ. It was recognized in the 2017 Best American Mystery Stories, so we made it available on our blog.

In the summer months, I spend a part of my week on the lovely Grand Forks Greenway system in my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The walking and cycling paths of the greenway run for some dozen miles along the Red River of the North adjacent to downtown and various neighborhoods in town. On a good day, I can see some deer, a prairie dog or two, a few little frogs, and maybe one of the bald eagles who lives in the area. They all go about their business without paying much attention to me and I try to let them do their hoping, prancing, sniffing, and gliding without much interruption.

Grand Forks is a small town but it’s not as small as some towns, though. It’s the local county seat and market center with a big hospital, lots of banks, two malls (although one has a church as an anchor store), and a bustling little downtown with restaurants, bars, a couple breweries, and a gun shop. We have a daily paper that still publishes on paper most days per week. We know our neighbors, but not so well that we’re up in their business, but well enough to know their names and to know people who know them. My feeling is that in smaller towns or villages, people tend to know their neighbors better. In larger cities, where you have genuine suburbs, people enjoy not to know their neighbors at all. 

When I exercise on the greenway, I tend to do it by myself. Maybe this comes from years of swimming when despite being what my parents called a “social swimmer,” you are forced to be alone with the water, your strokes, and thoughts. As I ride my bike or jog along the greenway, I see other people exercising on their own or in pairs and I almost always say “hi” or “hello” or whatever. The responses tend to be quite muted. A few will respond with a cautious “hi,” but most folks just ignore it completely. At first, this struck me as a bit odd, but I chalked it up to people listening to music, distracted by their own work outs, or just not expecting someone to say “hello.” After a while, though, I noticed that people I knew also didn’t respond to my greeting.

This has got me thinking a good bit of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (London 2011). The book describes the relationship between technology mediated relationship and the growing sense of alienation in the modern world. I wonder how many of the people who pass by without acknowledging my gesture or turn their head to the side to avoid any possible interaction are deeply invested in a podcast, their workout playlist, or some other distraction being piped directly into their earhole. On the other hand, I suspect that many folks who I pass are not so much distracted themselves, but assume a kind of mutual distraction while moving along the public paths on the greenway. They might tilt their head away to avoid that disappointment of reaching out for a moment of recognition only to find the blank stare in return.





Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Completed Draft

I’ve spent the last three months toiling over a paper that I’m scheduled to give at the European Archaeological Association meetings in September. I’ve posted parts of it here on the blog and gotten feedback from various folks. My panel is supposed to pre-circulate their papers today, and I do have a draft, but it’s pretty rough around the edges.

But since I’m pre-circulating it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here on my blog too. You can download it here, or go and mark it up using here

The paper is for a panel on transhumanism, which I probably should have focused on more fully. Instead, I conflated transhumanism with a watered down version of Donna Harraway’s idea of the cyborg and reflected very broadly on the role of technology in shaping how we produce archaeological knowledge. 

The paper ended up being a bit more conservative than I would have liked, but that is probably true both to the “slow” paradigm that I’ve embraced for archaeology and, more obviously, the work of Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, which tend toward the explicitly un-progressive. That being said, I think there is a space for reflecting on how epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, and the organization of disciplinary practice interact, and my paper parallels, perhaps in a not too distant way, some of the recent work being done to reconsider the value of antiquarian practices. Some of these scholars have seen antiquarianism as an avenue for understanding un-modern (and anti-modern) ways of producing archaeological knowledge that are, at least partly, free from the political and social burdens of modernity and colonialism

That being said, I don’t think that I get everything right. For example, I do see the recent interest in shifting the dominant metaphor in archaeology from excavation and revealing to surface survey and assemblage building as a way to integrate a wider and more diverse range of voices into process of archaeological knowledge making. In fact, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s and Olivier Laurent’s works do just that by showing how distinctive views of time, narrative building, values, and relationships contribute to place-making practices at the local level that operate outside disciplinary methods and arguments. At the same time, I see in the kind of assemblage building the potential for greater fragmentation in disciplinary practices which echoes the way in which digital tools create networks of independent devices linked by data broken into discrete fragments. 

In any event, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get this paper all right, but as always I’ll appreciate any comments that you’re willing to offer. 



Archaeogaming: The Book

Over the weekend I read Andrew Reinhard’s new, concise introduction to archaeogaming, titled Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (2018). I have had the good fortune of chatting with him a fair bit about archaeogaming in the field at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation, on my Caraheard podcast, and over email correspondence and conversations over the past five years or so. The concept has always intrigued me as an valuable approach to the archaeology of “Late Capitalism” or “Post Modernity” and a series of methods and practices worth developing if archaeologists continue to take seriously both their expansive view of materiality and their particular claim to being students of culture.


He defines archaeogaming in the title of his book as the archaeology in and of video games and carves out a space for it between the burgeoning and related fields of game studies and media archaeology. The book embraces its place between media archaeology and game studies by bouncing merrily between academic diction and more accessible prose which allows it to leverage the precise language of, say, Heidegger’s definition of “dwelling” with the campy, acronym-heavy, and breeze world of gaming lingo. Reinhard’s willingness to move between the densely philosophical, the methodological, and the colloquial would make this book a nice option for an introductory archaeology class where students learn about theory, methods, procedures, and techniques, but less frequently have opportunities to put these ideas into practice. An archaeogaming module, that encourages them to excavate, survey, or otherwise document a video game as a cultural artifact would be a nice complement or final project in an archaeology class. Reinhard’s book provides both the student and the scholar a way to think about what this kind of work will look like.

As is my usual practice, I haven’t the discipline or inclination to do a proper review. Instead, I offer three observations.

1. Gamification of Archaeology. I’m not a gamer and don’t own any video games, but one of the first things that struck me about this book is how much video gaming has shaped my engagement with “dirt and sherd” archaeology. From the graphic-user interfaces of software to the longterm interest in simulations, 3D modeling, and immersive environments, digital practices in archaeology drink from the same pool of practices and trends as does gaming culture. On a superficial level, the evident complexity of the kinds of video games at the center of Reinhard’s analysis make it clear that these games share with software used by archaeologists – particularly GIS and 3D imaging software – the need to allow for a wide range of mapping, marking, and measuring functions. In fact, a current publication project that I’m working on with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and Open Context has spent a good bit of time discussing how to measure a 3D-scan of an object across scales through an online interface. This past summer, I spent a good bit of time in the Western Argolid producing drone images of the landscape that will allow for higher resolution mapping of significant places in our survey area. The ability to zoom in from a satellite image to our drone photography or “fly” across the landscape to understand the spatial or visual relationship between two places at different scales (i.e. a 3 m cliff might be smoothed by a 5 m resolution digital elevation model into a steep, but passable slope, but in a higher resolution landscape model become a barrier to movement). While these these kinds of spatial analysis on the micro or macro scale are concerns of archaeologists, they have parallels with game play where issues of legibility across scales in immersive digital environments have particular consequence. So there is a resonance on a broad level between gamers and archaeologists who both share an interest in building worlds with an attention to detail across scale, a kind of cultural legibility, and a compelling vividness.

This isn’t limited, of course, to analytical work in the lab or office. Flying a drone involves a game like interface which occupies the pilots attention far more than the actual drone itself. Documenting walls or marking up photographs on a tablet involves looking at the tablet, manipulating graphics, and making aesthetic and procedural decisions in an interface that simulates work on paper, but also goes beyond it. These interfaces mediate between “meatspace” (to use Reinhard’s term) and “gamespace” (or whatever we might call it) that extends from our GIS and spatial analysis software to the interfaces on our tablets and drone consoles. 

2. Stratigraphy and Surface Survey in Virtual Worlds. One of the things that Reinhard explores is the relationship between games, game spaces, and archaeological knowledge. He describes the work he did on the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) which is a survey project focused on the procedural worlds created in the game No Man’s SkyYou can read more about that survey project here

What interested me the most is that survey archaeology – that is the study of assemblages of objects on the surface – was the chosen method for exploring the landscapes of video games. Not only is it useful for documenting the surfaces presented by game developers within games, but it also allows the archaeologist to create assemblages that extend from the world in the game to “meatspace” where digital recording methods, academic literature, conversations with colleagues, and knowledge about the game’s development trajectory and versioning as well as critical responses to the game itself come into play. As Reinhard states, archaeogaming doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the game itself, but extends to the world of the gamer, the interface, and the materiality of the game experience. The gaming experience is a surface that extends out widely in a network of entangled relationships.

At the same time, Reinhard pokes a bit at the idea of stratigraphy of video games. In some cases, stratigraphic relationships become visible in the history of the games themselves with keen observations possible by carefully reading the deposition of objects and features in the game landscapes. Stratigraphy is evident in aspects of games that evoke earlier version of the same game or earlier iterations of certain game types like quests or problem games. Stratigraphy is evident also in the way in which the player interfaces with the game or expects certain functions to work that build upon long standing conventions or gaming practices. It might even be possible to detect certain common game “engines” at play in games the provide, say, realistic gravity or other physical aspect of game place and allow players to anticipate how their avatar or character will respond to input. These basic (like in a foundational sense) features of game play can represent earlier deposits or moments of development in the game or in the gaming concept against which variation and change can be measured. Since strata are always defined by methods and practices, the challenge facing archaeogaming is defining these levels and their relationship to later depositional events. Reinhard appears well on his way to setting out some common methods for recognizing these stratigraphic levels. 

In other cases, stratigraphy involves digging down below the level of the graphic interface and into the murky world of code. Reinhard does not deal much with code in his book, but it clearly lurks right below the surface (heh, heh). Excavating code for the earliest deposition processes requires both a deep familiarity with programing practice and access to the codebase, which is usually zealously guarded by gaming companies. My guess is that parts of these games rely on code that is decades old and recycled – like ancient spolia – for different purposes in a wide range of games. Excavating the code of games would appear to be the next frontier for archaeogaming and to parallel nicely the recent interest in excavating archaeological practices. 

3. The Edges of Archaeogaming. There were a few places in the book where I thought that the edges of archaeogaming revealed its potential moving forward. For example, it is clear that archaeologists in video games, like in other forms of popular media, rarely follow our professional code of ethics. Laura Croft, literally raids tombs. Indiana Jones, punches (admittedly bad) people and steals their excavated finds and destroys their research projects. In other instances, some of the games themselves tend to present material culture as an analogy for “race” promoting a kind of narrow and problematic view of culture. These practices while problematic ethically for the practicing archaeologist can be suspended for the purposes of game play, just as players of the famous Grand Theft Auto game can run over families or shoot at cops. While we know that the grossest kinds of unethical (or illegal) behaviors in most video games are at best a kind of escapism and at worst a manifestation of the repressed desires to challenge authority, to destroy society, or to die, our understanding of the ethical limits within these virtual worlds are unclear. For example, there are some kinds of unethical behavior that are simply not acceptable in video games, but where these lines are drawn remains a topic for debate.   

I was also curious about whether archaeogaming ideas could be applied to so-called virtual worlds like Second Life or simulations like Sim City. For the former, users shaped landscapes and built structures which persisted when they were abandoned to leave strange ghost cities and worlds whose purposes were unclear. Games like Sim City have coded formation processes built into game play with neighborhoods falling into slums when resources or access are restricted. The archaeological thinking behind this simulation is that changes in resources not only lead to more elaborate buildings, but also their deterioration over time. Games like the well-regarded Civilization series similarly rely on archaeological assumptions to plot the development of groups and the competition for resources over time. It seems like these games embrace the relationship between disciplinary archaeology and “game space” in a way that could benefit both gaming and archaeology. 

None of what I’ve said in this critique is meant to be a criticism of the book or archaeogaming. In fact, I think this book does a lovely job opening up archaeogaming in a practical and intellectual way to scholars. I’m looking forward to Reinhard’s PhD Dissertation at the University of York to see where these ideas go in the future. Check out his ongoing work in this area at his Archaeogaming website.