More on Abandonment in the Bakken

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been documenting the gradual abandonment of workforce housing across the Bakken oil patch. The reasons for abandonment of workforce housing are complex. Oil prices slipping below $40 triggered a slowdown in drilling in the region and drilling was the most workforce intensive part of the oil extraction. The growth of pipeline networks that move processed water, oil, and gas around the Bakken has reduced the need for truck drivers and the need for truck repair shops. Williston and Watford City have built (and probably overbuilt) permanent housing for workers involved in longterm work in the Bakken. These factors have combined to reduce the need and demand for workforce housing across the area.

The most visible and well-documented examples of this reduced demand have been the large workforce housing sites like Capital Lodge, outside Tioga, which have closed and currently sit waiting some future plan to either transport the units elsewhere or to redevelop the site. Myriad small RV parks also are being closed or abandoned, albeit to less fanfare and media coverage. Our trip the Bakken this past weekend focused on documenting the abandonment process at these various sites.

I can offer three observations.

1. Orderly abandonment. Despite the prevailing caricature of feral men in the Bakken, there are many signs that the abandonment of even the rougher RV parks was an orderly process. The gravel paved lots were generally clean and tidy with less trash than one might even expect from typical habitation. Occasionally one or two lots have more debris associated with them suggesting that the last RV to depart the camp was less inclined to leave things tidy. One might imagine that this was the caretaker or manager who may have even departed after regular trash collection had ended.

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Despite the general cleanliness, most sites had some fragments of PVC piping, extruded polystyrene insulation, and wood – often from shipping pallets – scattered about as well considerable quantities of gravel or scoria used to level the sites and promote drainage. 

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2. Economic choices. Some camps that are largely abandoned provide explanations for the seemingly orderly abandonment of sites. As we have noted throughout our research in the Bakken, camps regularly maintain assemblages of provisional discard around their peripheries. The short-term nature of these settlements created a constant supply (and demand) for discarded objects.

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As camps reached total abandonment, the collection of materials often showed signs of orderly arrangement that suggests formal recycling of materials. One camp near Alexander was removing around 100 mobile homes and neatly arranged skirting, stairs, gutters, and other parts of these units that could not be affixed during transport. 

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The piles of metal often found around the periphery of camps suggests formal recycling.

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This organization of objects around the margins of camps suggests economic decisions contributed to the tidiness of camps at abandonment rather than an aesthetic ideal or a response to a municipal policy.

One of the more interesting examples of this was the Great American Lodge near Watford City. The camp closed in 2015 after the company that ran it came into financial difficulties. In fact, the entire operation may have been part of a ponzi scheme. Despite that, the camp represented millions of dollars of investment and when a company purchased its movable assets from receivership, they began the expensive and time consuming process of removing the units from the site. This will likely take most of the winter and be a deliberate process allowing the company to extract the most valuable from the camps.  

3. Abandoned homes. While mobile homes can often be prepared for transport and removed from the site for use elsewhere, it is not uncommon for RVs to be abandoned in camps as the owners encountered financial difficulties or left the region without wanting to incur the expense of removing their RV. 

In the past, T.J.s Salvage Yard would remove abandoned RVs for a fee, but they are so overwhelmed with units and the decline in short-term residents of the Bakken living in RVs has reduced the demand for salvage parts.

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As a result, RV park owners often simply remove RVs to the margins of their parks since they have more room than residents.

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The RVs are often just as residents left them with pots and pans, electronics, and even personal information sitting out.

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4. Squatting. As in the past, we were able to observe some subtle hints that squatting was taking place in the Bakken. What is bizarre to us is that a number of camps made of mobile homes or mobile lodging units have unlocked doors and continue to have electricity and even heat making them inviting homes for people moving through the area looking to live off the grid at very low expense. 

5. Longterm impact. Despite the tidiness of the abandoned camps, we do recognize that the sites of RV parks and more formal workforce housing camps have a longterm impact on the environment. Whether the persistence of plastic and insulation or the smear of gravel or greater density of weeds, the site will continue to be marked for future archaeologists.

Buried infrastructure, presents a particular kind of ruin that will encounter a particular kind of entropy and ruination into the future. (As a compelling example of this, the reclamation efforts associated with the Tesoro oil spill uncovered a well pad from the 1950s oil boom that had been buried and lost).

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 Things like the weeds that push through the gravel associated with housing sites will create lasting signatures in the landscape. The ruins of the future won’t be visible in the same way as the ruins of the past.

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Abandonment and the Bakken Again

This weekend we’re heading back to the Bakken oil patch to look at some of our long-term study sites. As folks know, the Bakken has seen a steady decline in activity over the last two years with oil production slipping to under 1 million barrels per day this month, for the first time since 2014 (this is an interesting table (pdf)) and has only 36 active rigs this month down from 194 in 2014. We already know that many of the temporary workforce housing sites in this region which supported the massive influx of workers needed at the height of the boom are now closed, abandoned, or well below capacity. We anticipate a Bakken landscape that has preserved irregular traces of its bustling (and recent) past.

As a fortuitous coincidence, Kostis Kourelis has been posting about slightly more distant, but still modern abandonments over at his blog and reflecting on the traces left behind by the massively disruptive, but ultimately short-lived military activities associated with World War Two and the Greek Civil War. He cites the work of Dimitris Papadopoulos on the region of Prespa lakes in Macedonia. Papadopoulos documented the abandoned villages preserved in a the large, transnational nature preserve that extends into Greece, Albania, and Macedonia. These villages were abandoned as part of the final stages of nation building in this region as beginning with the transfer of the areas Turkish-speaking Muslim population in the 1920s and concluding with the departure of the Slavic speaking population during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). 

[As a digression, the Prespa lakes area of Greece is one of the most stunning parts of the country and the region. I had the great fortune of scouting this area at a leisurely pace for an American School of Classical Studies trip in September of 2007. I guess I was writing my blog back then, because I have some great photos (who took them? me? is that even possible?) from my travels including a freak mini-blizzard while crossing the mountains west of Florina! Check it out here. I wish I had known of Papadopoulos’s work then.]

For Papadopoulos, the work of abandonment was embedded in a complex process of nation building, demarcation of borders, and internal colonialization which led to acts of erasure across the dynamic landscape. This may seem quite remote from the processes at play in the Bakken, but I’d argue that economic practices – particularly those associated with large scale and industrialized resource extraction – create similar landscapes of abandonment and erasure. The desire to render processes invisible to history (and archaeology) by disguising or removing the physical manifestation of the work. In most cases, the removal of temporary equipment, housing, and the workforce reflects the pressures of efficiency and economy, but this should not diminish the visual and ideological value of these actions. Temporary housing is only remarkable, for example, because we expect housing (or the home) to represent a permanent investment in a place. The arrival and departure of specialized equipment and workforce reflects the centralized nature of both capital and technology and the peripheral or even marginal nature of many (but certainly not all) extractive practices in the global landscape.    

At the same time, they scar the landscape in indelible ways that preserve the absent presence of the past. My soon to be published tourist Guide to the Bakken is filled with chimerical images that will blink in and out of the viewers gaze when, book in hand, they transit the Bakken region. This weekend, I’m going to be particularly attuned to the present-absences in the Bakken and the ways that these traces mark and define the landscape. 

The Temples of Noricum and Panonia

The destruction of temples in Late Antiquity has long conjured images of fanatical Christians destroying pagan temples and violently ending traditional, urban and monumental religious practices. Even in antiquity, this view of Christianity carried some prestige with texts like the Life of Porphyry of Gaza depicting the violent destruction of the great temple of Zeus in that city. The vivid descriptions in texts like this seemed ripe for generalization, and the destruction of temples became a fixture in how many scholars understood archaeological evidence from around the Roman world.   

Scholarship over the last 40 years has challenged this long-held view and hinted that pagan practices were not static but constantly changing and that practices associated with monumental temples was in abeyance or decline. In other words, we might see Christian “attacks” on pagan temples as salvage operations for building materials rather than efforts to destroy thriving pagan worship sites. The challenge associated with unpacking the final days of these temples is that the early excavation dates, complex urban histories, and underdeveloped ceramic typologies compromised our ability to make sense of the archaeological evidence from these buildings. 

David Walsh’s recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology offers a serious attempt to marshal the evidence from temples in Noricum and Panonia on the Roman Empire’s northern frontiers. He argues that by the late-3rd-century and into the 4th-century, the building and maintenance of urban temples declined. Since most temples were the product of public benefaction, their construction and upkeep depended upon their continued centrality to social and religious life of the communities. By the time of the Tetrarchy, he suggested that energies shifted to building walls and fortifications to protect communities from the destabilization of Rome’s northern frontier, and this contributed to a changing culture in these provinces away from monumental public religious practices and toward smaller, private temples. Walsh noted that the increased use of spolia in both public buildings and fortifications in the 4th century reflects the abandonment monumental temples. 

In Noricum and Panonia, then, the rise of monumental Christianity was likely a separate from and unrelated phenomenon to the decline in urban paganism. The rise of both Christian communities and their construction of monumental buildings in urban space. This offers a distinct context for the rise of Christianity in the 5th and 6th century. Rather than representing the replacement of monumental urban paganism with a monumental, urban Christianity, churches competed with public buildings in transformed urban landscapes of the Mediterranean. It also means that it drew resources away from public buildings (baths, basilicas, et c.) which often served non religious or civic functions for their communities. This shift not only makes manifest the growing authority of the church in religious, social, and formally civic terms, but also offers an opportunity to consider the ways in which the emergence of monumental Christianity encouraged a change in social practices in the community. For example, with resources being drawn to larger, Christian buildings in the urban core, the construction and maintenance of large bathing establishments suffered, and this might explain the tendency for bath houses to be smaller in the 6th and 7th century and the eventual decline of baths as important social places in Late Antique and Early Byzantine urban space.

The Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Review

After a couple of days at the AIA annual meeting in San Francisco, I started to wonder whether archaeologists should only be allowed to go to the meeting once every two or three years. This is not meant as a criticism to those there or the bustle of the conference (or the need for structured and unstructured opportunities to interact), but as a way to observe that changes in the field are thrown into high relief after taking a few years aways from the conference.

Here are a few observations:

1. Late Antiquity. When I first started to attend the AIA, panels on Late Antiquity were shoved unceremoniously into the Saturday or Sunday morning sessions, safely sequestered from the proper business of Classical archaeology. Over the past few years, however, Late Antiquity panels have migrated to the grown-up table, and this year, a panel on Greece in Late Antiquity happened at 8 am on Friday, prime time for the conference. 

The panel was a nice blend of senior scholars and new comers and established projects and new field work. The focus was on ceramics (3 papers) and to a lesser extent architecture (2 papers) and skewed later, into 6th and 7th century (4 papers) abandoning to some extent the 4th and 5th century sweet-spot favored by earlier scholars of this era. Three of the papers featured explicitly quantitative analysis, and two of the paper drew upon recent field work: a survey and an excavation. 

While 5 papers are hardly a representative sample of the work in Late Antiquity, the distribution of papers in this panel offers vague confirmation to my gut feeling that Late Antiquitists are working on later period and more fixated on ceramics than ever before.

2. Survey Archaeology. Like Late Antiquity, it wasn’t very long ago when you’d expect someone to stand up at any panel on survey archaeology and ask whether we could really base any arguments on material found on the surface. Those days have passed, it would seem (whether we have resolved the underlying issues associated with survey archaeology and formation processes or not) and the panel at this year’s AIA drew a standing room only crowd.

The papers were good, and projects appeared sound. None of the paper appear to genuinely embrace an analysis based on siteless survey, and in almost all cases preferred to talk about the landscape as a series of sites with distinct functions. At the same time, none of the paper really talked about any sites smaller than the ambiguous “settlement.” I don’t recall any farmsteads, sanctuaries, or site functions defined by size. There was also very little discussion of method.

3. Abandonment. I enjoyed the twin sessions on abandonment which both problematized abandonment as a symptom of decline, as well as a key stage in the formation of sites in the archaeological landscape. The convergence of concerns about periodization (period are frequently defined by episodes of abandonment) and archaeological formation processes points creates an intriguing and productive space around historical narratives that have become so dependent upon patterns of rise and fall. In fact, the ambiguity surrounding abandonment offered a temporary respite for anyone exhausted by popular narratives of decline that are so prevalent in our media today.

We can’t avoid change.

My Work at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

Next week is the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting. I’ve sort of avoided this meeting for the last few years largely because I am more committed to the American Schools of Oriental Research meeting which happens in the fall and I don’t quite have the energy, resources, or time to go to two meetings a year. 

But this year, I’ll go to the AIA meeting and be happy about it. I appear a few times in the program. I’m chairing a standing session on the Archaeology of Greece in Late Antiquity and co-authoring a few papers based on my research in Greece and North Dakota. I’m particularly excited about the papers on abandoned villages and see them as a bit of a follow up from a panel (and publication) that Kostis Kourelis and I organized almost 10 years ago at an AIA in San Francisco. 

If my co-authors give me permission, I’ll post drafts of these papers on the ole bloggeroo over the next week or so.

The Archaeology of Greece in Late Antiquity
Thursday, January 7
8:00-10:30 AM
Continental Ballroom 3 

8:00 House Size and Elite Inequality in Roman Greece
Kilian P. Mallon, Stanford University (15 min.)

8:20 Keeping an Even Temper in Times of Trouble: Continuity and the Maintenance of Ceramic Traditions in Late Roman Corinth
Mark D. Hammond, AIA Member at Large, and Heather Graybehl, AIA Member at Large (20 min.)

8:45 Local Prosperity and Regional Economy in Roman to Early Byzantine Greece: The American Excavations at Kenchreai, 2014–2015
Joseph L. Rife, Vanderbilt University, Jorge J. Bravo III, University of Maryland, College Park, and Sebastian Heath, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University (20 min.)

9:05 Break (10 min.)

9:15 Market Access in Late Antique Thrace: The Ceramic Perspective from Molyvoti
Alistair Mowat, University of Manitoba, Nicholas Hudson, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Thomas F. Tartaron, University of Pennsylvania (20 min.)

9:40 Excavation in the Late Antique City at Golemo Gradište, Konjuh, 2014–2015
Carolyn S. Snively, Gettysburg College, and Goran Sanev, Archaeological Museum, Skopje (20 min.)

Aegean Survey
Friday, January 8, 2015
Continental Ballroom 3

11:50 The Western Argolid Regional Project: Results of the 2015 Season
Sarah James, University of Colorado, Boulder, Dimitri Nakassis, University of Toronto, and Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University (20 min.)

Colloquium Deserted Villages, I: Before Abandonment
Friday, January 8, 2015
Yosemite Ballroom A 

8:00 a.m.–10:30 a.m.

Sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group
ORGANIZERS: Deborah E. Brown Stewart, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, and Kostis Kourelis, Franklin & Marshall College

9:55 Roads, Routes and Abandoned Villages in the Western Argolid
Dimitri Nakassis, University of Toronto, William Caraher, University of North Dakota, Sarah James, University of Colorado, Boulder, and Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University (20 min.)

Colloquium Deserted Villages, II: During and After Abandonment
Friday, January 8, 2015 
Yosemite Ballroom A 

1:45 p.m.–4:45 p.m.

1:55 Life in an Abandoned Village: The Case of Lakka Skoutara
William Caraher, University of North Dakota, and David Pettegrew, Messiah College (20 min.)

3:40 Wheelock, North Dakota: Incremental and Cyclic Abandonment on the Northern Plains
Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System, William Caraher, University of North Dakota, and Bret Weber, University of North Dakota (20 min.)

Abandonment and Commemoration in the North Dakota Bakken

I returned home late last night after a productive three days in the Bakken. Our trip had four goals. First and foremost, we wanted to continue to monitor the changes in our study sites. Next, I needed to collect just a bit more information on the area between Killdeer and Watford City for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. We presented some of our research at Capital Lodge in Tioga, North Dakota, and, finally, I wanted to begin to do some research on the memorial landscape of the oil patch. We managed to accomplish all these goals.

1. Study Sites. I reported in March that our study sites appeared to be holding steady despite the dire pronouncements of bust in the oil patch. This August, however, the signs of the downturn were visible in every RV park and man camp that we visited. It would appear that many of the mid-sized RV parks are down to around 60% occupancy despite summer being typically the busiest time of year. Rents at RV parks have come down slightly, and guarded optimism of both residents and managers has give way to talk of alternate plans and exit strategies.

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The larger crew camps likewise seem empty. We stayed at a camp where we once had to book a room weeks in advance and navigate a packed dining room for a table. On this visit, our team was probably the only group staying in the camp. 

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The most dramatic example of camp abandonment was the 500+ bed American Lodge outside of Watford City. The camp was closed and abandoned after the city cut its power and water. Subsequently, it appears that the camp had bilked investors out of over $60 million dollars in a kind of ponzi scheme. The size and obvious reality of the camp made it clear that project did not begin as a ponzi scheme, but succumbed, in part, to the declining need for workforce housing in general.

2. Man Camp Dialogues. Our man camp dialogues have come at a pivotal time in workforce housing in the Bakken, and our effort to hold one in a workforce housing site was pretty unsuccessful. The declining number of people living in temporary workforce housing sites has made our dialogues as much a historical reflection as a way to address ongoing concerns. 

For the first time in our experiences in the Bakken, a camp refused to allow us to document life at their facility. This camp had also turned down our request to host a man camp dialogue. The camp stands near Williston in Williams County, and recent ordinances appear designed to curtail the future of work force housing. So it seems likely that the owners or management of the camp felt any research on their facility was unlikely to benefit the camp in the short or medium term. 

3. Watford City to Killdeer. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch is very nearly complete and the manuscript is almost ready to go to the publisher for review. I took notes on the route from Watford City to Killdeer and Dickinson and this will allow me to include this meaningful diversion to the main course of the Tourist Guide. The forest of drill rigs sitting in storage at Dickinson forms a useful concluding scene to my guide’s itinerary.

 

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In addition to the addition coverage of the guide, the editor in the series that has requested my manuscript suggested that I include a few more people in the guide, so I am going through the routes and making an effort to add some flesh-and-blood to the routes. 

4. Memorial Landscapes. I also plan to add something to the Tourist Guide on the memorial landscape of the Bakken. Through out the region, small, typically road-side memorials have appeared to mark the location of fatal accidents. While these are common throughout the US, they take on a particular poignancy in the Bakken where they often feature in critiques of the oil patch and the changes that they have brought to the local communities.

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There are a few of these memorials that are well-maintained and prominent on the Bakken byways and I plan to include them in the Tourist Guide as well as a few of the lesser known memorials that dot the back roads of the region.

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Survey Method and the Modern Landscape

A few weeks ago, I posted on the problem of “managing the modern landscape in intensive survey.” This week, my conceptual musings actually require operational decisions. By the end of the week, we’ll be surveying around an abandoned modern settlement in the Western Argolid.

The site is beautiful, relatively secluded settlement established by transhumant herders probably in the late 19th or early 20th century. There are a gaggle of traditional Balkan-style long houses which are generally divided into two spaces: one for the animals and one for the people. There are corbeled ovens, leaning sheds, alonia (threshing floors), and mandres (animal pens). The site is surrounded by fields and the houses themselves form an uneven scatter across the lower and middle slopes of a narrow valley. 

The project directors and survey team leaders visited the site yesterday afternoon during a gentle rain shower and thought about how to approach the complexity of the modern period site, the abundance of artifacts, and the relationship between houses and other features in the landscape.

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The site offers a few challenges.

1. Artifact Distribution. Over the past 12 hours, we have discussed endlessly how to deal with the dense scatters of artifacts associated with the abandoned houses. These scatters consist primarily of roof tiles, but since each house may have as many as 3,000 tiles, there is a real opportunity to blow out our ceramics team and storage facilities for very little new information.

So how do we go about documenting the scatter of tiles surrounding these houses? If we simply survey the houses as part of our traditional 2000 sq m survey units, the unit will show a density influence largely by the scatter of material associated with the immediate vicinity of the house. This approach will not represent the “reality on the ground” in the most effective way. 

If we attempt to isolate the artifact scatters associated with the houses in the area by excluding them from larger survey units or make them the center of small units focused on the artifact scatters, we have introduced a rather unconventional method to the area and risk producing data that is not necessarily consistent with the data that we’ve collected from elsewhere in the survey area.

We are stuck between the rock of needing to manage modern abundance and the hard place of treating all material from our survey area with a consistent method.   

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2. Architecture. We also need to think about how we are going to document the houses at the site. The houses preserve hints of a wide range of archaeological processes, modifications, and uses. David Pettegrew and I considered many of these same issues in our work to document the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia. It’ll be a great opportunity to encourage students to look closely at a building in the landscape and to consider how material transitions from its primary context to an archaeological context. At the same time, we’ll need to provide some consistent guidance to ensure that the students, team leaders, and directors document the buildings in a consistent way while also being able to describe each building with as much detail and nuance as possible.

We need to figure out whether it is worth doing some illustrations of the houses or should we rely on photographs to capture details that might elude textual descriptions. I generally favor taking the time to illustrate the houses because it forces the documenter to slow down and notice small details that might not appear as clearly through the photographer’s view finder. At the same time, there will be a need for efficiency so we will almost certainly have to document the houses in as efficient way as possible.

3. Features. The final issue is that houses stand in relation to other features and these clusters of features need to be identified and documented. Like documenting architecture, we need to decide whether to produce illustrations that capture significant detail, rely on textual descriptions, or create a set of maps that emphasize particular spatial relationships. 

We need to proceed efficiently and capture data at a scale that is relevant for the kinds of arguments that we intend to make. In an ideal world, we could collect “all the data,” we fortunately occupy a world where “all the data” is not a realistic or helpful goal.

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Photo Friday in the Western Argolid: Cars and Trash Edition

This week was hot. As a result, I was not my usual photographic self. 

It was THIS HOT.

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Despite that, I mapped (that’s not me; actually I wander around offering astute commentary and our amazing team of graduate students map).

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Checked out some neat cars in the field.

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The highlight of the week was a sudden rain shower on Thursday that imparted olive trees with a golden-green glow. I tried (rather unsuccessfully) to photograph it.

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I also had the good luck of discovering a spectacular modern trash dump in a ravine that was later cut by an erosional event. The trash dated to the late 1990s or early 2000s. The dating was done by Machal Gradoz, our project soccer expert (as well as a fine archaeologist) who identified an image of David Beckham on a Pepsi can and dated the uniform, basic information on the can, and hair to the turn of the century.

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The dump was stratified indicating more than one depositional event. The size of the dump, however, suggests that it probably did not represent the primary dump of a village, but was perhaps the dump for one of the small communities in the area. The location of the dump on both sides of the ravine indicates that the dump was cut by the ravine. 

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Travelers Accounts and Formation Processes

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies by my fellow WARP staffer Scott Gallimore: “‘The Saddest of Ruins’: Travelers’ Accounts as Evidence for Formation Processes at Hierapytna, Crete.” Scott considers travelers accounts of ancient Hierapyta on Crete, the site of his dissertation research, as evidence for archaeological formation processes. 

This is a cool project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it provides a useful archaeological and intellectual context for early travelers’ accounts of the ancient landscape. Traditionally, scholars have recognized the value of these account and often bring them into their consideration of a region as something of a bridge between antiquity and the modern era. Many early travelers, particularly those explicitly interested in antiquities like Cyriac of Ancona or the much later William Martin Leake provide a faint echo of our own archaeological interests and archaeologists have often borrowed their perspectives (critically, of course) as a way to see landscapes radically changed my industrialization, mechanization, and other transformations of the modern world. At their best, scholars have sought to understand the various perspectives that these “early” travelers and porto-archaeologists brought to their seeing and writing; at their worst, scholars have seen earlier travelers as another source of “data” to be mined in an effort to reconstruct some kind of authentic ancient past. 

Scott’s article offers a different approach to how ancient travelers can and should be used. They represent a guide to understanding time and process in the long gap between the creation of ancient buildings and our work to reconstruct and recognize archaeological remains. In particular, Scott is clever in noting how travelers often tend to recognize short-term transformations to the local scene ranging from earthquakes, attacks, or changes in political or economic regimes. They are less savvy when it comes to understanding long-term change, but this is actually better for archaeologists. Many early travelers present static, rusticated, and ruined backdrop against which they set their moralizing views. The curious thing is, as Scott shows quite cleverly, this backdrop provides points along a continuum that actually subvert the travelers intentions by revealing more gradual but no less significant processes so crucial in the production of modern archaeological sites. 

In other words, the tension between the short-term catastrophes and the enduring ruins in the earlier travelers provides an intellectual framework for formation processes that tend to oscillate between moments of dramatic collapse and long periods of gradual deterioration. Whether this is universally true, is open to debate, but there is definitely enough anecdotal evidence for archaeologists to be familiar with this kind of tension: walls will continue to stand as long as the building has a roof, but when the roof fails, the walls will absorb water into their matrix and erode much more quickly.

Once you finish enjoying Scott’s article, be sure to check out the rest of this issue which includes a series of articles on the archaeological challenges associated with the division of Cyprus. Some good perspectives offered here. I’ll write up something on these 

Ruins and Memories

A few weeks ago I posted a short piece on Bjørnar Olsen’s and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s,Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past. That was a warm up to a long book review which I have now drafted.

It was a bit tricky to review an almost 500 page book with 25 contributors. And it was relatively difficult to post this blog while being rammed by the Mighty Milo and his stuffed elephant. Finally, have I mentioned that it’s cold here? Today it’s -17 F and falling (don’t worry, it’s a dry cold and it only feels like -33). 

Somehow I managed, so here it is with complementary typos!

Review of Bjørnar Olsen; Þóra Pétursdóttir, Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past. Routledge 2014.

The last decade has seen a rise in the use of archaeology to interrogate the contemporary world. The publication of Harrison and Schofield’s After Modernity in 2010 and the the awkwardly-titled Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World in 2013 will likely mark watersheds in applying archaeological methods to contemporary situations. The volume edited by Olsen and Pétursdóttir continues along these lines and offers much to consider even for archaeologists focusing on eras more distant from our own.

Olsen’s and Pétursdóttir’s volume represents the outcome of a four-year Norwegian Research Council grant titled Ruin Memories and focused on cultivating a cross-disciplinary dialogue on modern ruins in heritage practices and scholarly discourse. The 25 papers divide into an introduction and five sections: Things, Ethics, and Heritage; Material Memory; Ruins, Art, Attraction; Abandonment; and Archaeologies of the Recent Past. As such, there is a slight bias toward recent work in northern European countries, but none of the contributions to this volume are location specific. The papers address issues of memory, material agency, modernity and ruins through approaches ranging from the theoretically and conceptually challenging to the poetic and descriptive.

Much of theoretical work in this book continues recent work focused on a critical examination of “things” and agency. Heidegger’s various considerations of things, particularly his well-known “tool analysis” from Being and Time, informs the introduction as well as a Andersson’s two contributions and Pétursdóttir reflections on abandonment. Introna’s valuable essay, “Ethics and Flesh” does the most to leverage the duality between tools “present-at-hand” and those “ready-to-hand” to provide a way of understanding the absent presence of ruins, the agency of things, and the philosophical foundations for a ethical and symmetrical archaeology. Heidegger’s recognition that things exist outside of the human world is foundational to understanding agency in Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory. The myriad recent archaeological publications that have adopted versions of Latour’s ideas to argue for the material agency of archaeological objects, and many of the contributions to this book continue to expand and develop these ideas. The complex processes involved in the decay of abandoned and ruined buildings offers a vivid way to consider the agency of objects. Moreover, the discussions of agency and ethics in these conceptually demanding contributions offer suitably complicated frameworks for understanding issues of preservation, conservation, and heritage surrounding ruined monuments of the modern era.

More striking, if somehow less substantial contributions to this volume are those that approach modern ruins through less conventional modes of archaeological description. A. Gonzalez-Ruibal’s poetic engagement with archaeological and human remains from the Spanish Civil War was both haunting and thought-provoking commemoration of events and individuals for whom politics has overwritten their heroism. H.B. Bjerck’s archaeological investigation of his recently deceased father’s things connected memory to objects in a viscerally engaging way. A. Á. Sigurðsson poems and N. Elíasson photographs offer a penetrating perspectives on abandoned farms on Iceland. E. Andreassen and D. Bailey approach the activities of a modern Norwegian port and historical memory in the Balkans respectively through visual media with almost no text. Bailey offers a series of chapter headings (“Chapter 1: Art,” “Chapter 2: Built Environment,” “Chapter 3: Mortuary Records,” et c.) with mixed media images that juxtapose archaeological tools – particularly a Munsell soil color chart – with photos of modern and ancient artifacts, sites, and situations. Andreassen’s work is less literal; it shows the closing of some kind of machine at the port of Trondheim in 8 photographs. While the goal of Andreassen’s work remains obscure, the efforts to approach the archaeological discourse through poetry, reflection, and visual media even when less than successful complements the probing tone of the book and the contemporary archaeology project. Applying archaeological approaches to the contemporary world both demonstrates the limits of our archaeological methods and conventions and presents new opportunities.

The remaining contributions to the book present more conventional approaches to the archaeology of our recent past. Several papers treated the archaeology of the World War II: J. F. Jensen and T. Krause documented the remains of German weather camps in Greenland; M. Persson presented the work of her excavations at refugee camps in Sweden; G. Moshenska reflected on children and play among boom site in World War II Britain; and B. Olsen and C. Wittmore detailed their excavations at a POW camp in far north Norway. These contributions revealed that archaeological investigation of sites and events can reveal omitted or occlude details even when documentary and ethnographic evidence exists. The archaeology of modern urban spaces, Cold War installations, industrial ruins, and contemporary conflict zones forges clear links between things, places, and memories. These papers, however, neither appeal to a uniform social memory nor do they dictate a clear course of action for a critical care of contemporary archaeological heritage.

For scholars more familiar with publications of old world sites and studies, the relative scarcity of formal description, catalogues, and architectural and archaeological illustration common to publications involving the archaeological of the contemporary world might appear surprising. Some of this can be explained by the nature of the book which was intended to interrogate the confluence of ruins and memories in the modern era rather than provide formal documentation for particular modern sites. Nevertheless, only a few papers foregrounded the results of excavation with even trench designations or photographs. Discussions of methodology, so common in archaeological publications over the last four decades, were largely absent with the exception of T. Webmoor’s discussion of the use of video to document an abandoned building on Stanford’s campus. No papers built interpretations upon quantitative or other data driven approaches or detailed the use of scientific techniques in either the conservation or discovery of modern sites.

While it is always inadvisable to review a book based on what it lacks, this critique is perhaps justified for a book that focuses so significantly on absences. The abandonment of techniques associated with longstanding disciplinary practices as well as the New Archaeology in the 1970s represents an effort to distinguish the tool used to document modernity from our deep disciplinary commitments to archaeology as a modern discourse.