Archaeology of Refugee and Forced Migration

I spent some time this weekend reading Y. Hamilakis’s edited forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Since Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I contributed to the forum, we received an advanced copy and it’s my impression that the forum will be available very soon. The papers consisted of a wide range of reflections on the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations. Most of the papers dealt explicitly with refugees, but a few, including ours on the Bakken in North Dakota, deal with other forms of undocumented migration which are more difficult to categorize.

The articles are short and painfully evocative of the plight of modern migrants. Even if you don’t care about archaeology or are skeptical of its value in illuminating the modern world (which you shouldn’t be, but whatever!), the stories presented in this forum are worth reading and contemplating.

There are some themes as well that extend far beyond the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations and impact all archaeological work that intersects in a meaningful way with contemporary communities.

1. Ethics. Almost all of the essays in this forum reflect seriously on the responsibilities and obligations of the archaeologist and ethnographer when studying vulnerable communities. Without explicitly outlining specific ethical positions or practices, the contributors demonstrated how their own encounters with refugees or the material culture of migration was both emotionally and intellectually demanding. From objects like the Tu Do ship in the Australia and the Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum, to maps of migrant movements, clothing, and graffiti, the challenges of using archaeological approaches to unpack the real lives of individuals courses through these essays in a raw and disquieting way. There are no simple imperatives or solutions presented here.

2. Objects. I found the abundance of relatively un-theorized objects particularly refreshing. This isn’t to mean that objects weren’t considered carefully, respected, treated ethically, or placed within a historical, social, or cultural context. They were by all means. What was absent, however, from these short contributions was the intensive theorizing that objects have recently received from some archaeologists (and I’ll admit that I find the rise of “thing theory” and the material turn tremendously seductive. The objects in these contributions generally shied away from making claims to agency, from demands of symmetry with the archaeologist, and from entanglement in complex discursive ontologies.

I’m not pointing this out to celebrate the absence of theory or as a critique. Instead, I wonder if the rawness of the this kind of archaeology makes objects somehow less susceptible to agency? 

3. Methods. The contributions here – with a few exceptions – were also free from lengthy discussions of methods. Some of this is undoubtedly do to the relatively short length of the articles, but I wonder if some of it is also because the approaches to archaeology of the contemporary world are so relatively fluid. As people, objects, and places move, disappear, transform over short periods of time, methods become increasingly ad hoc as efforts to document the material experiences of refugee and migrants requires an acute sensitivity to the complexities of a particular situation.

This isn’t to say that the contributors were not systematic and careful in their approaches, but, again, the intersection of object, places, and people seems to drive these contributions forward rather than a preoccupation with methods or methodology.

4. Placemaking. Among the major themes in these essays is the challenge of placemaking in a condition dominated my placelessness or non-places. As the archaeology of the contemporary world approaches the supermodernity of contemporary existence, the challenge of understanding the contours and characters of non-places or places whose existence blinks on and off at the absolutely edge of archaeological awareness.

Places like refugee cars, camps that are obliterated, coastline or offshore encounters, and ephemeral traces in the desert challenge archaeological resolution and practices (as well, of course, as methods). Whenever I think too hard about what archaeology can do in an era of placelessness I can’t avoid the fear that the tools and techniques associated most closely with the careful and reflective approaches of the humanities might require some modification to contribute to 21st century existence. The contributions included in this forum are a reason for hope, but also, for continued awareness that the past and the present are very different countries. 

5. Archaeology of Care. Finally, I was really excited to see Richard Rothaus’s term an “archaeology of care” appear periodically in the volume (well, at least in our paper, Kostis Kourelis’s paper, and Y. Hamilakis’s introduction). I could’t help but notice throughout this forum that there were plenty of places where the interest of archaeologists in the lives and material reality of individuals gave as much to refugee and migrant communities as a well argued scholarly article or book. In other words, there were signs that a mutual understanding existed between scholars and migrants that their experiences were significant and important.

If this forum does nothing else, I hope that it communicates this recognition. 

Call for Papers: Archaeology and Social Justice

I was pretty excited to see the theme of this year’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World workshop: archaeology and social justice. Here’s a link to the call for papers or, if you’re too lazy to click on a link, you can read it below!

It would be very cool to see something at this conference on the archaeology of care or even the recent discussion about the value of punk archaeology as an ethical critique. 

So check out the call for papers below: 

State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice

Friday, March 2 – Saturday, March 3, 2018
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World will host a workshop called State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice on March 2-3, 2018. The workshop will be the culmination of two years of discussion on this theme, and is also intended to raise new issues, ask new questions, and encourage ongoing dialogue. Our gathering builds on a tradition of “State of the Field” workshops hosted by the Joukowsky Institute to reflect upon trends in archaeological work, each year focusing our discussion on issues impacting an area of particular interest to our faculty and students. While previous versions have dealt with a country or region of archaeological significance, this year’s event will focus on archaeology’s relationship to ongoing movements for social justice.

Within the context of archaeology, we conceive of social justice as pertaining to issues of privilege and opportunity that affect the makeup of scholars in the field, efforts among archaeologists to engage with the public and with broader social and political discussions, and the degree to which archaeological scholarship and pedagogy intersect with or impact these issues. It also refers to the asymmetries of power and structural inequalities in society at large. This choice of topic has been inspired by recent global social and political concerns, responses from universities and academia that seek to address issues of representation and access, and, most importantly, grassroots movements for social justice.

This workshop thus seeks to engage primarily with the role of archaeology in contemporary social justice movements, while insisting that discussions of diversity in the past can inform experience in the present. We welcome papers that explore the relationship between archaeology and the present political climate, with the intention of addressing the challenges currently facing the field of archaeology and the academy more broadly. We also seek to engage in conversations about the biases and structural problems that make archaeology more accessible to some than to others, in order to help the discipline reach a broader and more inclusive public.

The workshop will include four sessions, each addressing issues of the relationship of archaeology to ongoing struggles for social justice and/or the role of archaeology in those struggles. Rather than predefining the content of these sessions, we intend to shape them with contributions from this call for papers; we wish to offer an open space for discussion of the following, and other, relevant issues:

· The materiality and temporality of current social issues
· Disciplinary decolonization
· Archaeology’s role in discussions of “diversity and inclusion”
· Identity and inequality in the past and present
· Structural and practical access to archaeology and the academy
· Activism and engagement within archaeology
· Archaeology in/of social justice movements
· Archaeology’s relationship to white nationalism
· Archaeology in moments of crisis

To submit a proposal for a paper of approximately 20 minutes, please send an abstract of 350 words or less to by October 1, 2017.

For questions about this CFP, or about the conference, please see our conference website or email

Three Things Wednesday

I’ve been writing a bit frantically lately, and this morning, I don’t really feel it. So instead of some (in)coherent blogpost rant, I’ll offer three quick things that occupied my mind on my drive to campus this morning.

Forty Book February

This month was the first month in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that we sold 40 books (actually 41)! Selling paper books has always been a rather small part of what I do at The Digital Press, but as recent, middling figures for the sale for ebooks have shown, people love paper. (That being said, downloads of our books outpaced sales by about 10:1).

The strong February sales were driven in part by Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, but almost every book in our catalogue got some love this month. 

What is more interesting (at least to me) is that Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson is the only book that did not sell a copy, despite being the most widely cited book in The Digital Press catalogue with close to 10 citations in a wide range of books and journals (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeology, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization). I suspect the price ($24) has something to do with it and this was an unavoidable consequence of the color printing. Maybe the topic of the book, which was meant to capture a particular moment in time, made the book easily dated?

Immigrants and Emerson 

Here in the Northland, we’ve heard an alarming number of stories about immigrants crossing the rural border between the U.S. and Canada out of fear of deportation. Crossing the border by foot in the winter has cost some of these individuals fingers and toes and nearly their lives. This terrifying new reality has put a profoundly human and local face on the global refugee crisis and got me and my colleagues, Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, thinking about whether an archaeology of these crossings could help us (and our communities) understand what we need to do to help people so desperate and afraid that they’d risk their lives to be free. Taking a page from Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project and our own experience working on the archaeology of the contemporary world, we’ve just begun to imagine ways in which we could realize an archaeology of care here in North Dakota.

We don’t have plans yet and recognize the need for collaboration on both sides of the border and the time and space to develop a thoughtful, humane, and systematic approach to the local side of a global problem. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that will help frame archaeology’s role in the ongoing crisis.

Threshold Concepts

The next big thing in pedagogy (at least here in North Dakota) seems to be threshold concepts. While I won’t pretend to understand the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of the idea, it seems to have something to with the idea or concept in a class (or even a discipline) that pushes a student from superficial bafflement to deep understanding. I like the idea because it so neatly describes the breakthrough point that most of us have experienced when studying, say, an language or a particularly tricky text that allows us almost suddenly to wrap our heads around what an author or even a culture is saying. The idea behind threshold concepts, from what I gather, is to recognize and foreground the understanding that creates this breakthrough experience.

A colleague got me thinking about the threshold concepts for history and how students think about arguments, facts, evidence, and theory. For many – even some of our M.A. students – history is about combining “facts” into arguments. This is a fine basic understanding, but runs the risk of essentializing historical evidence as static facts and viewing arguments as self-contained entities that do not rely on larger (and more complex) standards for their validity. After all, an argument is only as good within a particular regime of authority, style, discourse, and even political standing. 

Three Good Reads

There has been a pretty entertaining and perhaps useful conversation about the future of Classical archaeology over the last few weeks and the blog posts and chat across social media and email has prompted me to read some things that I wouldn’t otherwise. (For a start on that, check out Dimitri Nakassis’s two part blog series here and here.)

First, check out Severin Fowles, “The Perfect Subject (postcolonial object study)” in the Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016). Fowles argues that the recent shift to objects as the focus for study in anthropology (but this could be expanded across the humanities and social sciences) is really a response to growing anxiety that speaking about and for other people (whether formally colonial or simply colonized by our academic gaze) has become ethically challenging. The article is a compelling critique of our recent fetishization of stuff.

Then, check out Susan Pollock’s “The Subject of Suffering” from American Anthropologist 118.4 (2016). It was the Patty Jo Watson lecture AAA annual meeting. This article circulated as we discussed the need for a new sense of ethical responsibility in Classical archaeology. Pollock argues that one aspect of this is the archaeology of suffering. In her discussion of the archaeology of a Nazi era site she emphasized the unexpected impact of objects associated with abject human suffering in her excavations and how this challenged long held ideas that archaeology should be objective, detached and scientific. It is an interesting contribution to our recent thoughts about an archaeology of care.

From the same volume of American Anthropologist, check out Mark D. Flemming’s “Mass Transit Workers and Neoliberal Time Discipline in San Francisco”. Flemming riffs on E.P. Thomspon’s well-known 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” as he explores the plight of mass transit workers in San Francisco arguing that the city supported by local citizen groups used attitudes toward race, a widespread view of civic employees as unproductive, and unrealistic schedules to undermine organize labor. The result is more short-term and part time workers in the San Francisco mass transit system who do not receive the benefits as full-time union workers. For Flemming, this case study reflects a wider transformation of labor, time, and work-discipline to accommodate a set of neoliberal values that further commodify and fragment human labor. 

And, if you still need something to read, do check out the free download of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. Here’s a link to download the book. Every download makes a puppy smile!

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Lots to Read, just not here

These are busy days here in North Dakotaland. I’m working on the massive introduction that David Pettegrew drafted for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, putting the finishing touches on the paper version of Eric Burin’s Picking the President, maintaining some momentum on Codex, and trying to keep an eye on the news, navigate budget issues on campus, and generally remain sane.

The upshot of this is that I haven’t anything to write about today on the new blog. But fear not, if the constant flow of worrying news in your social media feed isn’t enough to get your restless eyes consuming words, go and check out what my long-time collaborator Richard Rothaus has to say in his review of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America  Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors. (North Liberty, Iowa: Ice Cube Press, 2016) posted on the North Dakota Quarterly page. This book definitely has a place on our “Bakken Bookshelf” next to the Bakken Goes Boom and my forthcoming The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) as well as recent Bakken classics like Lisa Peter’s Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minneapolis 2014) (my review here) and After Oil from the Petrocultures Research Group (my thoughts here).

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point to my other professional commitment, Eastern Mediterranean archaeology, and thank Susan Ackerman and the staff of the American Schools of Oriental Research for making a clear statement on recent moves my the new administration to hinder the movement of people – including numerous ASOR members – from countries where we have experienced hospitality, collegiality, and friendship. She and her staff also voice their support for both the NEH and the NEA which are at risk of defunding.

Please take the time to read the full statement by Prof. Ackerman and the ASOR staff and check out Richard’s review of Fracture. I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled blogging soon!

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch

This past week my colleague Richard Rothaus presented a paper for the North Dakota Man Camp project on a session dedicated to “An Archaeology of Care” at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. We’re still working through the idea, but each iteration and conversation gets us closer to distinguishing the concept from the range of similar frameworks already at play in archaeology (e.g. ethical archaeology, public archaeology, et c.) and weaving together a recognizable body of theory and practice.   

By all accounts, the paper and the panel went well, and Richard graciously allowed me to share the final draft of the paper here (although I’ve found that the final draft of a paper for Richard may only have a passing resemblance to what he presents at the conference!): 

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)

A Paper Presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology
January 2017
Ft. Worth, Texas  

Richard Rothaus (North Dakota University System)
William Caraher (University of North Dakota)
Bret Weber (University of North Dakota)

I think I coined the term of “archaeology of care” impromptu during a podcast. I was searching for a descriptor of archaeological practice that intersects with living people in a way that they find positive and relevant; an archaeological practice that leaves subjects feeling valued and worthy of study, not gawked at, not as descendants of lost or vanishing lifeways. In this sense, “archaeology of care” is a contribution to conversations emphasizing the production of a more ethical archaeology that avoids the occasional anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. Such projects have surfaced across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices with particularly productive developments around community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and public archaeology. These developments look to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and to find shared values in archaeological practice and knowledge.


For the University of North Dakota Mancamp Project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and historical research in the Bakken oil patch. We began the project as citizens of North Dakota using an academic toolkit to response to the massive influx of population that came with the Bakken unconventional shale play. In this context, our archaeology of care developed two-fold: first, by regular and sustained interactions with the residents of the Bakken living amidst the material culture that we were studying and second, by immersing ourselves in research that, out of the myriad of possible questions, chose some relevant to the lifeways of the residents of this region. We were valued in the field because we came not to fix anything, but rather to understand what was happening. 

[SLIDE 4]. 

As we travelled, invariably residents of the workforce housing sites inquired about our work. During these informal interactions with the residents of the Bakke, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for all parties. The residents of the area appreciated that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study.  Investigators and residents recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically, and this revealed an intersection of our research goals with the experiences of individuals. The Man Camp project was an archaeology of care not just because we treated individuals with respect and involved them, but more deeply, because our academic approach to lifeways, economics, and material culture eschewed ironic and counterintuitive hypothesis building and instead found significant overlap with the experiences and expectations of residents of the Bakken.


While we would express it in different ways, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same concerns and expectations for how a range of social actors conceptualized the labor of the boom.  Central to these overlapping sensibilities is the issue of agency: while the vast majority of workers viewed themselves as free agents making rational choices, the reality was far more varied.  Many of the workers in the Bakken are trained professionals for whom life in crew camps and long periods of absence from home are common parts of their trade.  Distinct from that population are the large numbers of individuals who lost jobs or otherwise had their lives disrupted by the Great Recession.  There is a continuum stretching from those for whom the erratic boom/bust cycle is a regular part of their careers, to those for whom seeking employment in the oil patch was the best, worst option available during a period of great social and economic unsettlement.  Our presence and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. We appeared not as omniscient outsiders looking in, ready to pass judgment or solve the problems of others, but as co-residents of a world created, crafted, and interpreted by corporate and extractive industries. In distinction to certain expressions of indigenous archaeology or public archaeology, the archaeology of care subverts the paradigm that construes archaeological outreach or collaboration as between disciplinary archaeologists and “others”.

 [SLIDE 6]

The Bakken Oil Boom, and the influx of temporary labor into the Bakken in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 reflects global trends that Saskia Sassen has summarized as expulsions (2014). Displaced from their homes on account of the mortgage crisis, untethered from the historical fixity of middle-class life, caught up in dynamics of just-in-time manufacturing and contingent labor, and buffeted by the increased speed of an industrial boom-bust cycle, many of the migrant Bakken workers manifest the deterritorialized politics and the overlapping economy of the 21st-century world. The Bakken reflects the expulsions that shape a disrupted world and the tense emergence of new forms of settlement designed to accommodate and normalize the experience of the migrant, the refugee, the modern worker, and in some real ways the archaeologist and the academic. Archaeology is still developing the tools to understand what Cresswell has termed diasporic public spheres, a form without the arbitration of the nation-state, where “no place is privileged, no place is better than another, as from no place the horizon is nearer than from any other” (Cresswell 2006). Short-term settlement and movement in the landscape trace faint lines in the archaeological record and form a basis for the shared significance of the Bakken boom to archaeologists documenting the ephemeral and workers seeking a place within the unsettled modern world.


The North Dakota Man Camp Project identified 50 workforce housing sites in the Bakken region of North Dakota for systematic investigation. Our research sites were visited regularly over a four-year period and documented through video, photography, sketches, and text descriptions. We complemented the material culture documentation with oral interview. The open-ended sampling method captured not just the stories of workers, but also of spouses and children, of camp managers, and even long-term residents of Western North Dakota. People were almost always eager to share their stories, and seemed to quickly comprehend the intention of the study: they told their unique tales about lives lived during this specific historical moment of resource extraction. Despite the hardships, people were generally optimistic, dogged, even indomitable.


The interviews captured a thick description of life in temporary worker housing. Beyond basic demographic data, interview subjects were always asked where they came from, how long they had been in the patch, what brought them there, and what sort of work and fortunes they had found or failed to find. They were also asked about where ‘home’ was. After responses that were often emphatic (home is here in the Bakken! Or home is back where I make mortgage payments), follow-up questions generally provided interview subjects with an opportunity to produce more nuanced and complicated descriptions of what they meant by home.


To deal with the variations among the mancamps in the region, we developed a typology of three classes of camps, all of which are defined by the level of formal organization visible to outsiders and which reflect both historical and contemporary understandings by residents of the camps and their surrounding communities. The ethos, but maybe not the reality, of the Bakken Boom was not that of a worker ending up at the predestined factory job, but the cowboy-entrepreneur, fully cognizant of his own commodification and choosing his own path. These are the denizens of the 21st-century “wage earner’s frontier.” For many the choice of where to live was part of a rational decision to join the boom. For many others, life was ‘hell’ and living in the man camps was an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice, and one that disproportionately consumed a large portion of their earnings. Nonetheless, interviewees had commonly not only thought about this, they could articulate it, and our interest in their choices and articulations was a large part of the archaeology of care.

[SLIDE 10]

The type I camps, run by large providers, are the most highly organized both externally and internally, and inhabited primarily by skilled employees of the major oil companies. An individual lives in a type I camp by virtue of employment arrangement, although it must be noted that the choice to live there is almost always optional. The Type I camps typify the depersonalized non-place, and outside visitors frequently describe them as “sterile” and “prisons”.  The camps are organized as identical living spaces arranged either axially or on a grid. The function of the camps is defined by the interchangeability of parts and people. The profitability of the housing arrangement for the provider depends on its modularity, mobility, and temporal flexibility; the camp can move to where it is needed, when it is needed, and changes are easy as all parts are the same.

[SLIDE 11]

Typically, type I inhabitants are individuals who come in for 21 day stints, working 12 or more hours a day in hard and dangerous working conditions. They are physically and temporally committed exclusively to work during their stay, and thus have minimum need for living space beyond eating, bathing, and sleeping. The Type I camps are a non-place, and the workers are in a window of non-life with no sense of community and certainly no political involvement in the area or processes where they earn their living. They do not personalize their living space, because their life is not here, it is elsewhere, and it is the flow back to their real-world that punctuates time. So it is not that these are people who do not care about domestic space (although there are some such folks among them); rather the Type I camps are inhabited by people who have organized their life around the optimized, maximally efficient deployment of their labor. While we found people in Type I camps who were nonplussed by the arrangements, and reasonably happy to accumulating capital to spend at their other place, we also found other people who had turned themselves ‘off’ to become temporary cogs, waiting to return to actual lives—lives that were ‘generally’ disrupted in damaging ways.

[SLIDE 12]

Type III camps are at the opposite end of spectrum: ephemeral, chaotic places that primarily existed in the earlier days of the boom. Like the Type I camps, the organization of the Type III camps reflects the labor of those within them. The Type III camps are inhabited by semi-skilled people who had wandered to the Bakken to find jobs and careers outside of the orderly movement of skilled labor. Where the Type I camps are uniform and undifferentiated, the Type III camps were individualized conglomerations of tents, trailers, shipping containers, and piles of stuff left in shelter belts. The Type I camps were ephemeral at the discretion of the company, the Type III camps are ephemeral at the discretion of the individuals or local law enforcement. At Type III camps, individuals piece together an extralegal existence that they fully expect to be temporary. The individualization does not, for the most part, represent an intent to define personality and space, but rather an ad hoc, highly independent period of existence.

[SLIDE 13]

Type II camps are akin to RV parks. These camps, like much that one sees in the patch, are often owned by outside interests, investment groups who have sometimes never set foot in North Dakota. Within the camps, housing units are often individually owned trailers, situated in ways that most closely replicate the sense of community found in working-class suburbs. As a result, units that are only meant for temporary living have increasingly become near permanent housing structures operating independent of building and safety codes. The Type II camps occupied most of our time and effort, because within these we were able to see the complexity of individual organization and choices. Such complexity certainly was contained in Type I and III camps as well, but there it was obscured by uniformity or chaos.

[SLIDE 14]

We were drawn to the Type II camps because of the diversity and visibility of material culture. Type II camps facilitate study of the spaces between the trailers. There we are able to observe individuals adapting material culture manufactured for impermanence into at least a simulacrum of permanence. The hyper-abundance of wooden pallets, insulation, fences, gardens, grills, freezers and miscellanea opened the door to the study of personal, temporal and seasonal variations. We found our window to engage fully in an archaeology of care by not asking about the boom, but by asking the question “how have you chosen to live within a boom.” The answers, alas, do not fit within our time limits, so we refer you to our forthcoming papers in Historical Archaeology and the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.

[SLIDE 15]

What makes the UND Mancamp project truly an archaeology of care is our relentless focus not on external economic and organizational structures, but on the organizational structures developed by the workers whose time and bodies have been commoditized in a late-capitalist 24/7 globalized extractive industry (Crary 2014). Our shared investment in understanding the modern world has caused us to arrive, to our own surprise, at a somewhat radical intellectual space, and interestingly, while we did not get there by chance, we also did not get there on purpose. Like many of those living and working in the Bakken, our study entered the stream of what British Economist Guy Standing refers to as a global reality of precariousness in which people from across a multitude of racial, educational, and income categories strive to make sense of the present neo-liberal driven uncertainties that disrupt both our social and economic lives.  While superficially our work drew upon many different disciplines to understand what was happening in the Bakken, we discovered that common ground between the workforce in the Bakken and our work as researchers at a micro-level has proved the most beneficial. How interesting that we arrived at an archaeology of care by focusing on the lifeways of commoditized labor, and in turn we found an archaeology that helps us understand ourselves, our neighbors, and the worlds we work in. We are pleased to bring humanistic tools to bear on the changing nature of labor , and our experiences in the Bakken illustrate that many non-academics are surprisingly in agreement (McKenzie Wark).

[SLIDE 16]




Caraher, W., K. Kourellis, R. Rothaus and B. Weber. “The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Fields.” Historical Archaeology, forthcoming.

Caraher, W., R. Rothaus, B. Weber. “Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, forthcoming.

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World.  Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Standing, Guy. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso, 2015.

An Archaeology of Care: Toward a Definition

Last year, Richard Rothaus and I floated an idea called “The Archaeology of Care” and published a short article in the North Dakota Humanities Council’s magazine On Second Thought. For a brief history of our use of the phrase, go here.

In a couple of weeks. Ricard, Bret Weber, and I are giving a paper on the Archaeology of Care at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting titled: “An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)” in a panel titled “Archaeologies of Care: Rethinking Priorities in Archaeological Engagement”.

As we worked on that paper, we started to think a bit about how to define archaeology of care. Here’s my first, halting efforts along those lines:

There has been a good bit of substantive conversation over the past two decades on constructing an archaeology that is more ethnically responsible and that actively questions the colonial, capitalistic, and, at times, anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. These trends have crystalized across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices that have, generally speaking, fallen under the broadly define approaches of community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and various forms of public outreach. In general, these approaches seek to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and find shared values in archaeological practice and archaeological knowledge. The implementation of these practices range from the critical involvement of indigenous communities in the production of useful archaeological knowledge, the involvement of local groups in archaeological practices, and meaningful efforts of outreach and public history that seek to recognize the plurality of meanings present in the archaeological record.

“Archaeology of Care” is a contribution to these larger trends toward an ethical archaeology. For our project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and ethnographic (or more properly, oral history) research in the Bakken oil patch. As we documented work force housing sites across the region, our colleagues from the departments of history and social work, recorded resident’s stories. Invariably, however, residents of the workforce housing sites approach the archaeological team and inquired about our work. We explained our project, methods, and goals, and even individuals who did not consent to being formally recorded generally expressed interest in our work. During this informal interaction between the residents of the Bakken and the project archaeologist, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for both parties. The residents of the area expressed an appreciative interest that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study and recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically. This moment connected our research goals with the experiences of individuals living and working in the Bakken oil boom. Moreover, in the case of the Bakken, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same modern expectations for how a range of social actors assigns significant to events or individuals. After all, university researchers contributed in part to the discovery of the Bakken oil patch and extractive industries – whatever their complicity in challenging climate science – are deeply modern and scientific in their approach to collecting and transporting natural resources. Archaeological and historical research, therefore, shares a social significance with those discourses that frame extractive industries. In other words, our presence there and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. 

Undocumented Migration Project

This week I’ve become completely distracted by the work of Jason De León and his colleagues on the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). I had known this project existed and had even skimmed some of their articles, but I hadn’t read their stuff carefully. With the semester looming and far more pressing projects (like writing syllabi), I decided to take a long look at this project’s publications. Check out the articles that De León has posted to This is his book on the topic, The Land of Open Graves (California 2015) appeared last year, and you can read reviews of it here, and here’s an interview.

Sites of Contention Archaeological Class pdf page 16 of 31

To summarize this project briefly, De León and company have been documenting the material remains of undocumented migrants across the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. This route of undocumented migration is shaped largely through an official policy of “prevention through deterrence” which channels border crossers toward this forbidding desert route hoping that the immense challenge presented by this landscape will deter their efforts to enter the US. The result of this policy is hundreds of immigrants have died attempting cross the border through this desert and while thousands have made it successfully, the pain and suffering experienced in this landscape have left a material mark in the desert. De León documented over 300 sites of undocumented migration ranging from short-term shelter sites (themselves ranging from rest sites to camp sites), to religious shrines, humanitarian water drops, sites of death, and interception sites where the Border Patrol agents intervened in a border-crossers attempt. He complemented his archaeological data with ethnographic interviews and photography (including giving some border crossers disposable cameras to document their own trips across the desert with the extraordinary results). 

His work on the desert has given me serious project envy. Here’s why:

1. Archaeology of Care. Archaeology of the contemporary world has the unique opportunity of making the discipline of archaeology into an expression of care, interest, and concern. Richard Rothaus and I have termed this “the archaeology of care” and it emphasizes how the practice of archaeology created meaningful bonds between the archaeologists and the communities and create space for archaeology to create meaningful social change. The archaeology of care is a descriptive term that seeks to identify moments when archaeologists and communities identify shared priorities and commitments and work together to document experiences, sites, and objects in ways that build a view of the past that has both academic and social legitimacy. This shared process of constructing a meaningful view of the past allows communities to leverage archaeological knowledge production for their own ends and enables archaeologists to escape historical claims to paternalism or, worse, indifference to the communities in which they work. By documenting the material remains of immigrant crossings and working with immigrants to understand the challenges associated with these routes, the UMP produces a shared history of the border region and the communities for whom crossing the desert marks a significant moment in their history and experiences.    

2. Data: One of the long-standing challenges facing archaeology of the contemporary world is that that amount of material and data that we confront is overwhelming. As a result, many of the most exciting archaeological projects dealing with the modern world have been relatively data-poor, In fact, I’ve argued that the hyper-abundance of material has led to producing datasets that are both too complex for current archaeological approaches and equally abundant. De León’s team managed this data deluge as well as any project has dealt with the abundance of modern things. He not only documented numerous sites, but also documented and collected material from these sites to produce quantitatively meaningful assemblages. He then queried and analyzed this data in ways that allowed for more nuanced and sophisticated conclusions than impressionistic encounters would allow. This isn’t to say that De León’s work didn’t embrace qualitative arguments, but that it fortified these observations with an impressive dataset that I hope he makes available in the future.  

3. Sites. As a survey archaeologist, I am obsessed with sites. In fact, the definition of sites from surface scatters remains one of the great challenges of intensive pedestrian survey. The UMP’s sites in the Sonoran desert are interesting because they are rather well-defined scatters of material and the assemblages allow for the production of a significant (and meaningful!) typology of sites. The blurred edges of the typology, of course, form productive areas to queries the complex relationship between the material signatures left behind in the desert and human behaviors. 

4. Site Formation. One of the most useful and provocative observations appears in De León’s book. He states that formation processes are political. This is a simply statement, and difficult to refute, but for some reason I hadn’t thought about it in such a clear and direct way. De León was referring to efforts to “clean up” immigrant assemblages in the desert, the tendency to refer to material left behind from these desperate crossings as trash, and the refusal of some to see this work as archaeology at all, contributed directly to the production of the archaeological landscape in the desert.

In a recent short article that I submitted to a Journal of Contemporary Archaeology forum, I observe that political decisions concerning workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch will directly impact the future visibility of these sites in Bakken landscape. Calls for sites to be returned to their previous state (however “pristine” this was imagined) served to effectively erase workforce housing (and to some extent, the massive influx workers) from the Bakken landscape. This not only reinforced a view the oil just appeared from the ground to make North Dakotans wealthy, but also that permanent communities were somehow responsible for the oil wealth. It also has the unintended consequence of occluding the challenges facing the region during the Bakken Boom and embracing a nostalgic view of settlement in the region that ensures communities are unprepared for the next influx of population. The formation of sites in the Bakken, then, contributes to the production of a past for the region and impacts future challenges.

So, go read this stuff. It’s good. 

An Archaeology of Care at the Society for Historical Archaeology

Richard Rothaus and I have been bandied about the idea of an “archaeology of care” for a couple years now. Richard’s contribution to our 2014 Punk Archaeology volume probably prompted this discussion, and it developed more fully in a blog post, our podcast, and an article for the North Dakota Humanities Council’s On Second Thought magazine (read it here). 

The paper will appear in a panel titled: “The Archaeology of Care: Rethinking Priorities in Archaeological Engagement.” And our buddy Kostis Kourelis has submitted an abstract for a paper titled: “The Archaeology of Refugee Crises in Greece: Diachronic Cultural Landscapes.” Read his abstract here.

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)
Richard Rothaus, William Caraher, Bret Weber

The University of North Dakota Man Camp project has used archaeology to engage seriously the issues of workforce housing and industrial landscapes in the Bakken. Our work proceeds with a focus not on the ebullience (or catastrophe) of the Bakken, but rather on the material culture of housing in a dynamic extractive landscape. We do not advocate, nor do we analyze or make policy recommendations. Our work in the field epitomizes, however, an archaeology of care for the communities in which we work. Our conversations in the field, attention to detail, and willingness to take seriously the everyday life of individuals and communities creates a connection between the wider world (which we represent, oddly enough) and their very personal experience. Our recognition of, and interest in, the agency of individuals buffered by incomprehensibly large forces has value for the academic and non-academic communities.