Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

The Archaeology of Oil Production

I took advantage of the snow day to finish up a chapter that I’m preparing for some kind of volume on the Archaeology of Plastics. My paper was on the archaeology of oil production and it was a nice chance to pull together a bunch of things that I had noticed while doing field work in the Bakken and writing up some of that work.

Without sounding too satisfied, I think this is one of the better things that I have written over the last few years on oil. It’s mostly just a summary, but I feel like it brings together some diverse threads and sets a course of what the archaeology of oil could be in the future.  

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This chapter surveys broadly the archaeology of oil production with particular emphasis on work in the United States. The first section of the chapter explores efforts to designate sites associated with the discovery, transport, and refining of oil and their related workforce heritage status in the US and elsewhere. The second section considers how the distinctly liquid character of oil produces diverse and dynamic “petroleumscapes” that integrate the various phases of oil production and consumption. The notion of the petroleumscape and other similar ways of understanding human and archaeological landscapes associated with oil production is then applied to the Bakken patch of Western North Dakota in the final section. This area experienced a number of oil booms starting in the 1950s and culmination in the early 21st century boom at which time a team of archaeologists with the North Dakota Man Camp Project documented both workforce housing in the Bakken and the industrialization of the rural landscape.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Dustism, Petro-Nomads, and Oil

This week, I’m shifting a bit of my attention to a paper that I hope to submit to a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology. It paper is tentatively titled “The Bakken and Babylon” or something like that. I’ve posted two other fragments of this article here and here.

Today’s fragment considers the concept of “Dustism” in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) and juxtaposes it with a few case studies from the Bakken that I developed in the previous section of this paper. I’m slowly coming to terms with this paper and looking to make it a bit more interesting than my usual dreck, but we’ll see. The dreck is strong in me… 

Dustism

For Parsani, “dustism” represented “the earth’s clandestine autonomy” which converts and subverts solar energy, or solar capitalism, into swirling, eddying, and irresistible clouds of matter that resist human control. Parsani notes that dust in Middle Eastern religions is pure and immaculate and its only when it begins to coalesce and clump that it becomes “an abomination.” This abomination in Parsani’s convoluted cosmology merges the autonomy of the earth with the fluidity of activism to produce a mess. This mess — mud, oil, foaming muck — fertilizes the world and supports production, growth, and creation even as the sun continuously seeks to dry it out and return it to inert purity of dust. In this formulation dustism provides a framework that Bradley Fest understands to support a system of hyperobjects including dust and oil which exist beyond the temporal and spatial scale of human existence (Fest 2016). In Parsani’s narrative, the viscosity of oil allows it to become the narrator as it binds the disparate power of dust which seeks to continuously revert to its primordial and timeless form.

This is obviously obscure, but dustism strikes me as crucial for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Doherty 2014, 376) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. The theory of dustism resonates in North Dakota and the Bakken. For Frank Junger, the North Dakota born Aramco executive, his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career begins when his family departs his Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling dust storms of the 1930s dust storm. In his memoirs, he compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts that framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust. A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s early novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which opens in North Dakota. The novel’s main character, Elsa, described the main street of the town of Hardanger as “a river of fine powder.” Dust punctuates the early pages of the novel and defines the forlorn town, the hard ground of the North Dakota prairie, and the footsteps of Elsa’s future husband, Bo Mason, at the baseball diamond. Whether Stegner deliberately sought to anticipate Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel when emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic when in contact with liquid also shatters the stranger who paid for his drink in gold dust inspired Bo Mason to embark on his nomadic journey throughout the American West in search of wealth and status. Dust is more than a metaphor in Stegner’s fictional town or in Junger’s life, and is as ubiquitous a feature in the Bakken oil patch as in Negarestani’s Babylon.

For Parsani and Negarestani, the combination of dust and oil contribute to the formation of self-organizing assemblages. These assemblages are global in scale and draw both human and non-human actors into their orbits. They also accelerate a kind of persistent nomadism that both reflects the geopolitical instability created by global climate change and relies on the mobility of populations that coalesce around the tension between dust and oil. Parsani recognizes the petro-nomads who travel from oil well to oil well drawn by oil. Thomas Barger’s journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost drawn forward by oil. In the 20th and 21st century Bakken the petro-nomads likewise coalesced around the sources of oil and sought to navigate the dust from rural byways, agricultural harvests, and droughts that seems constantly to escape control. It is worth noting that there has been an outpouring of recent scholarship on dust in the Bakken that seems to appear as if to resist or even challenge the flow of oil and the arrival of the petro-nomads.

Bakken Babylon: Stegner, Barger, and Junger

Last week, I started to work on a little article for a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology that proposed a contemporary spatial displacement where Babylon, broadly construed, and the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota somehow became transposed. I propose that this kind of spatial ambiguity is anticipated, in part, by works of fiction that have recently come to recognize the problems with geography that beset the modern world, and, in part, by Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia which hints that oil and dust might have certain agential powers designed to resist and even subvert the ambition of the imperialist territorial state.

I posted a draft of the first part of the paper here already

The connection between the Bakken and Babylon is necessarily imprecise as is so often the case in situations of spatial displacement, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t historical situations that anticipated the current conditions. The most intriguing of these relates to the American author and historian Wallace Stegner who not only lived in North Dakota for a time as a child, presumably the city of Minot on the outskirts of the Bakken, but also wrote an account of the discover of oil in Saudi Arabia: Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. The American oil company ARAMCO funded Stegner’s work in 1956 as an effort to promote an image of the company as a force for development in the Middle East and as a harbinger of new forms of hegemony that relied less on old models of military or diplomatic imperialism and more on the promotion the mutual, if asymmetrical, benefits of capitalism. By the mid-1950s, Stegner had established himself as a sensitive interpreter of the arid landscapes of the American West, and in 1954 had published his classic account of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. These credentials appealed to ARAMCO executives who enticed Stegner to write a literary history of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. 

Among the characters features in Discovery! was Thomas Barger, who grew up in Linton, North Dakota and studied geology at the University of North Dakota. After graduation, he set out to Saudi Arabia in 1938 where he worked for Standard Oil and Aramco as a geologist. During this time, his team discovered the massive Ghawar oil field which has accounted for nearly 50% of Aramco’s oil production. Barger goes on to become the CEO of Aramco in the 1960s. He’s not the only North Dakotan involved with Aramco. Frank Jungers served as president and CEO of the company from 1971 to 1978 during which time the company transitioned from American ownership to ownership by the Saudi Arabian government.

The connection between North Dakota and the world’s largest oil company may well be coincidental, but the development of the Bakken oil patch certainly presented a shadowy parallel to the situation in the Middle East. While the 1970s boom in North Dakota almost certainly represented a response to the 1970s OPEC embargo which sought to penalize countries who supported Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The 1950s North Dakota boom was likely stimulated by nationalization of the Iranian and Iraqi oil industries in the early 1950s and growing demands by the Saudi government to share profits and control over Aramco profits. 

Thus, on an individual level and an economic and political level the history of North Dakota and its oil industry seems oddly entangled with the oil industry in the Middle East. The delicate threads that trace the global reach of oil binds the arid landscape of the Northern Plains to the oil rich formations of the Persian Gulf.

These strands are significant for the archaeology of climate change because they demonstrate how traditional practices in archaeology with their commitment to spatially defined sites, cultures, nations, and regions, encounter challenges when faced with places that follow the flow of oil. Negarestani’s Dr. Hamid Parsani recognized the relationship between nomadism and oil and how oil provided a conduit through which desert-nomadism follows. The practices of contemporary nomadism, traced in preliminary and inadequate ways by such works as Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland (2017), define both the landscape created by the Bakken oil boom and the traditional movement of desert-nomad.

The recognition of new petrolandscapes or petroleumscapes defined by the movement of oil and the movement of people create new topographies and places that defy conventional spatial arrangements. These new landscapes in some ways anticipate the topographies, geographies, and ecologies that will suffer more directly from the impacts of global climate change.

Bakken Babylon

Over the weekend, I started working on a paper that I hope to submit to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology edited by Catherine Kearns and Ömür Harmansah on the topic of archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. It is based on a panel that I contributed to at the ASOR annual meeting a in 2020. Here’s a fairly late version of that paper.

For the published version, though, I want to do something more creative and exploratory. Rather than arguing that North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch and the Middle East share certain characteristics, features, and even individuals and that this makes them similar, I want to argue that they are, in some sense, the same place. To do this, I want to playfully invoke Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and weave a kind of story about its main character Dr. Hamid Parsani giving a paper in Fargo. In this paper, he argues, provocatively, that Babylon has become dislodged from its spatial confines and reappeared at least momentarily in North Dakota. The paper will go along invoking evidence that Babylon itself is not only on the move, but that understanding this allows us today to construct new ways of thinking about climate change that recognize its global scope. 

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

At a conference convened in Fargo, North Dakota at l’Institut pour l’étude du Dakota du Nord several years ago, the controversial Iranian academic Dr. Hamid Parsani opined the global climate change confirmed an obscure theory that his research had pointed toward many years before: the Bakken and Babylon shared more than certain linguistic affinities. Dr. Parsani indicated that a careful reading of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia revealed that oil itself had the capacity to lubricate narrations including those of cartography:

“The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrates the dynamics of planetary events. Oil is the undercurrent of all narrations, not only the political but also that of the ethics of life on earth.”

The capacity of oil to fuel, pun intended, petropunk interpretations of the Bakken informed by the geographical theories proposed by radical cartographers such as Renee Gladman and China Mieville. Their works have concerned themselves with certain cartographic irregularities where two or more places exist simultaneously in the same space or, alternately, places themselves have become completely unmoored from their spatial coordinates. In some cases, populations have simply adapted to these situations such as the situation in Beszel/Ul Quoma where the residents of two cities superimposed on one another have simply learned to “unsee” one another during their everyday lives and the state otherwise maintains the spatial boundaries that persist between places associated with one or the other city. In the case of Ravicka, the occasional tendency of places to become dislodged from their spatial coordinates entirely has led to the development of state entities tasked with documenting these situations. While Dr. Parsani’s work did not address these situations directly, it is seems likely that the proliferation of oil over the last century has lubricated this unprecedented spatial dynamism and after first reinforcing the political, cultural, and topographic boundaries of places has dissolved them. In this situation Babylon and the Bakken despite the differences between their locations in the historical narratives that support conventional political geographies have become so thoroughly elided to be indistinguishable in many ways.

This has significant consequences, of course, for our understanding of global warming, climate change, and archaeological interventions designed to understand the past, present, and future of these processes.

Parsani’s paper began with the familiar refrain that the place of Babylon had become unmoored by antiquity and this unmooring became all the more visible during the events of the two Iraq wars. As Erin Runions has shown these wars combined figurative and literal concepts of Babylon to inspire messianic and popular support for the US invasion. The opulence and immorality associated with Hebrew Bible’s description of the Neo-Assyrian city of Babylon on the Euphrates River in central Iraq which was the site of the Babylonian Exile, had become secondary to the imposing figure of the Whore of Babylon whose appearance in the Book of Revelation indicated that the place of Babylon has already broken free from its spatial confines and occupied Rome and Jerusalem. The appearance of a beast with ten horns and seven heads at the end of days would destroy the whore of Babylon and reduce its city.

By the 21st century, Babylon had taken on many guises. It had become the handmaiden of modernity, capitalism, and political violence, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a kind of messianic metaphor for the force of evil in the world. Thus, in the Iraq War, the moralizing and messianic message found a home in the stories of the abuses of Saddam Hussain’s Bathist government in Iraq and this further wrenched the place of Babylon free from its Mesopotamian origins. That Babylon would end up in Western North Dakota, in the Bakken oil patch of all places, is neither completely unexpected nor entirely implausible.

I Like Short Books: The Anthropocene Unconscious

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I have grown weary of big books, proposing big ideas, and written by big name scholars. They stimulate debate, in part, because of their ambition and their flaws which is a consequence of their length. Of course, an overly long, complicated, and problematic book often attracts the kinds of readers and critics that leads to wider awareness and stronger sales. When I’m done a long book, I often feel like it not only monopolized my head, but my interest in the book contributes to the publication of other books that will, in turn, monopolize my head and the heads of others. 

One way, for me to get out of this dreadful cycle, is to just read a small book and talk about. This weekend, I read Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021). Superficially, the book is a response to Amitav Ghosh’s famous observation in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago 2017) that the modern novel, with its preoccupation with the mundane and even internal lives of characters, has proven itself uniquely incapable of helping us understand and think through climate change. Bould argues cleverly that this is a choice on our part as readers and critiques as well. If we chose to read the modern novel as a commentary on climate change, it can be in much the same way that applying a queer lens to a piece of literature both opens new ways of thinking about plot, character, and setting and mitigates against a heteronormative view of the world.  

He then goes on to apply the lens of climate change to a range of both popular and classic literature including (so very cleverly) Ghosh’s novels which he reveals to offers perspectives which can provoke productive insights into climate change and its consequences ranging from rising sea levels to displacements, changing notions of home, and a growing sense of alienation from a world that we can never recover. Similarly incisive critiques of everything from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) to the Fast and the Furious film franchise make the case that everything may well be about climate change. In fact, for Bould the climate catastrophe lurks throughout the modern unconscious and factors into the very anxiety that makes the reflective and banal world of the modern novel so gripping. 

This got me thinking about history and archaeology, of course, and how our preoccupation with periods of rise and collapse in the past saturates our confidence in the inevitability of our own society’s inevitable demise. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to see in this a kind of Freudian death drive or a deeply fatalistic awareness that our efforts to avoid short term catastrophe through violent and aggressive war just represents their conversion into the long term destruction of our species through the market. Because we lives with the expectation that every boom has a bust, we find ourselves unwilling or unable to imagine a sustainable future. 

Bould makes this sweeping argument in about 140 generously spaced pages that took me a couple of hours to read. This gave him plenty of room to dive as deep as was necessarily into individual works and to reiterate his larger points without belaboring them or indulging in distracting displays of erudition. There is plenty to chew on here as we face down the end of the world.

Archaeology of Oil Production: A Conclusion and Some Notes (Part 4)

I finally finished a draft of my piece on the archaeology of oil production. It’s still a bit rough, but I’m happy enough with it over all and have a few months to tidy it up.

But if you can’t wait, here’s the intro, part 2, and part 3.

Here’s my concluding paragraph. As I tidy the paper up, I’ll post the completed thing later in the spring.

The archaeology of the oil production demands an attention to the liquidity of both oil itself and the networks of labor, financial capital, and communication that make oil valuable in the contemporary world. As a result, the archaeology of oil production involves documenting both individuals sites and recognizing their places within expansive petroleumscapes. These petroleumscapes not only constitute the spatial and material aspects of oil production and consumption, but also the social, technological, economic, and political institutions that rely upon and make oil production possible. This invariably requires that we recognize oil production as a historically constituted component of the modern world. In doing so, archaeologists have the opportunity to break down the temporal domination of the present and to reveal how even the massively destructive powers of globalized, supermodernity possesses historical contingency. By pulling apart the foreshortened experience of booms and busts, emphasizing the ephemeral and occluded traces of earlier phases of the present, and recognizing the sometimes forcible assertion of pasts that will not succumb to the urgency of supermodernity, an archaeology of oil production offers a distinct critical perspective on the modern world.

I did get a chance to read some new stuff in relation to this work that I hadn’t read before.

I think I’ve mentioned Carola Hein’s edited book Petroleumscapes which is open access volume from Routledge. 

I’ve also enjoyed Rachael Havrelock’s work on oil, especially her article, “The Ancient Past that Oil Built” from Bible & Critical Theory 11.2 (2015). She draws on Erin Runion’s The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (Fordham 2014) which I’ve just read enough of to put on my reading list.

I’ve also enjoyed James Ferguson’s “Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal AfricaAmerican Anthropologist 107.3 (2005) and Scott MacEachern, “Seeing like an oil company’s CHM programme: Exxon and archaeology on the Chad Export ProjectJournal of Social Archaeology 10.3 (2010).

This work has also led me to read (albeit superficially) Katayoun Shafiee’s Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran (MIT 2018), which is open access and Lori Leonard’s Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad (Indiana 2016).

Finally, I read Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Re.press 2008) and a companion cypher, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium edited by Edward Keller, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker from Punctum Books. As you might guess, it’s also open access.

Archaeology of Oil Production: The Bakken in Context (Part 3)

As I race toward the semester finding its footing, I’m still churning away at a few winter break projects including a paper on the archaeology of oil production. I posted the first part of the paper last week and a second part yesterday. Today it’s time for the third part.

At this point, the paper is a bit rough and I think there’s a bit of mission creep visible in the following section, but I figured that I’d better get words on the page now and I can spend some time revising and adding citations over the next week or so.

The Bakken

At this point, this contribution has probably taken a rather abstract turn or proposed an archaeology of oil that is effectively a totalizing archaeology of modern existence. The Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota offers a more tangible case study of part of the contemporary petroleumscape. The Bakken formation itself exceeds 200,000 square miles and extends from the North Dakota-South Dakota border into Saskatchewan and from central North Dakota to eastern Montana. Starting in 2012, the North Dakota Man Camp Project sought to document and analyze workforce housing in the Bakken amid the 21st century Bakken oil boom. Our work in the region allowed us to develop a familiarity with not only its history as an oil producing area but also as a dynamic, modern landscape continuously adapting to the needs of extractive industries.

The earliest history of oil extraction in the Bakken begins in the late 1920s when Big Viking Oil Company and the Standard Oil Company of California sunk a series of deep test wells into a formation known as the Nesson Anticline along the Missouri River in Williams County, North Dakota. These wells did not come into commercial production. In 1951, however, the Clarence Iverson #1 Well nearly Tioga, ND did produce at commercially viable level and the H.O. Bakken #1 well drilled in the same year gave the oil fields centered on the Nesson Anticline their name (Conway 2020 for a survey of this boom). These wells produced “sweet” easy to refine North Dakota crude oil and initiated the first North Dakota oil booms A subsequent boom in the late 1970s, triggered in part by the global oil crisis earlier in that decade, reinforced the potential viability of North Dakota oil fields, but conventional drilling had limited success extracting the oil from the “tight” shale layers of the Bakken and restricted the profitability of the Bakken formation to periods of exceptionally high oil prices. The development of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies in the early 21st century initiated the third Bakken Boom and the emergence of as fracking made it possible to extract Bakken “sweet crude” in more cost effective ways and American the Middle East . These technical improvements invariably led to growing estimates of the size and potential profitability of recoverable oil from the Bakken formation and since 2014 the state’s 16,700 productive wells have produced over 1 million barrels of oil per day, despite the fluctuations in global oil marks.

The long history of oil production in the state of North Dakota has received only sporadic attention. Various surveys in the state, for example, have documented significant well sites including the Iverson #1 Well and the H.O. Bakken #1 well, and they have acquired state site numbers. Other forms of oil infrastructure, including pipelines and gas processing plants, also have received inventory numbers in the state archives. Unlike other major oil producing states, however, none of the petroleum related sites have received nomination to the National Register of Historic Places or undergone HAER documentation. In its most recent historic preservation plan, however, the state has recognized “Petroleum” as a significant context theme for the state and that suggests that more comprehensive documentation is possible. More significantly, as has been the case globally, the history of petroleum production has shaped the archaeological landscape of the state as surveys and excavations associated with the routes of pipelines, gravel pits, well pads, and other infrastructure have provided windows into the state’s and the region’s past.

The irregular efforts to document the material remains of oil production in the state and the ephemerality implied in the concept of the “boom” motivated our research program. The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused primarily on workforce housing and the emergence of so-called man camps along major routes through the area. These temporary housing facilities served the thousands of short term laborers who arrived in the Bakken both to work in the oil industry and to take advantage of economic opportunities that Bakken oil boom created in the region. The largest and most sophisticated facilities formed massive compounds capable of accommodating thousands of workers and providing meals, recreation, and even water treatment facilities. Many more workers, however, found accommodations in smaller facilities, RV parks, or in quasi-legal camps in shelter belts, abandoned small towns, and, perhaps more famously, the Walmart parking lot in Williston, North Dakota. The camps reflected negotiation between architectural forms dictated by the requirements of mobility and the expectations of domesticity created by suburban traditions. As a result, oil not only required housing for the expanded workforce in the oil field but also influenced the form of that housing. Narrow housing units designed to travel on the roads or by rail pulled by vehicles powered gasoline or diesel literally embedded the life of oil workers within spaces shaped by oil. Worker’s efforts to adapt their RVs and mobile homes to the requirements of life in the oil patch, often involve the addition of mudrooms often made of scap wood. Set perpendicular to the narrow length of the units, the mudrooms compromised their mobility and like flotsam blocking the flow of a creek, they attempted to establish a kind of fixity during a boom defined as much by the fluidity of oil as human and financial capital.

Our efforts to document and study these workforce housing sites led us to situate them in an ever more expansive Bakken petroleumscape. At the height of the boom, towering drill rigs and more modest workover rigs, used for well maintenance, arose in syncopated rhythms across the flat prairie horizon. Fracking sites consisted of dense, low-slung nests of pipe, pumps, and trucks often in the various colors of major fracking companies: red for Haliburton and blue for Schlumberger. Once fracked, the tanks, pumps, and pipes disappear and the site gives way to familiar bobbing grasshoppers of sucker-pumps, often painted tan to blend into the low prairie hillsides, standing on concrete wellpadqs and surrounded by rectangles of gravel. Recent improvement in drilling rigs have allowed companies to drill a series of wells on the same wellpad and as a result, more recent wellpads often have more pumps. Interspersed with pumping wells are flares burning off gases associated with fracked wells, low shoulders of pipelines protruding from the ground, and signs for deep injection wells used to disposed of “processes water” used in the fracking process. Tank farms, truck stops, food trucks, man camps, and fenced yards full of well casing and equipment, cluster at discernable nodes throughout the region.

Human movement through the oil patch followed the tidy grid section line roads and major thoroughfares. Rail lines and unit yards often shadow the main roads in the area and offers more visible links between the extraction and mid-stream transportation of the region’s sweet crude oil. The regular appearance of mile-long unit trains marked with the code “1267” on the Hi Line and in various rail yards across the state connects the flow of Bakken oil with larger collection networks. The tragedies in Lac-Mégantic and explosion in Casselton serve as tragic reminders of the volatility of this cargo. While these surface routes structured our encounter with the productive landscape of the oil patch, they also obscured the flow of the various liquids and gasses from well sites. The efficient routes of pipelines for oil, gas, and wastewater in contrast run to gathering stations, tank farms, the Hess gas factory, and deep injection wells.

In this broader context of sites and movements, workforce housing appears as momentary nodes in the network of human capital. These nodes reflect the consolidation of labor at the intersection of financial resources and the physical and historical environment in much the same way as drill sites, pipeline crews, and railyard crews. The ephemerality of these sites reflect the insistent present created by the speed of capital in global markets and its ability to subdue the intransigency of millennia of geology, the remoteness of the region, and the variability of the seasons. In other words, the spatial reach of financial capital, labor, and ultimately the oil itself facilities the rapid consolidation and dissipation of the material traces of human activities in the region.

The protest camps that emerged at the intersection of the Missouri River and the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrate how alternate forms of temporality can disrupt Bakken petroleumscapes that extends hundreds of miles from the source of oil. On the surface, the DAPL protest movement crystalized around the vulnerability of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation water intakes to the route of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River. Nick Estes’s thoughtful analysis of this protest, however, emphasized that it represented not a single response to a particular event, but part of a history of indigenous resistance to colonial control over the land and resources and a responsibility to preserve indigenous landscapes that embody ancestral knowledge, contemporary life ways, and future generations. In this context, the pipeline made manifest the rapacious desires of the present overwhelming the indigenous past. The capital that funded the pipeline anticipates and requires the continued flow of oil from the Bakken despite the proximate risks associated with oil spills and the longer term vulnerability of the world to the destabilizing impacts of climate change.

Archaeology of Oil Production: Petroleumscapes and Oil Time (Part 2)

It’s the first day of classes and I’m pretty excited to begin my “teaching sabbatical” this semester and focus my attention mostly on teaching. Like most sabbaticals, however, just because I’m shifting my focus, doesn’t mean that my other responsibilities will vanish. In fact, I’m working on wrapping up a paper on “The Archaeology of Oil Production” that’s due sometime this spring. 

You can read the first part of the paper here and below is the second part of the paper. 

I’m pretty happy with it so far (especially consider that I am working a bit to a deadline) and would love to get some feedback on it. Feel free to post thoughts, criticisms, or outright ridicule in the comments below. 

Petroleumscape and Oil Time

Efforts to reconcile the spatial locations associated with oil and oil production and the broader context of oil as the key commodity of global capitalism have long occupied scholars. Zigmut Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity appears, albeit indirectly, to owe some of its conceptual power to the liquid state of oil which constitutes the defining element of its value in modern markets. The ability of oil to flow and be stored in a liquid state made it easier to transport to market than coal or natural gas which require more substantial investments. The liquidity of oil parallels the concept of liquidity in economic terms where the ability of human and financial capital to move quickly in response to market pressures and opportunities has become a ubiquitous metaphor in contemporary capitalism. Philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze (1992), anthropologists such as Anna Tsing (2015), and geographers such as Deborah Cowen (2014), have produced probing and critical works laced with the concept of flow as the defining characteristic of late capitalism, modernity, and contemporary life.

Thus oil exists within a conceptual world that encourages archaeology to follow its flow both literally and as the manifestation of dense networks of human, financial, social, and political capital. In this sense, the concept of the assemblage has emerged as a useful tool to understand the interplay between various actors, technologies, and systems that describe the production of oil. While much of this remains tacit among archaeologists studying oil production, scholars outside the discipline are working to establish a robust framework for more sophisticated archaeological interventions. For example, historian Katayoun Shafiee (2018) has drawn upon science and technology studies (STS) in her effort to interrogate the development of Iranian oil industry in the first half of the 20th century. For Shafiee, the physical infrastructure such as drill rigs, pipelines, and the massive Abadan oil refinery exists only within an equally expansive assemblage of intangible diplomatic, financial, and racial infrastructure. The sociotechnical devices that define these relations dictated the colonial character of the material culture (and physical infrastructure) of the oil industry, such as the company town built for Iranian, British, and Indian workers at the Abadan refinery, but also created spaces for resistance which included strikes by Iranian oil workers, nationalization by the Iranian state, and volatility in the diplomatic landscape among oil producing countries. Similar works approaches have sought to unpack the significance of certain forms of technology, such as pipelines, in shaping the geography of oil and forging new political, economic, and social relationships. For example, the massive Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, both became the center of disputes over their technical and material capacities that made visible the complexities of the assemblage associated with oil production. In no ways were the environmental, political, and social subordinate to the technological, material, and economic character of the undertaking.

Carola Hein’s notion of petroleumscapes offers spatial vocabulary tailored to fit the often totalizing landscapes of produced by the petroleum industry. From the oil fields themselves characterized by wells, pumping stations, tank farms, and pipelines to the cluster of refineries and industrial facilities associated with global port cities such as Houston, Rotterdam, Philadelphia, Gujarat (India), and Singapore. Likewise the rise of the automobile and the design of urban space to accommodate the needs of personal and commercial transportation extends the petroleumscape from restricted spaces of industrial production to our everyday lives. An archaeology of oil production that stops short at considering oil’s distribution and use, for example, might overlook evidence for how oil producers created demand for products that resulted from oil refining methods and technology or supported visions of the world that assumed abundant petroleum based energy. At the same time, the idea of the petroleumscape has proposed form of oil heritage which articulates the significance of individual sites within historical networks of production. The sites associated with the now largely closed refineries around the port of Dunkirk in Northern France reflect the city’s century-long place in the global oil industry and includes the refineries themselves, but also ancillary industries, worker housing, and polluted soils that will invariably shape the community’s future. In many ways, abandoned petroleumscapes represent spaces of supermodernity where, as Alfredo González-Ruibal has observed, the hyperabundance of both visible and invisible material created forms of ruin carved out from the nearly incomprehensible scale of the flows produced by the liquid, late modern world.

For González-Ruibal there also exists a temporal dimension of supermodernity as an archaeological period which embodies the overrepresentation of the present which endeavors to destroy not only the evidence for other periods, but also the latent potential that the past possesses for different futures. Thus, the present formed by petroleum extraction, production, and consumption accentuates pasts that invariably culminate in a world made possible by fossil fuels. Alberto Toscano, for example, has argued that the presence of oil often produces “retropolitical” conditions that dictate a nation’s or a community’s political and economic development. In these situations, wealth derived from oil effective short circuited developmental models (e.g. Chakrbarty xxxx) that assumed wealth derived from increasingly industrialized labor would also produce concomitant social and political “improvements.” Thus, oil like so many supermodern developments located so-called petro-states in a present where they are “always-already failing” which justifies colonialist attitudes, interventionist policies, and rapacious economic strategies designed to liberate these states and regions from the source of their misfortune. From an archaeological landscape, the petroleum industry sees the past and the future primarily in terms of its value in the present. Contemporary attitudes toward archaeological sites, for example, represent them as cultural resources of value to the present or available for destruction in the name of economic and political strategic interests. Thus, oil has the capacity to transform archaeological remains from the past into fungible resources that occupy the same balance sheets as technological, political, and social costs involved in the extraction, transportation, and distribution of oil. The cultural resource management operations supported by oil, then, represent one element in the larger process of oil production, and a broadly defined archaeology of oil production should also include a critique of how oil in the present dictates the value of the past. This process is fundamentally similar to the way that  oil reserves primarily represent value as collateral for present wealth.

The Archaeology of Oil Production: Part 1

Readers of this blog know that I have a long simmering interest in extractive landscapes that date to my work in the Bakken patch. As a result, I jumped at the chance to write a chapter on the archaeology of oil production for a volume on the archaeology of plastics. In fact, I’m irrationally excited about writing this up. 

Here are the first two sections of it. I’m pretty pleased with the sites and places of oil. Most of this section derives from grey papers produced by various groups nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places or the Historical American Engineering Record. These super granular reporting formulas do exactly what I hoped (and needed) they would do in that they show how most sites of oil production only make sense in a dense network of physical, institutional, infrastructural, and financial relationships. 

As per usual, if you have suggestions, opinions, or observations, I’d love to hear ‘em! 

Archaeology of Oil Production

Introduction

Oil production is a central element in the modern world. It is the primary engine for economic growth. By offering a promise of continuous economic growth, the use of fossil fuels and oil in particular, powered not only the rise of industrial capitalism, but also the aspirations for equality at the heart of global democracy (Mitchell 2011; Morris 2015). Over the last 70 years, oil has shaped the global order and fueled decolonization, nationalism, military conflict, and post-national formations. In this context, the narratives and sites associated with oil discovery often represent the pride of communities and moments of optimism for a better future. Counter narratives abound, however, that regard oil production sites as places of broken promises, social dislocation, and environmental destruction (Sinclair 192x; Munif 1987). The growing concern about global climate change has intensified critiques associated both with the direct role that oil production and consumption plays in carbon emissions and the indirect role that oil plays in supporting global consumer culture and distributed production practices.

Despite the widespread awareness of the role that oil has played in the development of the contemporary world, the material culture of oil production are nearly as expansive as its consequences. As a result, archaeologists and heritage professionals interested in the contemporary world have struggled to adapt tools often designed to document and preserve spatially defined sites to the requirements of a phenomenon that operates on a much more expansive and often global scale. Moreover, the rate at which landscapes associated with oil production can change through the natural limits of the resource, shifting economic priorities, and military and political conflict has created a moving target for researchers. The ability of significant quantities of capital — workers, equipment, housing, and infrastructure — to appear in a region and then disappear parallels the liquidity of oil itself which represents its greatest asset as a source of energy. The liquidity of oil contrasts with the seeming permanence of the oil reserves themselves and the investment in the “downstream” infrastructure associated with oil refineries (Hein 2018). While these more permanent fixtures in the oil production process have occasionally received attention, they too present challenges for the archaeologist. As this brief contribution will discuss in more detail below, their location at the end of substantial transport networks, the dangers associated with the work, the presence of proprietary technology, and the long term toxic traces left behind from refining can make access difficult. These fixed sites represent nodes in global networks of political and financial actors, institutions, technologies, histories, and places. These networks, in turn, trace the wider impact of oil production which often exceeds the scales of conventional archaeological practices.

The following contribution will attempt to the existing archaeological and heritage work on individual sites associated with oil production with a bias toward those in the United States. This is largely a concession to my greater familiarity with North American examples documented under the auspices of the Nation Register of Historic Place and the Historic American Engineering Record. The second section will consider efforts to consider the materiality of oil production in an integrated, global context. While archaeologists have generally not contributed this kind of work, it nevertheless offers interpretative contexts for future single and multisite archaeological research. The final section will focus on a case study from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and demonstrate how archaeology might integrate global and local perspectives in the understanding of a specific productive landscape.

Sites and Places of Oil

Starting in the 1920s, the material legacy of oil production attracted the interest of archaeologists and heritage professionals. The establishment of the Allegheny National Forest in 1923 incorporated parts of the 19th century oil fields in western Pennsylvania which continued to produce at a small scale well into the 20th century. Photo documentation of these sites in the 1920s and 1930s anticipated more systematic documentation in the 1990s under standards established by the Historical American Engineer Record. Scholars often regard the recovery of commercially viable oil, at the Drake Well in 1859, near the town of Titusville in Western Pennsylvania as the founding moment in the modern oil industry. The subsequent oil boom in the region followed a similar trajectory to other resource booms with the arrival of workforce eager to reap the potential rewards offered by this new commodity. Over the next fifty years, the region’s various oil fields saw the construction of numerous drill rigs, wells, pumps, power stations, tank farms, pipelines, and rail connections as well as camps and towns designed to serve the oil industry. While most of the features that remain in the national forest and documented over the course of HAER assessments in the mid-1990s date to the turn of the 20th century, they nevertheless offer insights into the technologies used to facilitate oil production. Pennsylvania oil drillers adapted most of their drilling technology from the techniques used to drill for water in the region including cable tool drilling methods which relied on the impact of a bit dropped along a cable to shatter the rock at the bottom (Ross 1996, 13). Distinct from rotary drill bits employed in Texas and elsewhere in the West in the early 20th century, cable tool drilling was sufficient for relatively soft stone and shallow depths in Pennsylvania and by the 1870s drillers in the region had incorporated casing to prevent the collapse of wells during the drilling process. While the use of metal casing would become a standard feature of oil wells into the 21st century, the most distinctive and persistent characteristic of the Pennsylvania oil production was the use of central power stations to provide power to pumps which drew the oil out of non-flowing wells. Central powerhouses supported the development of wells located with the immediate vicinity of the power station and also removed the steam and later gasoline driven motors from proximity to the well themselves and their flammable resource. The maintenance of these circular powerhouses required regular attention, but also the radiating web of power rods driving the individual pumps demanded an understanding of the terrain and the larger landscape as well (Ross 1994, 76). Unlike contemporary oil fields where much of the infrastructure designed to connect wells to distribution networks, for example, exists underground, the rods emanating from central power stations make clear the interconnected nature of resources extraction on a literal and practical level.

Most efforts to document the heritage of oil production have focused on individual sites. For example, over a dozen individual oil wells from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and California are now listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. These well have generally marked the opening of various oil fields of varying degrees of regional and national significance. The documentation of the wells as frequently stressed their existing state as their integration within a wider network of relationships that facilitated commercially viable oil production. For example, Pico Canyon #4 Well in California dates to 1877 and this commercially viable well revived the oil industry in the state which had languished through the previous decade. The proximity of the Pico Canyon field to a refinery at Lyon’s Station encouraged its development, but the founding of the Pioneer Refinery in Newhall and its connection to Pico Canyon by a two-inch diameter gravity pipeline and access to the Southern Pacific Railroad line made this well particularly profitable. Of course, not all similar investments in infrastructure necessarily yielded similar results. The infamous Tea Pot Dome field in Wyoming saw massive investment from 1922-1927 before production ceased for nearly 50 years. A recent survey of the field as part of a Historic American Engineering Record documented the remains of not only oil wells, but storage tanks, pipelines, compression stations, bridges, and other features associated oil production. The Sinclair Consolidated Oil Company’s concession to develop of the Teapot Dome Field, thanks to significant bribes paid to President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall, also involved constructing several camps to house workers in this relatively remote location and provided some of them with electricity, heat, telephones, and sewage. In 2015, foundations, some bridges, capped wells, and some parts of the sewage system are all that remained in 2015.

The efforts to document sites associated with oil production in the US parallel those elsewhere in the world. For example, Canada has recognized the significance of the first commercial oil field in Oil Springs, Ontario with several wells, a central power station for pumping, and various tanks associated with oil production. Iran has designated as heritage sites associated with the discover and commercialization of oil in Khuzestan Province where a museum dedicated to petroleum history exists amid historic sites associated with the early-20th century origins of the Masjed Soleyman oil field (Amirkhani et al. 2021). The archaeology and heritage of oil foregrounds the understanding that individual sites—whether these are wells, refineries, or powerhouses—only have meaning within wider networks of related installations necessary for the transportation, refining, and distribution of oil as well as the attraction and maintenance of a worker, securing financing for the undertaking, and negotiating governmental and diplomatic regulations and obstacles. As a result, the archaeology of oil production encourages research that follows the viscous flow oil and capital as it traces relationship between various sites, institutions, technologies, and places.