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


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.