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.

Three Figure Friday

One of things that separates me from “real archaeologists” is my deep distain for images in my publications. In fact, I’ve never really understood how images work in publications which isn’t to say that I don’t recognize their value. Perhaps this is what distinguishes me from my colleagues who spent their graduate school years pouring over slides upon which to base their lectures. Instead, I was thinking about what texts to use in my history surveys. 

In celebration of my inability to use images properly, I share with you three images from an article that I just submitted on the archaeology of petroleum production. You can read a draft of the article here.

Figure 1

Figure 1. View west with south and east elevations of the central powerhouse of the South Penn Oil Company, Mallory Lot 6 Lease, Watsonville Field, Klondike, McKean County, PA dating to approximately 1939. Photo by John Nicely. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa3552.photos.360884p/

Figure 2

Figure 2. Clarence Iverson No. 1, the first successful commercial well in North Dakota (source: James N. Holter, Williston, North Dakota)

Figure 3

Figure 3: Three pump jacks in Hess Corporation colors stand outside of Manitou Township in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota in 2016. Photo by William Caraher.

Semi-Final Draft of Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

This past week, I’ve made some revisions on a paper that I wrote about a class that I taught exploring the two Wesley College buildings that formerly stood on the University of North Dakota campus. It’s for an edited volume that will survey teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The paper is titled: Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter.

You can download a copy of it here.

I basically committed almost every mid-career, guy-scholar, sin in this paper. First, it overshot the word limit and then I included too many images. Today, I’m going to submit my revised version of the manuscript (which is still a bit long and includes too many images) in an effort to avoid the cardinal sin, which is turning the paper in late.

The paper considers the “mildly anarchist” approach that I used teaching the Wesley College class which not only eschewed formal grading and course design but focused on experiences and encounters rather than outcomes and objectives. The results were good even if the model that I present here was not readily adaptable to other, more formal, teaching environments.

That said, I’ve adapted some of what I did in this class to what I’m doing this semester in my “Thinking with Things” graduate seminar in the English Department. I hope to also take some of what I did in this class to my editing and publishing course next fall. So… stay tuned (or not… it’s really up to you!).

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.

Cyclonopedia and Non Linear History

I’ve been thinking more and more about how to write something on the archaeology of climate and at the same time putting the final touches on a paper on the archaeology of oil production and a seminar that looks to discuss Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) .

I’ve posted some fragments of this article herehere, and here.

This work got me thinking about the concept of supermodernity and how crushing weight of the supermodern present disrupts our relationship to the past. Any number of recent scholars have argued that the hyperabundance of the present has a tendency to overwhelm evidence for earlier periods and reduce our understanding and awareness of them to rounding errors and fragments. This line of reasoning preserves an echo of the old Enlightenment view that our evidence for the ancient world is so incomplete (compared the evidence for the 18th and 19th century “present”), that there’s very little hope reconstructing any meaningful or accurate sense of that era.  

The crushing weight of the present likewise has a tendency to compress time and disrupt the flow of the past into the future. Works like the Cyclonopedia hint at the impact of this compressed time on our perception of antiquity and experience of the modern world. In this chaotic example of speculative and philosophical fiction, the ancient past of Mesopotamia courses through the modern through the media of oil, dust, and nomads. The mystical ramblings of a renegade American special forces officer rubs shoulders with ancient deities bent on war and destruction and fueled by “hydrocarbon corpse juice” which flows from the Middle East via pipelines. The spiraling mess that is the Cyclonopedia makes it impossible to imagine any form of linear history or even causality in how we understand geopolitics and industrialization. In fact, Negarestani intentionally inverts the narrative that proposes industrialization and modernity created oil and violence on a global scale. Instead, the  power of oil is a primordial attraction and the recent eruptions of violence in the Near East have roots in the deep past that bubbles up through the present. 

The Cyclonopedia is a challenging texts so suffused in symbolism, visions, analysis, and narratives interruptions that it doesn’t model an especially useful way of thinking about the past. But in this mess of a work, there is a counter-modernity that resists the trajectories that have come to dominate the present. For example, it challenges the view, quite explicitly, that oil has somehow stunted the development of the Middle East by pushing it from premodern to postmodern without negotiating industrialization and the democratizing economic transformations associated with that trend. This view of development, of course, is not a real thing and serves merely as a justification for colonialism. But it does demonstrates how certain linear or developmental views of the past impair our ability to recognize different future (and even different presents).   

As I’ve started working on piecing together a fragmentary paper on the Bakken, Babylon, and climate change, I’m thinking more and more about how late modernity disrupts space and time. It seems like our inability to understand a future shaped by climate change has less to do with the absence of scientific data or even flaws in how scientists and policy makers have communicated that data and more to do with a reluctance to see the linear narrative of progress as inadequate for describing our present and future. A future shaped by climate change, for example, suggests the kind of catastrophe best associated with ancient states whose collapse created the opportunities for new beginnings. In this case, however, the event horizon of catastrophic social, political, and economic collapse prevents us from appropriating the future into our existing narratives. The apocalypse is foreclosed for all but science fiction writers, doomsday philosophers, and survivalists.

Without an acceptable and reliable guide to the future, we’ve doubled down on the present as the antidote for the past that exists primary as the prequel for our own catastrophism. Instead of a foundation for new ways of life or paths not taken, the past mostly lingers as a cautionary tale that subverts the potential of the present by offering a refuge for a kind of regressive (and repressive) nostalgia or is simply irrelevant beyond the specter of rising levels of atmospheric carbon, sea levels, and temperatures. Linear history can make the causal connection between industrialization and its promises of democracy, economic prosperity, and social equality and climate change, but for most, the details are irrelevant because, unlike the present proposed by Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, the modern present shaped by rationality, science, and capitalism, must provide solutions to the contemporary situation that reverse the conditions created in past. 

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.

Struggling with Revisions: Fragments and Explanations

I’m very nearly out of gas this semester and struggling mightily to finish the revisions on my book about the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Yesterday afternoon I declared myself DONE with the penultimate chapter, leaving myself one more chapter to finish before I decamp for Cyprus and Greece in mid-May.

Fortunately my final chapter is among the stronger chapters in the book or at least the most complete. The last chapter that I revised unfortunately devolved into a bit of a catch all for various elements that didn’t neatly fit into other chapters. Fortunately there was a clear thread of ideas that connect these superficially disparate concepts. The chapter starts with a discussion of industrial ruins, ruin porn, and urban decay before shifting to a discussion of protests with an emphasis on urban protests typified by the George Floyd protests of 2020 and the Occupy Movement. The final section of the chapter considers the urban context for these protests before locating the cities within more expansive networks of resources. I posted a bit of this last section last week, I think.

The most challenging element of this chapter is integrating it within the structure of my book. Those of you who read my blog consistently might remember that two case studies anchor my book: the first chapter describes the excavation of the Atari games in the Alamogordo desert and the final chapter considers my research in the Bakken oil patch. The intervening chapter trace my research into archaeology of the contemporary world as I seek to come to terms with and understand the relevance of my field work. Thus, the second half of the book considers sites and contexts that I explored in my efforts to make sense of the data collected during my time in the Bakken. As a result, the entire book serves as a pair of case studies that extends from field work to the related research that I conducted over the last decade of my academic career. 

Unfortunately, this organization means that certain things get left out of the book or, as I do in this penultimate chapter, that I encountered debates and discussions that don’t directly relate to my work in the Bakken but are nevertheless relevant for a student interested in the archaeology of the contemporary American experience more broadly. This odd move involves a bit of explanation and even some interpretative gymnastics to ensure that the entire book hangs together. At best, I nail my landings and everything comes together perfectly; at worst, parts of my book are perhaps “too authentic” representations of how messy research can be.

Today, I’m posted a bit of my lede into the chapter where I try to explain how this chapter fits into my book. It is probably more messy than elegant, but it is authentic.

The orderly arrangement of workforce housing camps offers one pole in our experience of the Bakken oil patch. Our efforts to document workforce housing camps and their wider context compelled us to engage with not only with unfamiliar forms of urbanism and settlement, but also with a vast industrial landscape. This experience led us to research not only the archaeology of camps and campuses, as we discussed in the last chapter, but also the archaeology of contemporary cities and their ruins. As we engaged with this material, we recognized the need to expand our perspectives from the tidy and controlled appearance of many workforce housing sites to the more chaotic and ad hoc arrangement of spaces of work and rest across the Bakken more broadly. The landscape reflected the tension between the aspirations for the orderly extraction of oil from sometimes unruly and reticent Bakken formation itself.

The next chapter considers the productive intersection of the archaeology of the industrial ruins, protests, and the contemporary city. As we crisscrossed the Bakken oil patch of Western North Dakota following pipelines and identifying housing, tank farms, and gas compression stations, we shared some of the experiences of urban explorers who marveled at the complexities of the industrial landscapes of factories in Detroit and hidden infrastructure in Los Angeles. At the same time, we notices evidence for past boom and anticipated the future ruins of the early 21st century frenzy of oil exploration and extractions. Reading scholarship on the archaeology of the contemporary city while witnessing the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd immediately revealed the limits of our Bakken case study for exploring the incredible outpouring of significant scholarship on the past and present of the contemporary city. As a result, this chapter gladly distends both the limits of our case-based approach to defining the field and the chronological boundaries of the contemporary world itself. As cities epitomize the juxtaposition of the physical traces of past and present experiences, they necessarily push the archaeology of the contemporary world to recognize multiple definitions of the contemporary as we noted in the introduction to this book. Recent protests whether along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline or amid the monuments of the city remind us that the past is very much present in the contemporary world and encourage us to continually challenge overly narrow disciplinary definitions of chronology and space. While this chapter originated amid the drill rigs and tank farms of the contemporary Bakken oil boom, it will go beyond the questions of extraction, industrial production, and urbanism to show how archaeology of the contemporary world offers opportunities to critique the expectations of capitalism and modern aspirations for production and consumption. Scenes of protest set against the overstated claims of economic development as well as the haunting specters of abandonment and decay trace the uneven rewards of capitalism and the blurry boundaries between the human and natural worlds. 

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.

The Archaeology of Cities and Race

Last week, I started to revise the penultimate chapter of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience and like most of my revisions, my reviewers chided me more for sins of omission than sins of commission. As a result, I’m working to beef up some sections of my book and to incorporate more recent scholarship. 

Chapter 7 considers how archaeology of the contemporary world has contributed to the archaeology of cities, protests, and industrial ruins. You can check out the first draft of that chapter here, if you want. Below is the first part of the section that I added over the last week which focuses more on race and urbanism in recent work on the archaeology of post-war America.

Mullins’ work elsewhere in Indianapolis provides greater context to the emergence of Black suburbs in this city. The establishment of the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) in the city in 1969 led to the destruction of neighborhoods occupied by African American families. Efforts at urban renewal led city leaders to designate many of these neighborhoods slums in the post-war decades and to authorize their demolition as part of the university’s expansion. Archaeological work by Paul Mullins and colleagues, demonstrated that this blanket designation overwrote the complex history of these neighborhoods and supported narratives that reinforced negative view of Black urban residents. At the turn of the 20th century, the ethnically and racially diverse community succumbed to more racially segregated housing practices which resulted in these neighborhoods becoming the home to a growing population of Black migrants to Indianapolis. The reluctance of white city leaders to extend utilities and services to these neighborhood and the neglect of absentee white landlords resulted in the continued use of outhouses to serve a population swollen by war time migrants to the area. Mullins archaeological excavations of boarding houses, residences, and privies beneath the IUPUI campus along side archival and oral histories demonstrated that despite the material poverty of these neighborhoods, there continued to be vibrant social life, creative economic strategies, and ongoing aesthetic investment in these communities (Mullins 2003, 2004, 2011). By revealing the dynamics of life within these communities in the mid-20th century, Mullins work demonstrated how their identification by city leaders as blighted slums reinforced the legacy of racial inequality and overwrote both the processes that led to their material poverty and the resilience of the groups who made these neighborhoods home.

Krysta Ryzewki’s work on Detroit perhaps provides the most fully realized example of the potential for the archaeology of American cities to trace the range of experiences encountered by their residents. In earlier chapters, we discussed how her work to document the iconic Detroit music scene revealed the economic, social, spatial, and performative dimensions of the Blue Bird jazz club and the Grande Ballroom. Her urban excavations and survey projects throughout Detroit followed many of the same processes that Mullins documented across Indianapolis. Her excavations at Gilded Age mansion the Ransom Gillis house, for example, revealed more about the home’s subsequent history as a boarding house and a grocery serving a diverse range of white immigrants than its more glamorous past. Its renovation in the early 21st century as part of a larger gentrification project in the neighborhood which restored the mansion in ways that evoked its early 20th century history at the expense of its later life. Ryzewski’s work at Gordon Park, which now stands at the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit uprising, further revealed the ways in which the city and its communities negotiated the sometimes painful history of racial animosity. Gordon Park today stands at the site of the Economy Printing building where the Detroit uprising began and the city constructed the park as part of its larger effort to remove the damaged, ruined, and vacant buildings in the aftermath of the riots. Ryzewski’s field work demonstrated a history of local ambivalence and neglect at the park itself which reflected the complex attitudes associated with understanding the racial history of the city and its uprising. The pain associated with the 1967 uprising only gave way some 50 years after the event when Gordon Park received a thoughtful renovation in an effort not only to commemorate the painful legacy of racial tension in the city but also to provide a space for the local community to gather, reflect, and socialize.

Mullins’, Matthew’s, Ryzewski’s work highlights the complex legacies of urban renewal, racial tension, and violence in the American past and demonstrates how archaeological work can produce more complex and inclusive narratives from sites characterized as blighted, slums, or ruins. Recent work to expand our understanding of the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa destroyed by the US government in 1921, for example, has emphasized its economic vitality. Recent work to excavate and repatriate the remains of Black residents discovered in an unmarked mass grave has emphasized the human scale of the massacre. The 100th anniversary of the race massacre coincided with growing protests against racially motivated police protests to bring to the fore the long history of officially sanctioned violence against Black Americans particularly in US cities. Edward González-Tennant’s efforts to document the site of the black town of Rosewood, Florida which was destroyed by white rioters in 1923. His work placed the nearly contemporary Tulsa riots within a broader context of racial violence in the first quarter of the 20th century. While these events fall earlier than the main periods of study in this book, there is no doubt that the destroyed lives, wealth, and community had reverberations throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

Historical archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have increasingly come to recognize the intersection of race and urbanism in the US often involved identifying artifacts that reflect the transnational character of many of these communities. Recent work by Edward González-Tennant, Barbara Voss, and Laura Ng have demonstrated that understanding the place of Chinese immigrants in contemporary urbanism requires the same kind of transnational attention as understanding borders and migrants, the archaeology of the Cold War, and the character of contemporary consumer culture (González-Tennant 2011; Voss 20xx, Ng 2021; see Rose and Kennedy 2020 for a survey of Chinese diaspora archaeology in the US) . Laura Ng’s recent dissertation on the archaeology of early 20th century Chinatowns in Riverside and San Bernardino, California, for example, reveals a material culture and social strategies that developed as much in mainland Chinese communities with long traditions of transnational migration as in an American context (Ng 2021). Ng conducted surveys in two Chinese home village associated with Southern California Chinatowns and demonstrated not only the transpacific circulation of ceramics vessel types, for example, but also the construction of religious shrines with ties to home villages in China that supported both communities’ hope for agricultural prosperity. Barbara Voss and Edward González-Tennant likewise noted that multisite methods supported more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of Chinese urban communities which found economic and often extralegal ways to maintain ties with their home villages. These ties continued to shape Chinese material culture and architecture in American cities even as American efforts sought to homogenize Chinese immigrants according to race and to make movement between China and the US more difficult. While this kind of transnational work remains relatively new in historical archaeology, the work of the historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz on neighborhoods in Chicago and Dallas with high number of Mexican immigrants demonstrates the significance for these approaches for understanding the changing nature of American urbanism. He argues that these neighborhood with their small businesses, hight rate of home ownership, and tight knit communities have adopted economic and social patterns consistent with communities in Mexico (Sandoval-Strausz 2019). Thus, new urbanist fantasies anchored in nostalgic views of life in American cities have given way to the often more informal realities of transnational forms of urbanism.

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.