An Archaeology of Structural Violence

This weekend, I read Michael Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a 20th Century Coal Town (2018). It’s a pretty compelling book that considers the history and archaeology of Lattimer No. 2 (later Pardeesville), Pennsylvania from its origins as a company town for a local coal baron to its late 20th and 21st century history as a community struggling to adapt to changing economic realities. The book is pretty complex and it contributes to quite a few of my ongoing research areas from life in boom and bust communities to archaeology of the contemporary world, borders and immigration, and the role of modernity in creating contemporary labor regimes.

While this book deserves a formal review, I simply don’t have time this week (and it’s really short enough that it deserves to be read in full). So here are some of my key take aways:

1.  Immigrants and Identity. The residents of Lattimer No. 2 largely consisted of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and their status as immigrants had a significant effect on their economic and social status. Roller linked the late-19th century process of national building and borders as a key step in defining the status of these groups. During the process of immigration, individuals lost identities bound up in their social and political status in the old country, and entered the US as individuals defined by their passports and their names inscribed on ship manifests, immigration ledgers, and, ultimately employment paperwork. Following the work of Giorgio Agamben (and others), Roller understand this transformation as a key step in creating the modern individual as “bare life” who the state can transform through a new set of political and economic relationships experienced in part through the immigration process. 

Organized labor in Pennsylvania coal country and the role of the state in suppressing the power of labor to resist the economic imperatives of mine owners represented another step in the process of redefining the social and political status of residents of Lattimer No. 2. In this context, the Lattimer massacre, when the local police supplemented by deputized mining company managers opened fire in striking immigrant workers killing several and wounding many others. Efforts to break the power of organized labor reinforced the atomized economic and political status of labor in relation to the mining companies. This prepared the way for the late-20th century, post-coal economy in the region where casual, light industrial jobs came and went based on the vicissitudes of global capital.

Ironically, this economic volatility not only led to large scale out-migration from Pennsylvania coal country, but also encouraged the arrival of another wave of immigrants from South America and the Caribbean who took advantage of the low cost of housing and availability of unskilled work. Like the Italian and Slavic immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, these groups have also been met with xenophobia and discrimination.

2. Corporate Town and Shanty Town. Lattimer No. 2 was originally a company town owned the local coal company. Neatly arranged duplexes lined the main street of town and provided housing for employees. On the outside of town, however, recent immigrants constructed and adapted a small group of shanties. The residents of this community represented local surplus labor who found occasional work around the fringes of the increasingly mechanized coal mining process. Roller’s excavation of a privy and several other plots in this former shanty enclave demonstrated that the residents of these ad hoc were not only marginalized economically in their relationship to the coal industry, but also geographically in relationship to the traditional, corporate owned housing of the main town.

The artifacts recovered from excavations around this shanty town reveal the way in which these individuals were integrated into the local, national, and ultimately global economy. Roller unpacks the significance of the increasing presence of goods produced through industrial practices in the shanty town assemblage more fully in an article published last year in Historical Archaeology. I discuss that article here.

Over the same period that more and more manufactured goods appear in the Shanty town assemblage, the shanty town itself undergoes significant architectural changes as it shifts from a series of closely spaced and related ad hoc structures to nearly organized properties sold as real estate and, today, to the appearance of a typical American suburb.

Roller’s work on the Shanty Town certainly shed light on my work in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota where we documented both formal, corporate owned workforce housing sites and more casual RV park-type camps. The latter, it would seem to me, shared many of the characteristics of the Lattimer No. 2 Shanty Town with their abundance of ad hoc structures, adaptive strategies designed to make life in North Dakota more comfortable, and residents who as often worked in services that supported the core extractive industries of the Bakken oil boom. 

3. Historical Archaeology and the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Roller is deliberate in his understanding of Lattimer No. 2 and Pardeesville as a contemporary community that continues to struggle with the structural violence of its legacy as a corporate coal town. The most obvious example of this is the systemic alienation of its residents from the close knit communities that existed in Southern and Eastern Europe prior to immigrant and the reconfiguration of these relationships through organized labor, the church, and life in the Lattimer No. 2’s Shanty Town.

The collapse of the mining industry and the rise in more casual labor constantly reinforced the primacy of the individual in the social and economic regime of the modern world. Projects like urban renewal which led to the clearing of many of the ad hoc structures from Pardeesville and affordable housing in nearby Hazelton, further eroded collective strategies to enjoy life and survive economically in the volatile economy of Pennsylvania coal country. This kind of structural violence ultimately did little to improve the quality of life for residents of this region, but did produce a pool of low cost labor of periodic utility to global capital.

The book does much more than these three points indicate and it is well worth the time to give it a read!

Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: Five Chapters

A couple of years ago, I watched one of my buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

To date, I have completed five chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. I recognize, for example, that there is a vast body of scholarship on digital archaeology that I have overlooked in this chapter.

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the five of the first six chapters:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

Walling In and Walling Out

This weekend, I read Laura MacAtackney and Randall Maguire’s new edited volume Walling In and Walling Out: Why Are We Building New Barriers to Divide Us? (2020). The contributions offer a diverse range of studies on walls and borders that draw upon the perspectives informed by archaeology, sociology, and anthropology as well as public policy. For readers broadly familiar with recent conversations around walls and borders will find both the usual suspects (Reese Jones, Anna McWilliams as well as the volume’s editors), and some new perspectives on the borders of Europe (Dimitrios Papadopoulos), the role of walls in racial segregation in Puerto Rico (Zaire Disney-Flores) and Palestine (Amahl Bishara) and the Mexican-American border (Michael Dear and Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barriga). 

I came away from reading this book with a few new ideas that I will eagerly apply to some of my work-in-progress.

1. “Borderwork” and “Boundary Work.” Dimitris Papadopoulos introduces the idea of “boundary work” which echoes with Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s idea of “borderwork” from their book, Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond (2019). These ideas emphasize that borders and boundaries are not limited to activities at the border itself, but permeate the surrounding landscapes and societies as part of a larger apparatus of control. The ability, for example, of the Customs and Border Patrol agents to work outside almost all Constitutional limits on their authority within 100 miles of the US border is perhaps the most obvious example of how borderwork extends itself geographically. More subtle, but no less significant, is the massive and largely unsupervised technological infrastructure that supports this work that collects information on millions of individuals with few limits on who can use this data and how it can be used. Moreover, the promotion of a kind of ethical and legal ambiguity surrounding the rights of individuals at the borders themselves has worked to reinforce the risks associated with the movement between jurisdiction. Much of this risk is not real, but by exaggerating the ambiguity of individual rights at these points, the CBP both asserts its power and reinforces the idea that borders are fraught and dangerous. It goes without saying that this ambiguity and attendant sense of danger and risk has also served those invested in politicizing borders, immigration, national security, and even trade. All this is part of a larger process of borderwork.  

2. Temporality and the Border. A number of authors emphasized the unique temporal dimension of borders not only historically, but also experientially. From a historical perspectives, borders present themselves as solid and persistent, but our experiences over the last 50 years has demonstrated that this is not always the case. The collapse of the “Iron Curtain,” the reconfiguration of national boundaries in the Balkans and Central Europe, the emergence of the European Union, and new immigration agreements between countries ensure that the permanence of borders is largely illusory.

Temporality also shapes our interaction with borders. The experience of waiting in line whether at passport control at an airport or while sitting in the car at a busy point of entry, communicates the significance of the border at the individual level. At the same time, a series of technologies accelerate the collecting and sharing of information between agents at the border and the vast national and global security apparatus. The tension between the time experienced by an individual and the speed of information collection reinforces the status of borders as landscape of control just as the seeming permanence of border installations obscures their historical fluidity.    

3. Borders as Bricolage. A few contributors noted that borders are places where technologies and policies from various times and situations come together to create distinctive spaces. The use of concrete barriers and barbed wire which became prominent in anti-tank and anti-personnel developed over the first half of the 20th century rub shoulders with state-of-the-art digital technologies ranging from high-speed cameras to thermal imaging, motion detection devices, and massive data infrastructures designed to identify and track individuals. Helicopter mats, first deployed in the Vietnam War, appear alongside installations to support small scale and weapons-capable drones.

This juxtaposition of technologies from various eras offers a view of borders that are both timeless and always evolving. More than that, from the perspective of material culture, they show how aspects of the past persist in the present and communicate the kind of ambiguity and multiple temporalities central to borderwork.    

4. Wall and the Carceral State. The book is not just about national borders, but also the kind of walls that shape our every day lives. From the “peace walls” that divide denominational communities in Belfast and to gated communities in contemporary Puerto Rico, walls also produce and reinforce divisions on the basis of race, class, and ethnicity. Moreover, as Laura MacAtachney has pointed out, these walls tend to formalize past divisions and create “very localized forms of place identity” that risk the creation of new forms hostility and division. 

There was less discussion of the emergence of the carceral state in the late-20th century and the role of prison walls as a kind of borderwork which extends throughout the emerging security state. It seems easy enough to see law enforcement with their interest in protecting property represent an extension of the private prison industry which requires a constant flow of inmates to reward investors. 

5. Floodwalls, Sea Walls, and Nature. Missing in the book, but part of my everyday life, was a discussion of floodwalls and seawalls that mark efforts for humans to exert control over the other that they typically define as “nature.”  These walls, of course, take on many of the historical forms of fortification walls whether earthworks or textured to look like Classical ashlar masonry. 

Moreover, the flood walls in town are part of a larger strategy of borderwork which extends on either side of the wall. On the town side, pump houses appear throughout neighborhoods and provide back pressure to prevent the rising river water from entering town via storm drains and sewers. On the river side, various structures have been removed and a large green belt is maintained to allow the river to flow smoothly through town without becoming dammed and over flowing the walls locally. Of course, like most walls, these are permeable with storm drains and waste flowing through the wall to the river and during most of the year, roads also cross the walls providing access to parks and walking trails. Bridges cross the river as well.

The borderwork extends north, of course, to the national border with Canada. Strategies to control the flow of the Red River in Grand Forks, Fargo, and elsewhere impacts the flow of water across the border. Devil’s Lake, for example, continues to rise and swallow up farmland and towns because releasing the water into the Red River drainage would carry run-off and other pollutants north to Canada, Lake Winnipeg, and the Hudson Bay. 

It seems to me that the flood walls provide a concrete example of the way that we establish the division between culture and nature and this involves using the same walls that work to define human groups to define the blurry edges of our cultural reach. 

Iconoclasm and the Suburbs

I’ve been watching with rapt attention the destruction of various statues in the US (and abroad) as a part of the larger protest against racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. I went to college in Richmond, Virginia, my father grew up in Richmond and my parents were married at St. John’s on Stuart Circle where my grandmother played the organ and my uncle sang in the choir, and I remember even as a kid being fascinated by the monuments along Monument Avenue. 

Since my days in Richmond, I’ve thought a bit about the destruction of statues in antiquity. In fact, we included an article by Troels Myrup Kristensen in the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology primarily because of Myrup Kristensen’s interest in the fate of pagan statues in Late Antiquity. Myrup Kristensen shows the various acts of iconoclasm directed toward pagan statues was part of the Christian tradition from as early as the 2nd century AD. Béatrice Caseu, for example, has shown that communities sometimes intentionally buried statues of both pagan gods and even emperors. There is ample evidence for the manipulation and mutilation of sculpture in the Late Roman period that reflects efforts to limit the power tied to the images of non-Christian deities, to convert them to Christianity, or to make them more palatable for Christian use. Finally, some of my favorite buildings in Greece and Cyprus are churches that either survived Byzantine iconoclasm (like the Panagia tis Angeloktistis at Kiti or Os. David in Thessaloniki) or show the signs of the process (especially Ay. Sophia in Thessaloniki). 

As a 21st century observer, then, I’ve been excited to follow examples of iconoclasm as it plays out weekly at sites across the US and recognize it not as a kind of historical aberration, but as part of a long tradition of symbolic violence directed at statues and monuments associated with despised, rejected, or dangerous ideas, groups, and history. Indeed, I’d argue that the ritualized destruction of the statues will likely leave a much greater mark in the historical and archaeological record than the far more common and less controversial removal or modification of monuments as part of the changing fashion and requirements in the urban landscape. Just as the mutilated examples of Late Roman statues and the spectral traces of Byzantine iconoclasm allow us to return to those ancient situations, so the images of the decorated and defaced statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia will allow people to return to the events of 2020 and consider both the methods and motivations as well as the results of these protests. What’s happening to statues over the last few months is a kind of damnatio memoriae that intentionally leaves traces on the monument or on the landscape making the act of removing, defacing, or repurposing the statue visible as a reminder of the moment and the movement. To my mind, if preserved properly, the fate of the statues on Monument Avenue and elsewhere could preserve a genuinely democratic and popular moment in the carefully curated landscape of American urbanism.  

Over the last few months, I’ve also started to think more carefully and systematically about the changes in contemporary settlement and urbanism that have occurred since World War II. Among the most dramatic changes is the growth of suburbs and the changing demography and organization of American cities which endured various forms of “White Flight,” efforts at urban renewal, and the significant changes the urban landscape as it became dissected by interstate highways and reconfigured to accommodate the steep increase in vehicle traffic and commuters. The social, political, and economic landscape of cities also changed over this time with the gap between the rich and poor in many cities widening, the decline in urban manufacturing jobs and small businesses, and the uneven benefits and pressures experienced through 21st-century gentrification and renewal efforts inspired by the “new urbanism.” As a result many monuments erected in the early 20th century context stand in significantly different contexts in the 21st century as the communities who live with these statues seek to redefine their identities in response to new challenges and expectations. While each city is different, it is clear the 21st-century Richmond residents felt sufficiently empowered to challenge the relevance of white, male, Confederate, Civil War veterans as acceptable representatives of their identity.  

More importantly to me, however, is the growth of suburbs in second half of the 20th century. Few suburbs featured the kinds of public spaces where figural monuments would be appropriate. The common public areas in the suburbs were parks and green spaces designed to evoke more bucolic settings or as spaces organized around sports such as baseball, soccer, or golf. Developers arranged roads in suburban areas not as potential settings for monumental displays, but as efficient connectors linking home with work, shopping, worship, and play. Indeed, if any place in the suburbs provided a kind of public space as existed in 19th and early-20th century cities, it might be the suburban shopping mall where the engagement with consumer culture shaped identities rather than heroic statues and monuments. Of course, houses of worship, and churches in particular, also provided spaces for public gathering, but modernist, suburban churches tend to be rather aniconic as well. Schools also stand as public spaces in the suburbs, but like suburban churches, adaptable, functional architecture took priority over more rigid and monumental urban spaces. Moreover, efforts to preserve a sense of common scale mitigated against overt monumentality even in large buildings and certainly offered little space for the kind of figural monuments that have been the target of iconoclastic ire in recent years. As a result, the daily experience of middle and upper class white suburban dwellers was distinctly devoid of figural monuments and monumentality in general outside the odd shopping mall, office park, or church. 

Of course, folks living in suburbs knew about figural monuments. They remained visible in urban areas, but rather than being part of everyday life, they became symbols of urban and historical otherness. They no longer represented the kind of ongoing negotiation of a shared identity and history. The city and its monuments were not a lived space, but a kind of museum. In fact, for most people, the idea of erecting a figural statue to a prominent pubic figure today seems absurd and more the domain of tin-pot dictators than civic minded individuals or groups.

Acknowledging this, many, but not all, of the most prominent new monuments on the National Mall, for example, eschew figural depictions all together. The World War II memorial, for example, uses its imposing size to communicate the scale of events. The more subtle Vietnam War memorial does the opposite by reducing the scale of monument to something more accessible to visitors, perhaps evoking the suburban, everyday, as a way both to stand out in the larger-than-life surroundings of the National Mall and to communicate the cost of the war on a more human scale. Even monuments to individuals, such as the FDR Memorial, which does feature figural depictions of Franklin Roosevelt, uses life-size scale to emphasize the President’s humanity. In short, the kind of monumental figural depictions that have so often have attracted the attention of protestors, activists, and iconoclasts, are perhaps less popular because so many of us live within a de-monumentalized modern world. In fact, these monuments stand outside of our conceptual universe even at times when we seek to memorialize prominent events and civic leaders. 

This is consistent, of course, with a wider view of history popular since the mid-20th century which has questioned the singular role of great individual in history and, instead, argued that events more often represent the confluence of social forces, economic systems, institutions, and various “structures” such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity. By de-emphasizing the heroic character of individuals in the past, we both succeed in making past individuals more human (as the Vietnam Memorial reflects in highly affective ways) and in understanding the great power of common attitudes, beliefs, and situations which compel us to act as individuals with often overwhelming force (as the massive scale of the World War II memorial suggests). Of course, this way of seeing the past is not separate from a view of the present that privileges the impersonal character of modern architecture, for example, that reflects flexibility, efficiency, and convenience as a response to larger social forces.

There are, of course, exceptions to rather monument-less experience of modern life. For example, the recent trend toward erecting statues of sports figures in the area around urban sports arenas marks these spaces serve to leverage the impact of statues as a way to connect visitors to their favorite teams. If statues in urban areas initially served to create a sense of shared experience, history, and identity with the viewer, the use of figural statues outside sports venues served to stir a sense of identification with the team. The team, of course, is a privately owned venture which depends on ticket paying attendees, public support for facilities, and, revenue from fans buying clothes and other personal objects as ways to demonstrate their loyalty. 

College and universities likewise occasionally erect figural statues, but universities often use anachronistic rituals, traditions, architectural forms, and landscapes to communicate a sense of gravity, persistence, and significance. Of course, like sports teams, many of these traditions, rituals, and monuments have as much to do with creating a special sense of attachment among students and alumni that warrants ever rising tuition costs and encourages continued support of the institution’s mission. Even public universities and colleges are increasingly becoming private ventures where appeals to potential donors and tuition payers plays a major role in how an institution represents its past.

Outside these exceptions, then, the post-war suburban world which has done so much to shape our politics, economy, and social life, is largely devoid of monumental, figural monuments. In fact, most of suburban life is spent in an endless series of historically indistinct, non-places consisting of gently contoured streets with rustic names, endlessly-modified and reconfigured modernist churches and schools, convenient and formless shopping centers surrounded by parking, and glass-walled offices and cubicles.

In this context, the response of many suburban dwellers to the attacks on largely urban monuments makes a kind of sense. If “white guilt” plays an important role in shaping race relations in the US, I would gently suggest that the negative response to the destruction of monumental statues in the US also reflects a kind of guilt. This guilt recognizes that with the emergence of modern suburbs, white suburban dwellers have lost the ability to assert a sense of the public past in their everyday life. This is not to suggest that the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue represent a view of the past that all members of the Richmond community embraced in the past or celebrate today. They obviously never did and do not now. They do reflect, however, the past efforts of a certain group of citizens to produce a sense of common heritage that reinforced their own right to speak for the community. Many Richmond residents and citizens, both then and now, find these monuments deeply offensive.

In this context, the monumental landscape of the first half of the 20th century takes on particular significance. White suburb-dwellers recognize that they have not been good stewards of their view of history. Between trends within the discipline that look beyond the influence of “great men” to larger social forces and the changing character of American society, the work to assert the importance of great white individuals ceased at the very moment when suburbs began to rapidly sprout around major urban areas. Punitive cuts to education and especially the humanities, ambivalence or even hostility toward cultural institutions, and the rise of a kind of fragmented and banal modernity speak to new forms of public and private life that privilege efficiency and economic advancement in a competitive market. 

The anxiety that the removal of these monuments will result in the loss of history, which is almost certainly not the case, reflects the fears and guilt of two generations of largely white Americans who found a common experience in convenience, consumerism, and efficiency which allowed them to avoid the difficult task of negotiating, asserting, or memorializing a public view of the past. They viewed the urban monuments from the first half of the 20th century as adequate and invested their energies in celebrating the past of sports teams, universities and colleges, and private institutions.

Fortunately, others have stepped up and taken on the task of redefining public space, and the results have been spectacular. 

Archaeology of the Cold War

This week, I read Todd Hanson’s little volume titled The Archaeology of the Cold War (2016). It’s a survey of Cold War sites primarily in the US followed by a discussion of some issues related to preservation and access. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is that it brings together a good bit of “grey literature” associated with field work on US military bases and around other Cold War sites eligible for the National Register nominations. At the same time Hanson also summarizes some recent work done at the Nevada Test Site Peace Camp. That being said, it is clear that Hanson mainly understood the archaeology of the Cold War as existing on the level of institutions. 

In general, the book is more descriptive and summative than interpretative per se, but it does offer a few useful observations regarding the distinct character of Cold War sites.  

1. Vanishing Cold War Heritage

One of the most interesting observations that Hanson offered was that Cold War sites – despite their often massive proportions – are often quite ephemeral. Not only does their starkly functional nature make them designed for repurposing which can often destroy evidence for earlier use, but the vagaries of funding, military strategy, and the rapid changes in technology mean that sites often become obsolete or unnecessary.

Hanson uses the well-known (at least locally) example of the Nekoma Pyramid (aka “Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex Missile Site Radar”) outside of Grand Forks which despite its imposing design and dimensions was only used for around 4 months. Research sites often lasted only as long the programs before being decommissioned, repurposed, or demolished. Sites like the craters left behind by a failed missile test not only preserved evidence for the kind of missile which allowed archaeologists to identify the failed test, but also allowed them to consider the fragility of the site itself and what steps could be used to preserve it. 

2. Limits of Texts in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Another challenge facing the archaeologist of late 20th and 21st century institutions – like the military – is explaining how and why the material culture of these institutions can tell us something that, say, documentary sources cannot. Hanson makes the point that for military installation, the documentary record is often classified, or, caught in the massive backlog of documents waiting to be declassified. As significantly, individuals who served at many of these sites often view their knowledge as secret and are reluctant to share even incidental details that were likely never classified for the start. As a result, the documentary and ethnographic record for Cold War sites tends to be problematic and the archaeology of Cold War sites offers a key supplement to what we know about this period.

These sites also offer a complement to official documentation and oral histories as they might reveal differences between what recorded history or memory established as happening and what the material culture suggest occurred. 

3. Toxic Landscapes.

The toxicity of the modern is something that I’d love to develop more fully in my little book, but I probably won’t. Toxic landscapes are such a part of the modern world that the  field of “toxic” and “dark” tourism has developed for intrepid travelers who want to see sites of horrific destruction or sites of toxic contamination. No place is more famous for these kinds of excursion as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but it is also now possible to visit areas in the Nevada Test Site. These landscapes have varying degrees of toxicity having been exposed to radioactive fallout. Excavation at the sites runs the risk of exposing the archaeologist to this contamination and has created a barrier to archaeological work.

More mundane dangers, of course, abound in the context of Cold War archaeology from asbestos, to lead based paints and finishes, unexploded ordinance, and other distinctively military hazards. The distinctive forms of documentation, care, and fieldwork associated with Cold War landscapes offer perspectives on archaeology of the contemporary world more broadly. We live in a toxic, modern world.  

4. Issues of Access and Preservation. 

Finally, I thought some of Hanson’s observations on the need to document Cold War sites as a way to make up for challenge of access. Many Cold War sites remain deep inside active military bases with restricted access. The cycles of obsolescence, repurposing, and decay impact Cold War sites – as most modern sites – at varying rates, but the shifting nature of modern warfare and diplomatic relations has lent many of these sites a particular ephemerality. 

Maybe that’s what made the book so compelling. It’s not just that the Cold War has a particularly prominent place in my childhood memories, but the tension between my personal experiences and the passage of time that made this book and thinking about the archaeology of the Cold War so interesting.

Race, Expulsions, Homelessness, and Migrants

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter that looks at the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrants and homelessness. You can read it backwards, in a sense, from here. My book is a short survey of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, so as a result, it required that I make some difficult organizational choices. Among these was combining the archaeology of migration and homelessness.

My instinct was to combine these two because they both represented archaeological work designed to make visible groups and processes that a range of forces, practices, institutions, and policies have worked (with varying levels of success) to make invisible. As such the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration and homelessness sought to reveal the injustice inherent in how society and policies treat these groups of people. In many ways, this interpretation is at very least not inconsistent with the intent of the scholars who study these phenomenon. At its most compelling, the invisibility of migrants contrasts with the hyper visibility of border security measures. Documented migrants endure security theater while undocumented migrants move in the shadows. Among the homeless a degree of invisibility ensures security from a state that has made homelessness a crime.

Having written about 75% of the chapter, I found this basic approach effective, but a bit unsatisfying. It seemed to locate the status of the homeless and migrants in the realm of US policy rather than as part of larger global trends. To be clear, I don’t mean to downplay the role of deliberate US actions in creating the economic disparities that cause homelessness and the displacement of millions of people from Central and South America. At the same time, the trends that worked to create homelessness and the movement of groups as a global phenomena extend beyond the policies of individual states and speak to patterns of action grounded colonialism, racism, and capitalism. 

So this weekend, I spent some time with Saskia Sassen’s book Expulsions (2014). Sassen argues that the mass displacement of people on a global scale and the rise of homelessness in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 recession are related phenomenon. Using archaeological (but post-structural) metaphor, Sassen argues that these phenomena emerge from an assemblage of institutions, policies, and practices occurring simultaneously on the global and local levels. global corporations that are most frequently centered in the “Global North” have acquired tremendous wealth. Nation-states have increasingly seen these companies as necessary partners in their efforts to extract natural resources from the “Global South,” to employ their citizens, and to provide infrastructure, goods, and wealth for the functioning of the state. As a result, states (in collaboration with transnational organizations like the IMF and the World Bank) have found themselves increasingly beholden to the financial health of these companies and have sought, on the one hand, to support their right to low cost labor pools, to extract natural resources, and to move freely across borders and, on the other hand, have worked to mitigate the environmental, military, and demographic disasters that this system propagates on a global scale, but only insofar as these disaster impair the ability of the system to generate wealth. 

The mass displacement of people in the Middle East, South and Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa is a result of an assemblage of institutions, agents, and polices, largely centered on the Global North, which privilege the accumulation of wealth over the integrity of local economies, environmental concerns, or local claims to sovereignty. The resulting displacement of people in the form of mass migrations is a byproduct of this assemblage of forces that the nation-state has taken the lead in mitigating through what Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallett have called “borderwork” in their study of “the Jungle” migrant camps around Calais in France

Sassen’s sees this system also at work in the recessions triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. A series of complex financial mechanisms triggered this crisis which led to an unprecedented series of home foreclosures and evictions in the U.S. As Mathew Desmond (2016) has shown in his landmark study of evictions, the view of homes and property as investments rather than as places for people to live has produced a system where evictions are financial necessities.

For Desmond, this system has produced a class of people who struggle to remain housed  because eviction process undermines many of the practical requirements necessary to pay rent, to achieve financial security, and to escape from a cycle of precarity. Something as seemingly simple as the difficulty in maintaining a stable address makes it harder to keep a job, keep children enrolled in schools, and ultimately to acquire the resources necessary to escape a cycle of eviction. As a result, evictions beget evictions with intergenerational impacts. 

Desmond’s book demonstrates that evictions work hand-in-hand with a continuum of homelessness that ranges from sleeping on the street to sleeping in cars, in shelters, with friends, and in squats and other forms of substandard housing. In this context, the work of scholars such as Larry Zimmerman and his colleagues, which tends to emphasize the material culture associated with “sleeping rough,” identifies only one moment in a wider range of strategies in the struggle to survive in a world where housing is a not a right, but an investment. As a result, this work doesn’t deal as much with systemic issues at the root of homelessness which often manifest themselves and reproduce racist policies and practices.   

I is hardly surprising, then, that single women of color are particularly vulnerable to evictions is consistent with their position of economic precarity. Racial profiling practices by landlords contributes directly to the evictions and this reinforces the practical, social and economic systems that produce homelessness. Homelessness, lack of education, and endemic poverty in the African American community contribute to higher rates of incarceration which in turn limits economic opportunities and reinforces precarity. 

These processes feed the persistence of racial attitudes along economic, educational, and social lines in much the same way that borders serve to produce racial and ethnic identities along national lines. In this context, the growing attention to borders both within US society, in the form of mass incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness, and between the US and the “Global South” reflect systems of expulsion formed by a wide range of institutions and policies at play on a global scale. Just as archaeology can provide insights into the global working of consumer culture, the study of the material culture of migrants and the homeless provide insights into practices of exclusion and expulsion that are part of the same economy that produces iPhones. 

Transitional Paragraphs: From the Archaeology of Migrants to Homelessness

Transitional paragraphs are really hard in the best of circumstances, and I’m finding them pretty tricky when writing a survey of a new discipline they’re even more complicated. 

I spent the last few days thinking about how to combine some strange topics such as the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration and the archaeology of homelessness. This is part of the chapter that I’m currently writing in my book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. Here’s the intro to the chapterthe first substantive section, and the section that I wrote last week.

Forced Migrants and the Archaeology of Homelessness

Recent work on the archaeology of forced migration has invariably considered refugee camps as an important locus for understanding the experience of migration. Archaeologists have joined architectural historians, anthropologists, and policy makes in an effort to understand the role of camps, squats, and other forms of migrant settlement contribute to formation of migrant identities both within their communities and in their host countries. While relatively little of this research has taken place in the US, the global nature of forced migrants and its relationship to foreign policy, military interventions, climate change and humanitarian activities has made the forced and undocumented movement of people a global constant. Migrant settlements, whether defined by the borders of refugee camps or the more fluid spaces of squats and shelters, have become spaces where individuals and groups preserve and define identities outside of the legal and territorial definitions of the nation-state. In this regard, the work of archaeologists in understanding and documenting the migrant experiences parallels recent work to document homelessness and ways in which homeless individuals create a sense of home, place, and identity.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the work of Rachel Kiddey in Europe, for example, focused on the archaeology of homelessness in England and has since shifted to study refugees as part of her “Migrant Materialities” project. Drawing on the larger “material turn” in migrant studies (Wang 2016; Basu and Coleman 2008), Kiddey published three portraits that contextualize some aspects of migrant in Athens, Greece: a collectively run squat in a former tourist hotel, a UNHCR funded refugee settlement in another hotel, and a community center operated as a co-operative (Kiddely 2018). Her use of ethnography and archaeology in these contexts follows from her groundbreaking work on the archaeology of homelessness in the UK. Kiddey embraced a “translational” approach to her research. The concept, as developed by Larry Zimmerman, Courtney Singleton, and Jessica Welsch (2010), proposed a view of archaeology that translated archaeological work and analysis into research of use to policy makers. He emphasized the need for archaeologists to share their authority as a way to complicate the distinction between our status as archaeologists and the status of migrants or the homeless as “the Other.” (Zimmerman et al. 2010, 444-446). While such activist archaeology is hardly seems like a radical proposition in the 21st century, the specifics regarding the methods, ethical consideration, and goals of these activist practices are deeply situated in local contexts. For Kiddey, translational practice manifest itself in her close collaboration with members of the homeless community not only through the excavation, documentation, and interpretation of their material culture but also in their collaborative efforts to present it to both a wider public and an academic audience through lectures and exhibitions (2017). De León and his project, while not as collaborative in design as Kiddey’s work, nevertheless shared its translational emphasis in its efforts to communicate their results through installations and exhibits and to produce a more politically aware society.

More Writing Thursday: Borders and Migrants

Over the last week, I’ve continued to work on the fifth chapter on my little book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. This chapter, as I set out last week, reviews the archaeology of forced migration and refugees as well as the archaeology of homelessness. I posted the first substantive section of this chapter on Monday. That section focused primarily on Jason De León’s work and his Undocumented Migration Project.

The second part of the chapter expanded this to a broader discussion of migrants, borders, and walls. There’s an immense quantity of scholarship on these topics over the last 20 years, and I invariably only managed to scratch the surface. As you might expect, I will continue to return to these sections and flesh our discussions and bibliography over the next few weeks, but for today and this week, this will have to suffice.

Enjoy and please feel free to make comments!!

The work of the Jason De León and the UMP represents part of a expansive and complex transdisciplinary critique of borders and a global archaeological interest in the material culture and experiences of migrants. For example, Wendy Brown’s work Wall States, Waining Sovereignty (2010) argues that as the forces of globalization have eroded the real sovereignty of nation states, they have increasingly looked to wall as the physical manifestation of their dissipating power (24). Reece Jones offers a similar argument in his 2012 book which understood efforts to fortify the borders in the US as part of global response to the war on terror. Militarized borders represent the desire of sovereign states to distinguish themselves from terrorists who, like global capital, are not constrained by the geographic limits of states. The construction of militarized border walls between the US and Mexico, for example, contributed to political rhetoric which characterized the residents of neighboring countries as a uncivilized, ungoverned, and violent. Needless to say, this also contributed to the dehumanization of those on the other side of the civilizing border (Jones 2012, 26-52).

Randal Maguire’s study of the Mexican-American border in the town of Ambos Nogales (2013), provided an archaeological perspective on the way what once was a symbolic a “picket fence” between the two countries was fortified in keeping with the United State’s policy of “Prevention by Deterrent.” At the same time, the border remains the most crossed borders in the world and the economies of communities on either side of the border as well as both countries deeply intertwined. The paradox between the flow of capital and goods across borders and the violence that it inflicts on human migrants represents an enduring theme in many of the critical studies of migrants in the contemporary world. The role of race, religion, wealth, and gender and other ethnic characteristics contributed further to the creation of “violent borders” that not only seek to define groups on the basis of nativist views of national identity, but also make the moving across borders personally invasive.

Archaeologist Uzma Rizvi’s discussion of moving through checkpoints in Iraq in 2009 emphasized the banality of these militarized interactions during which the sounds, objects, location, and practices of the militarized state contrasted with everyday conversations. Like the border wall between Mexico and the United States, the check points constantly disrupted movement through the cityscape (496). Moreover, the checkpoints required the categorization of individuals by gender, nationality, and ethnicity, and they imposed limits on her ability to document the encounter and photograph the spaces. The banal and even mundane conversations that Rizvi recorded during the encounters belied the structural violence these spaces produce by reifying a limited range of identities and military authority in the urban landscape. The construction and persistence of “peace lines,” the often substantial walls erected in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for example, served as much to formalize Protestant and Catholic claims to territory in the city and to reinforce the marginal relationship between the communities where these walls stand (McAtackney 2011, 82-86).

McAtackney’s study of Belfast’s peace lines, “Rizvi’s description of checkpoints in Iraq, and De León work in the Sonoran desert offer a distinct case-studies of the kind of violence that occur at borders. Reece Jones’s recent work, Violent Borders (2016), emphasizes the way in which global borders inflict violence on individuals and communities both in the name of the state and in the service of capital. Distinct from Brown’s reading of fortified borders as a rearguard effort to reinforce the relevance of the nationstate, Jones argues that borders remain a vital tool for creating pools of low cost labor and limiting access to natural resources and other forms of wealth. Moreover, as De León and others have shown, borders themselves do environmental violence to the landscapes through which they run. Studies of migration that seek to compare archaeological evidence for migrations with contemporary migrations have likewise emphasized the role that environmental conditions and climate change have played in forcing groups of people to move across state boundaries on a global scale (Morrissey 2015 with citations in Baker and Tsuda 2015). Of course, as Morrissey noted in his study of migration in Northern Ethiopia, the Ethiopian state’s highly-centralized control over land and food aide has as much an impact on the decisions on groups and individual to move as the increased aridity of parts of the country. In short, the political, social, and economic contexts for climate or environmental movement play a more major role in understanding the material realities of migration and borders. Takeyuki Tsuda, for example, worked to unpack the complex factors that have produced a largely negative view of Mexican immigrants when compared to immigrants from Asia countries (Tsuda 2015). He noted that the visibility of the border, among a number of other factors, contributed significantly to the view of Mexican workers as disruptive to American society.

Anna McWilliams study of the Cold War border installation provides a useful reminder that despite the massive and fortified appearance of contemporary borders, they can also be ephemeral and even evoke nostalgia (McWilliams 2013; 2015; Schofield 2009, 166;). The border installations, for example, in Czechoslovakia are now part of a large park. In the 1980s, the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria was not simply a national border, but part of the “Iron Curtain” that divided the the sphere of Soviet influence from the West. In the 21st century, much of the border installation has vanished into the woods and the paths once followed by border guards are now nature trails. The global scope of the Cold War, for example, produced the proliferation of walls, with the Berlin Wall being the most famous (Feversham and Schmidt 2007), and a prevailing sense of living on the “front lines” (Schofield 2009, 166-169) even when this border area is not geographically proximate to a national or regional boundary. The presence of hardened installation, for example, in the UK, Western Europe, or in rural North Dakota communicated the intercontinental threat of a Soviet attack. Today, many of these monuments stand abandoned or, like the Nekoma pyramid in Northeastern North Dakota, are in the process of being repurposed suggesting that while the physical monuments persist, their meaning in the landscape continues to change. Since 2001, there has been a concerted effort, for example, to preserve parts of the Berlin Wall which over the preceding decade were removed.

An Inventory of Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks, North Dakota

This summer, I’ve been working with the local Historic Preservation Commission here in Grand Forks to prepare an inventory of mid-century housing in community. For my part, I’ve mostly been doing the data and GIS side of the project, while Susan Caraher has been handling the field work side of things.

I know that I’ve blogged on this post before (here and here) and posted the following images as well, but since we’re directing some members of the Historic Preservation Commission who were not about to do video or attend last night’s meeting, we thought it would be useful to post them again.

Our work had three goals: (1) to identify any notable houses associated with prominent local or regional architects, (2) to inventory existing housing from this period, and (3) to make a contribution to the history of the growth of Grand Forks in the post-war period.

The first three images below show the expansion of Grand housing from 1945 to 1970. The first image shows 1940s housing in green and the empty squares represent pre-war housing as it currently exists in town. 

HPCM 1940s June6

As I noted last night, in Riverside, the Baukol Subdivision, at the very top of the map, represents one of the earliest and best preserved post-war subdivisions and it would make sense, in the future, to add this to the Riverside neighborhood historic district. At the southern most part of the 1940s development is the innovative Lentes’ Subdivision with its curved street which is another well preserved development of the immediate post-war period. The final area of growth is infill between the downtown and campus. 

The 1950s saw the area between downtown and campus to continue to infill and expand to the north following the street grid established at the turn of the century. The most vigorous area, of growth, of course was south of town (i.e. the “Mid Southside”) on both sides of Washington Street.

HPCM 1950s June6

Note the appearance of curving streets suggesting new ideas of urbanism influenced by suburban developments elsewhere in the US, but also the persistence of alley ways which were fundamental feature of Grand Forks from its earliest development.

The 1960s saw both infilling to the west of Washington Street (the Burke’s addition) which continued to feature alleyways between blocks. South of town (between 24th Avenue S and 32nd Avenue S) continued the trend toward curved “suburban streets” with developments that embraced many of the modern trends in planning.

HPCM 1960s June6

Over the last three weeks, we’ve also worked to identify the types of houses present in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. To do this we used established typologies common the region.


It will hardly surprise anyone that that ubiquitous North Dakota “Rambler” is the most common type of house in the post-war era. It is, however, worth noting that areas developed in the 1940s and early 1950s were characterized by pre-war housing types including Cape Cods, Hip-Roofed Boxes, and the Plain Residential styles. Desert Contemporary style homes with their flat roofs, deep eaves, and recessed entrances were clustered in areas developed in the mid-1950s and in more affluent areas of town such as Belmont Drive and Chestnut Street. It is interesting that houses in the Plain Residential style make a return to popularity in the later 1960s.

We identified a number of houses that are worth follow up documentation owing to their distinctive styles or their representative types from various periods. The red blobs on the map below show houses identified for further documentation.


As we noted at the onset of this project, this is just one step in our effort to understand, document, and hopefully preserve the mid-century landscape of Grand Forks. 

Writing about the Archaeology of Forced Migrant and Refugees

This week, I’m working on the fifth chapter on my little book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. This chapter, as I set out last week, reviews the archaeology of forced migration and refugees as well as the archaeology of homelessness. This is as close as I’ve managed to get to my #1000WordsofSummer goals. Oh well. There’s a lot going on.

Here’s more of that chapter. The section below is a draft that focuses on Jason De León’s work with his Undocumented Migration Project. It needs more detail and to be expanded into a broader discussion of the archaeology of migrants, but that’s for another day.

Borders and Migrants

Any conversation about the character of borders and migrants in the American experience must begin with Jason De León’s ground breaking work with the Undocumented Migration Project and its book length publication, The Land of Open Graves (2015). De León combined archaeological field work in the Sonoran desert with ethnography to document the real experiences of crossing the US-Mexican border. He demonstrates how a US policy of “Prevention through Deterrence” uses the Sonoran desert itself serves as a barrier to migrants seeking to enter the US (De León 2015, 1-10). By hardening highly visible portions of the border near towns and major roads, migrants are channeled toward the more open, but radically less hospitable terrain of the desert. He goes on to show, in brutal detail, the trauma inflicted on migrants who attempt the crossing the desert and fate of those who died in their efforts. The unforgiving heat of the day and cold of desert nights, the absence of water, and the rugged topography filled with sharp stones and dead end canyons, dangerous animals, and random patrols and surveillance by various US agencies, made the Sonoran desert itself an remorseless ally in national border security. This policy not only ensures that migrants endure nearly unthinkable hardships in their efforts to enter the US, but that they are also subjected to the rapaciousness of coyotes, who offer to guide migrants through the fraught desert landscape for price. De León also emphasized that the vast size and desolate character of the Sonoran desert also served the hide from the American public the fate of those who try to cross it. The marginal land of the Sonoran desert served to render invisible, and, indeed, marginal the desperate individuals who brave its landscape. Just as the lack of documentation obscures migrants from most protections offered by the American legal system, so the Sonoran desert removes their fate from the public gaze.

The work of De León’s Undocumented Migration Project is to make both the individuals and the crossing visible. While ethnography is central to De León’s work, archaeological methods also play a key role. The material traces left behind by immigrants in their movement across the desert stand are ephemeral especially in contrast to the massive state sponsored infrastructure erected at official border crossings (Maguire 2013). Despite the claims by some anti-immigration advocates that see objects left behind by undocumented migrants as trash that contributes to the environmental degradation of the fragile desert, the UMP’s efforts to document the traces of migrants’ movement through this landscape has show that the traces of human suffering disappear quickly when subjected to the wind, sun, and occasional zeal of environmentalists and other activists. The project’s collaboration with forensic scientists, for example, revealed that human remains in the desert may quickly become subject to animal scavengers who not only disarticulate but also distribute bones leading to the sites and numbers of migrant deaths being underreported (Beck et al. 2015). The UMP also recorded things left behind during the migrant crossing, from plastic water bottles to clothing, shoes, bags, graffiti, and more personal objects. Unlike more casual efforts to link discarded objects to migrant movement, the UMP sought to understand these objects in their spatial context. Over 4 years the UMP documented almost 350 sites in the Sonoran desert with over 30,000 artifacts that reveal the complexity of the migrants’ journey as well as strategies used by the Border Patrol to intercept migrants and by activists to provide them with aide. Camp and resting sites, regularly used, informal migrant stations, water drops, Border Patrol installations, shrines, and pick up spots on secluded roads reveal a landscape of movement that makes visible the complexities of the migrant experience in the desert (Gokee and De León 2014; De León 2013). Many of the objects found in the desert provide evidence not only for strategies employed to survive the arduous journey, including water bottles, pain medication, first aide for cuts and blisters, and religious objects, but also objects necessary upon arrival such as toothbrushes, deodorant, and clothes more suitable for daily life. The contrast between the overland routes of migrants and the clear cut roads and hardened installations of the Border Patrol, for example, show not only different relationships to the physical environment, but also demonstrate that the US government’s efforts to control the desert landscape has had a much more dramatic and significant environmental impact. Of course, De León’s team also took pains to ensure that their data did not provide a map that could imperil ongoing migrant movement in this landscape. 

More importantly, locating these artifacts in their context allowed De León and his collaborators to move beyond well-meaning efforts to present objects associated with migrants as representing the migrants themselves (De León and Gokee 2018). The UMP’s decision to collect and study a vast number of artifacts allowed them to understand these objects as more than just representations of individuals, but as bearing witness to human suffering through their wear and adaptation during the desert crossing (De León 2013), their locations, and their archaeological contexts. Torn and tattered shoes, in one instance repaired with a bra strap, provide a vivid document particularly when documented in tandem with the restraints commonly used by Border Patrol. Migrant backpacks recovered by the project became the basis for an installation that was part of the UMP’s “State of Exception” exhibit at the University of Michigan. This installation which also included video and still photography revealed the ethical and political complexities associated with documenting migration and curating objects associated with such traumatic experience. A follow up exhibit called “Hostile Terrain 94” began touring in 2019 with plans to appear in 150 locations over the next several years. The center piece of this exhibit is a map of the Sonoran desert with the location of over 3200 known migrant death since 1994. Participants in the exhibit fill out toe-tags for each migrant body and affix them to the map. This creates a visually arresting display of the consequences of the US “Prevention through Deterrence” policy.