Quantifying Citations

One of the goals that I had in revising my book manuscript over the past year was to cite more women authors.This was partly in response to critiques from peer reviewers, but also because it is the right thing to do. Citational politics is part of academic life and the growing interest in quantitative assessment (various indices, impact factors, and so on) means that it’s not just about appearances and giving credit where it is due, but it also has direct financial consequences. 

The distribution of citations in my original manuscript was pretty disappointing with only 35% of the works in the bibliography having at least one woman as author and 77% having at least one man. This is obviously not what I set out to do when I started writing this book and it appears that an assessment of the book as very white and very male was a fair one and one that I took to heart.

After I made a series of substantive revisions over the last year, I was excited to run the numbers on my bibliography again and see whether my revisions improved the situation.

Sadly, they did not. While I increased the percentage of references with at least one woman as author to 40%, I also increased the number of references with at least one man as author to 84%. 

This was pretty demoralizing to realize. When I dug deeper into my numbers, I did notice some reasons for optimism.

First, for citations dating to 2020 or later, 48% of the citations have at least one woman author and 67% have at least one man. 

For citations dating to 2015 or later, this number stays roughly stable with 46% of my citations having at least one woman author and 67% having a man.

For citations since 2010 and 2000, the percentage of references with at least one woman author stays relatively stable at 42% and 40% respectively and 73% and 70% respectively for references with at least one man as an author.

References dating to before 2000, however, are a shit show with merely 13% of the references including at least one woman and 91% including at least one man. Some of this can be attributed to the outsized place that Bill Rathje and Michael Schiffer have in both archaeology of the contemporary world and my book, but even then, these numbers are ghastly.

This quantitative work has taught me three things:

First, over the past decade there has been a good bit of conversation about structural biases and inequality. My bibliography is a depressing example of this. Even as I honestly tried to shift the balance toward more work by women, historical traditions of practice in my discipline continue to keep a firm thumb on the scale and my own reading and writing practices. 

As my book manuscript goes out once again for review over the next few weeks, I reckon I will have one more opportunity to work on my citation practices and will continue to try to work to redress what is clearly a shortcoming in my book. 

Secondly, if and when the book is accepted and typeset, I hope that I can do some more sophisticated analysis of the content of the book. After all, it is easy enough to pepper one’s work with some throw away references as a way to shift a bias one way or another. And, of course, this isn’t entirely superficial as various automated reference searches (e.g. Google Scholar) don’t care whether the citation is a “see also” or part of a more in-depth discussion. As institutions look toward i10 and H -indices as measures of a scholars reach and impact, these numbers matter.

On the other hand, a five page discussion of a work may only garner a handful of citations in the text and may only result in a single bibliographic entry. This is particular true for dissertations where authors don’t have as substantial “back catalogue” of work that warrant referencing. I hope to come up with a systematic way to measure how much of my book is devoted to various authors, but since this will be a pretty arduous task, it might make better sense to do this at after the book is typeset and when the final references are established. 

Finally, I still intend to make this data available and include an appendix to my book discussion what I did and what I had hoped to do.

As a start, here’s a copy of my bibliography from which I collected the data discussed above.

And you can read some of my earlier writing and thinking about citations: here, here, and here.

Final Fragments of My Book

I know that I’ve probably taxed the patience of my regular readers by peppering this venerable blog with fragments from my book over the last few years. I did this for lots of reason, not the least of which is to give a window into how the academic sausage is made, to share some of my current research, and to make some more experiment (or at least “mental” writing) public.

I’m coming very close to sending back my revised book manuscript to my very patient editors and I’m adding final touches, checking citations, and wondering whether I did enough to address the not insignificant concerns of my reviewers.

As part of the final tweaking to my introduction, I add the follow paragraphs to try (a bit plaintively, I might add) to explain why the book has the priorities and limits that it does. You can read more about the book  here and my broader research here

Here’s my the very end of my introduction:

Because this book developed organically from the two case studies that appear in chapter one and chapter eight, it is in some ways limited in how it engages the field, in some ways, and perhaps more expansive than one might expect, in others. For example, the field of forensic anthropology or disaster archaeology largely fell outside the scope of my case studies, even though it often involves research that would fall into the fuzzy chronological limits of “the contemporary world” (Gould 2007). It has also developed its own disciplinary discourse and methods over the last three decades (Powers and Sibun 2013). Archaeology of race, gender, sexuality, and identity, while incredible fertile grounds for archaeological research in recent decades, does not appear in this book under distinct headings, but forms an obvious foundation to many of these chapters. As the archaeology of the contemporary American experience continues to develop as a field, I anticipate that it will contribute in significant ways to the archaeology of contemporary race and gender, but as yet, these important areas remain relatively unexplored. My book also presents an American experience that extends well beyond the boundaries of North America and entangles traditional approaches to American historical archaeology with the flourishing field of archaeological contemporary world in Europe. This is in keeping with the approaches championed by groups such as CHAT with its European and American membership, and my own sense that this is the best way to address pressing planetary situations such as climate change and environmental degradation on a global scale. This has then informed my decision to focus the potentially expansive remit of this book in the area where I have.

Of course, it is entirely possible that my reading of the field is wrong and that my oversights represent blinders imposed by my own sites, research priorities, and political anxieties. In fact, I expect that some readers will find this book to be inadequate or simply too idiosyncratic to be useful or helpful. My hope is that these readers, however, will recognize that for whatever its flaws, this book is only the first word in a rapidly developing field and this makes it quite distinct from many of the more narrowly situated works that have appeared in this series. It is my hope that future books on topics such as the archaeology of contemporary race, a queer archaeology of the modern American experience, and the archaeology of gender in the twenty-first century will fill in gaps, shift priorities, and consolidate the field in new and important ways.

Bakken Babylon, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first part of an article that I have written about the Bakken as Babylon. It’s for a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology dedicated to the archaeology of climate change and edited by Omur Harmansah and Katie Kearns. In my post yesterday I’ve included links to earlier drafts of this piece. 

As is so often the case with academic writing, this piece is less finished than it is done, but I do hope that it is somewhere in the grey region between thought provoking and entertaining… 

Bakken Babylon (part 2)


There was ample motivation to take even more unconventional approaches to understanding the contemporary Bakken oil patch in relation to contemporary climate change. Human created climate change is transforming our world. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and faltering seasonal patterns are already producing droughts, flooding, and massively destructive storms that capture headlines for their economic and human costs. Less visible, but every bit as significant, is the slow violence inflicted on the other living things on the plant as we accelerate toward an inevitable series of mass extinction events (Nixon 2011). With the existential consequences to anthropogenic climate change well known, it is more than appropriate for archaeology to shift toward understanding planetary networks of agents and situations that created increasingly violent climatic conditions. Thinking about the wide range of agents acting on a planetary level provides us with some insight into how geography and cartography can appear increasingly fluid against the backdrop of planetary crisis.

A brief digression on dustism, a term introduced in Negarstani’s Cyclonopedia, provides a chance to understand how Parsani’s view of material and agency create the affordances required to make the Bakken and Babylon interchangeable. Parsani understood “dustism” as “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 argued, perhaps spuriously, 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 material 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 is useful for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Boscagli 2014) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. Dustism and dust itself, like oil, lubricates the narratives that connects North Dakota’s Bakken to Babylon. The ubiquity of dust in the Bakken has, of course, attracted scientific research. One the one hand, the Bakken and Three Forks deposits of shale oil likely represent organic material trapped beneath thin layers of sand deposited by Quaternary dust storms. In contemporary North Dakota, truck traffic creates billowing dust clouds that mark the path of the region’s straight section line roads. Research during the height of the oil boom documented the impact of dust associated with oil development on vegetation, including crops, near roads as well as working conditions in a region long characterized as having three season: snow, mud, and dust.

Dust does not just operate at the scale of geological time and the contemporary in North Dakota. Dust serves as a historical link between the Bakken and the Middle East. For example, Frank Jungers, the North Dakota born Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company) executive started his memoir which tells the story of his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career, on his family’s Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling storms of the 1930s dust bowl (Jungers 2014). He compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts and framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust.

A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), which opens in North Dakota. Stegner spent part of his childhood in North Dakota on the edges of the future Bakken oil patch. 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 anticipated Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Stegner seems to understand dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic after a stranger offering to pay for his drink in gold dust inspires 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 Parsani’s Babylon.

For Jungers and Parsani and as we will see, Stegner, 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. To their number, we might add another North Dakotan and Aramco executive, Thomas Barger whose journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost likewise followed the lure of oil (Barger 2000). 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.


Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of Bo Mason’s nomadic search for prosperity and the American dream and offers a framework for his account of the discover of oil in Saudi Arabia: Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. (Salameh 2019; Vitalis 2007) 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 featured in Discovery! was Thomas Barger. Barger 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 embraced life as petro-nomads and he traded the dust of small town Linton for the dust of the Arabian desert. The results of his nomadism was a version of the proverbial Big Rock Candy Mountain of Stegner’s great American novel: 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 and paved the way for another North Dakotan, Frank Jungers, whose dusty childhood in North Dakota led him to serve as president and CEO of the company from 1971 to 1978. 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. 

A peripatetic, petro-nomad, Thomas Barger anticipates the recursive arrival of the contemporary Bakken nomad who came to Western North Dakota in the second decade of the 21st century to develop its oil fields. Parsani’s Middle Eastern petro-nomads point to the rise in late-20th-century nomadism on a global scale critiqued in the US as “nomadland” and globally marked by the proliferation of camps and detention centers. A critical engagement with Parsani’s dustism and petro-nomadism, historical connections, and the capacity of oil to create viscous new geographies sustains the conflation of North Dakota with the Middle East and perhaps more specifically Babylon. The planetary distribution of oil and dust supports the entanglement of North Dakota’s oil industry with the oil industry in the Middle East. Oil and dust bind the arid landscape of the Northern Plains to the oil rich formations of the Persian Gulf. Oil lubricates the movement of dust-covered petro-nomads and the narratives the we tell about them.


Dr. Hamid Parsani’s talk proposed new forms of geography that leveraged new forms of narrative lubricated by the oil, traced by petro-nomads, and saturated with dust. These new ways of thinking about the relationship between oil and space reflects the planetary scale of contemporary petroculture and informs how we approach history and archaeology. These new narratives break down the modern geographies that structure archaeology and define regions such as the Near East. In its place have are emerging new geographies where once distinct places disappear, shift, and superimpose themselves amid a contemporary cartography of climatic crisis. To confront this condition, archaeology as a discipline has to continue to embrace its global remit and work itself out of the regional silos that support conventional narratives. As climate change in the past and in the present represents a matter of existential concern, it seems apparent that archaeology must investigate more thoroughly the kind of spatial transpositions proposed by Dr. Parsani’s unconventional talk. If the Bakken was Babylon, even for a brief period at the height of its oil boom, then it provides an unexpected window in the viscous reality of contemporary planetary change.

Bakken Babylon, Part 1

I know that I’m late today, but I’m working on a deadline that has already passed. The deadline is a for a short paper that I started to put together in the spring and like so many projects of mine lingered in the queue until slightly after the last minute.

The good news is that the paper is mostly done and, in my humble assessment, fun. It is called “Bakken Babylon” (or something like that). You can read my false starts and stumbles here and here.

But below is the first part of the draft that I’ve settled upon. Part two will drop tomorrow!

Bakken Babylon


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 presented a provocative paper titled “What if the Bakken is Babylon?” In it, he opined that global climate change confirmed an obscure theory that his research had pointed toward many years before: the Bakken oil patch in Western North Dakota and Babylon shared more than the same first and last letters of their names. Dr. Parsani indicated that a careful reading of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) revealed that oil itself had the capacity to lubricate modern narratives including those constructed in contemporary 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.” This echoed the growing recognition that modern human culture is a form of petroculture, and this suffuses our geography, history, and imaginations. Our dependence on fossil fuels and their connection with contemporary climate change provokes new ways of thinking about the past, the present, and the future.

This article is an effort to explore 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 (2017) and China Mieville (2009). 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. Dr. Parsani’s work proposed that the proliferation of oil over the last century has introduced new geographic possibilities lubricated by the viscous globalism of fossil fuels which simultaneously reinforced certain political, cultural, and topographic boundaries while dissolving 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 (2014). 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.


There is only one explicit reference to Babylon in the Bakken: Williston is called the Babylon of the Bakken in Gary Sernovitz’s book on the “shale revolution” (2016). The connection between Babylon and the Bakken evokes a larger discourse of Babylon that is global in scope. The coincidence between the excavations at Babylon and elsewhere in the Near East and the emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century produced what Nick Mirzoeff has called “Babylonian Modernity” (2005). For Mirzoeff, Babylonian Modernity represents the decadence, alienation, and complexity that exists at the heart of the modern experience. As early as the 19th century Babylon became a metaphor for rapidly expanding, industrial, urban metropolises such as London or New York City. It also stood in Black Christianity and Caribbean Rastafarianism as the place of exile and separation from Zion. The global displacement and alienation experienced by Black communities in the Americas made possible the development of the modern, globalized economy. In this context, Babylon embodied forces of colonialism, capitalism, and the state which sought to preserve economic and racial inequality in the name of political stability. Thus, Babylon could represent, on the one hand, the oppressive forces of the state and capital which sought to control the labor of displaced Afro-Caribbean and Black workers and the unfettered and dystopian results of unfettered modernity on the other. Critics like Mirzoeff and Runions who have traced the significance of Babylon in contemporary political discourse, however, recognize that despite Babylon’s modern guise, it is not entirely free from its ancient past. The First and Second Gulf Wars and US occupation of Iraq brought the literal site Babylon to our living rooms with stories of the looting of antiquities set against regular reports of human violence and skyrocketing price of oil.

In the context of a global Babylon, Parsani’s paper may seem unnecessarily specific in its effort to connect a spatially displaced Babylon specifically to the Bakken. That said, it is hard to deny that Bakken oil boom certainly evoked images of an American Babylon in the media. Media attention focused on the sudden wealth acquired by oil workers as well as the risks that they undertook doing the dangerous work of drilling, fracking, and transporting oil. The regular media attention to strip clubs, drug use and abuse, Ponzi schemes, and environmental abuses of the Bakken contributed to a view of the region as a zone of unchecked capitalism and immorality (Caraher and Weber 2014). The viscous fluidity of oil carried Babylon to the Bakken and hint at the origins of new cartographies and familiar moral narratives. It encouraged us to drill deeper into the narratives, cartographies, geographies, and chronologies that connect Babylon in its many forms to the modern Bakken. Parsani’s paper seemed to induce us to see these displaced places as key objects of study to understand the planetary consequences and history of contemporary climate change.

An Afterword for The Archaeology of the Contemporary Experience: A Second Draft

I’m not great at writing conclusions. More than that, I designed my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience without a conclusion. Instead, I planned an afterword that would bring the book “up to the minute” (and you can read that here), but my editors, rightly, noted that the publication process is a long one and that makes producing an up-to-the-minute afterword particularly fraught.

With this critique in mind and recognizing that my book is substantially longer than I originally proposed to the press, I’ve produced a shorter, more general, but also more “conclusive” afterword. I don’t dislike it and I hope you find it unobjectionable, shorter, and somehow still incisive and useful.


Acknowledging our contemporaneity with the planetary changes that constitute the Anthropocene transforms the scale and scope of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In this context, it is tempting to lose site of what constitutes our experiences as “American” in a globalizing and globalized world. It is also challenging to consider how we should imagine the contemporary as a meaningful chronological periods. This book offered one perspective on what an archaeology of the contemporary American experience might look like. It endeavored to employ approaches and priorities manifest at the intersection of American historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past as practiced outside the United States to traces our American experiences within our growing sense of being part of a densely interconnected world. At the same time the book attempted to embrace a sense of the contemporary that recognized it as a challenging and sometimes even contested lens through which to focus archaeological inquiry. The previous chapter have proposed concepts of the contemporary that vary situationally. The concept of the contemporary among Native American communities struggling with the pain of residential school era burials or among African American communities who continue to endure the loss of life and generational wealth in the Tulsa massacre cannot be the same as the contemporary conceived in the ephemeral immediacy of the Burning Man Festival or in the multiple temporalities manifest in the Bakken oil boom.

That said, it remained difficult to ignore the most insistent aspects of the contemporary American experience which loomed over the writing of this book. I completed the first drafts of this manuscript against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. I was checking citations while keeping one eye on the stunning events of January 6th, 2021 and worked on edits as the Russians invaded Ukraine. This afterword come into focus as the US Supreme Court has compromised women’s reproductive freedom and severe drought continues to wrack the American West. These events and our disciplinary response to them continuously provoke and expand my view of the archaeology of the contemporary world and the American experience. Awareness of contemporary crises infuses the discipline with a sense of persistent urgency as these flashpoints often reveal deeper fractures and structures in our society. The urgent and essential work by Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al. 2020) while situated amid BLM protests nevertheless speaks to a century long struggle for racial equality both in the discipline of archaeology and in American society more broadly. Similar sentiments emerged in a recent article in American Antiquity, composed jointly by the editors, which situated the contemporary COVID pandemic in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race (Gamble et al. 2020). By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. Like so many issues confronting contemporary American society, the COVID pandemic requires us to think beyond traditional disciplinary, national, and geographic boundaries (Angelo et al. 2021). The contributors to a special issue of the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response to COVID to past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. Shadreck Chirikure (2020) calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass (2020) considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. As these examples show, the archaeology of the headlines contributes to how we understand and address the slow violence of situations that date to the start of the 20th century, to the beginning of modernity, or even emerge from deep time itself. In this context, the archaeology of the Anthropocene marks yet another example of how the proximate crises of climate change whether manifest in unpredictably violent storms or severe draught nevertheless depends upon ecological, geological, and structural limits expressed at a planetary scale and over deep time.

An archaeology of our contemporary experiences, then, reflect a range of temporal and geographic concepts at play. This book’s first case study emphasized discard, consumer culture, and the digital world which embodied the anxieties, expectations, and dreams of the turn of the 21st century middle class. These experiences were distinctly American in their particular their concern for garbage barges, Hummers, jazz and rock music, and, of course, Atari games, but these encounters, objects, and expression relied upon global networks and produced global consequences. The second case study, explored the role of domestic spaces, institutions, urbanism, protest, and extractive industries in shaping the late 20th and 21st century experience. To understand something as regional, if not parochial, as the short-lived Bakken oil boom, I considered the archaeology of national borders and homeless camps, college campuses and military bases, protest sites and urban landscapes. This suggested to me that the displacements, deployments, occupations and migrations that characterize a range of contemporary experiences often leave ephemeral or obscure traces in the material record, but reflect the often tense negotiations between the modern, national, and institution spaces and the supermodern, global, and transitory spaces. In the end, the archaeology of contemporary America frequently represents effort to place ourselves, our possessions, our trash, our habits, and ultimately our experiences in their local and planetary contexts.

Three Things Thursday: Early Christian Greece, Mineral Rites, and Jimmy Carter

I’m taking a real, honest to goodness vacation over the weekend. In fact, I’m going to vacation so hard that I’m not even taking a laptop! I reckon the last time that I vacationed without a laptop was in 2000 or 2001 when I was living in Athens.

To celebrate this unlikely situation, I’m going to offer a very short Three Things Thursday:

Thing the First

It’s pretty rare that I get genuinely excited about a new archaeological discovery and even less frequently that I get really excited about a discovery in the Late Antique Peloponnesus, but I was genuinely thrilled after reading Nikos Tsivikis’s recent article in the Journal of Epigraphical Studies 4 (2022), 175-197, titled “Christian inscriptions from a third and fourth-century house church at Messene (Peloponnese).” You can download it here.

This article provides some pretty solid evidence for a late-third century house church that continued in use into the fourth century. Tsiviki’s argument is grounded in both epigraphy and excavation evidence although the levels are primarily dated on the basis of numismatic evidence. The building is a modified urban villa in the city of Messenia and the inscriptions record the presence of a reader and then a bishop who provided a mosaic for the modified room.

Of course, textual evidence tells us that there were Christian communities in Greece from the first century AD, but archaeological evidence for pre-Constantinean Christianity in Greece has been pretty thin on the ground and comprised mostly of wishful thinking. In fact, there’s precious little indisputable material evidence for fourth century Christianity in Greece. This building will change that and provide the first archaeologically secure (at least to my knowledge) evidence for third (perhaps optimistically) or early fourth century (almost certainly) Christianity in southern Greece. This is exciting.

Thing the Second

I’ve been enjoying Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Baltimore 2019). I’m not finished the book, but I appreciate his efforts to trace the significance of the fossil economy from the oil fields to the hot yoga studio. His efforts to demonstrate the deep entanglement of fossil fuels and our modern world is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but Johnson offers very readable and highly “textured” (to use a word from the book’s blurb) descriptions of how fossil fuels shape our daily lives. Johnson weaves fossil fuels into the story of the Titanic, various efforts to understand the human equivalency of fossil fuel energy, and a brilliant comparative chapter that considers the difference between Lewis and Clark’s journey and our modern road system. I’m still working my way through his study of the reality TV series Coal and the modern novel.    

Years ago, my buddy and collaborator Bret Weber suggested that we write a paper or an essay that tracked a drop of oil from the well to the atmosphere. Because I’m kind of a jerk, I rolled my eyes and said something jerk-ish about that idea. Years later and after giving it more and more thought, I think it’s really brilliant. In fact, I think Johnson’s book provides an appealing model for how the life of that “drop” of oil could be traced through our system and how much “life” it provides.

Thing the Third

There are a couple cool things from North Dakota Quarterly this week. First, I’ve posted over on the NDQ a poem by David Starkey which will appear in a forthcoming collection from the author. It’s a pretty nice little poem that features a cigarette as a prop. As I say in my post, I like poems that feature things.

There’s also this blog post about the time that NDQ published some of Jimmy Carter’s poetry. For some reason the pages of this issue were scanned or processed out of order so you have to scroll back from the first page, but do check out Lane Chasek’s post here and follow his link to NDQ 60.1 where we feature four of Carter’s poems. Then scroll backward from the first poem to read the three others.

Describing the Organization of my Book

The best prospectus that I ever wrote for my dissertation was after it was largely complete. It appears that it is also easier to write an introduction to a book after the book is complete rather than before.

Below is a description of the organization of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This is a significantly revised final section of my introduction. My hope is that it frames my book in a way that reflects what it is rather than what I may have (at various points) hoped it would be. This means that I owned up to several of my chapter being more “discursive” than I perhaps would have liked them to be when I was envisioning the book. At the same time, I also realize that discursive is how I roll a lot of the time. We’ll see if this admission of guilt will satisfy the series editors, but I feel better about my introduction.

The Organization of this Book

This book seeks to explore key issues in the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. My approach is anchored in two case studies which divide the book into two parts. The first part of the book unpacks the excavation of an assemblage of Atari game cartridges in the New Mexico desert in 2014 and the second part of the book explores a decade of study associated with the 21st century Bakken oil boom in Western North Dakota with particular attention to workforce housing. Each part of the book constitutes a protracted and unorthodox case study that follows the deep and reflexive dive into the research that informed my analysis of the Atari excavations and the Bakken. In effect, then, the book is both a case study in the sense that it explores distinctive material assemblages associated with two specific contexts in the contemporary world, but also a case study in the sense that it shows how these two assemblages open onto the development of the field. Because the archaeology of the contemporary world assumes the contemporaneity of the field itself and the objects of study, the following chapters go to some length to demonstrate the link between the way in which we use archaeology to study the present my own place as an archaeologist and participant in the disciplinary and cultural trends. I largely present these in brief preludes to each chapter that serve to reinforce my own “ego reference point” of the archaeologist in relation to the chapters.

My dependence on the case study approach also accounts for the unevenness of my coverage of the field. This also reflects the challenges of writing a book that reflects the archaeology of the general experiences of a period, and one that is defined as being rather specifically contemporary with the archaeologist, rather than particularly bounded by set of conditions (e.g. labor, race, consumer practices, incarcerations, urbanism, et c.) or a period in the past. That said, I did my best to tease out the broadest implication of both my case studies and experiences both as an authentic reproduction of my decade long study of these periods and in an effort to be fair and representative to the contributors the field.

Thus the first part of the book starts at the edge of a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico where a massive excavator removes domestic waste from above an assemblage of Atari games. The first chapter describes the stratigraphy of the landfill excavation in some detail demonstrating that archaeology of the contemporary world can involve traditional methods of documentation. Chapter two locates the excavation of the Atari games within both a concern for the waste produced by American consumer culture and the tradition of the “garbology” instigated by Bill Rathje’s Garbage project. It traces how archaeology of trash started as a way to gain insights into discard practices associated with particular groups of people. Contemporary studies of garbage recognizes that it has the potential to tell transnational stories that speak as much to processes and the interplay between trash and individuals under various waste regimes. This more expansive view of garbology parallels recent approaches to things that are the topic of Chapter three. This chapter follows the Atari case study from childhood memories of wanting to buy the latest Atari game to the stinky mess at the edge of the Alamogordo landfill. This leads to a more expansive consideration of things in archaeology and across the social sciences and points to how new attitudes toward agency complicate views of consumption and the production of culture and distinctive experiences. Chapter four completes the first case study by extending our reflection on archaeology of the contemporary American experience of media starting with famous record collections, recording studios and music venues and continuing through the archaeological investigations associated with various forms of digital media related to the Atari games that we were excavating. Much like contemporary trash and consumer goods, these objects produce a distributed American experience that traces expansive networks that of interrelated, but contemporary experiences. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of how archaeology as a discipline leverages these same networks and experiences to produce knowledge in the 21st century. Thus, the recursive relationship between the American experience and the emerging field of the archaeology of the contemporary world manifests in itself in the tools and practices that archaeologists use to understand their world.

Chapter five begins the book’s second case study which focuses on the archaeology of contemporary oil production and labor in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota. This chapter seeks to contextualize the experience of workers who flooded the Bakken region of North Dakota in search of jobs in the aftermath of subprime mortgage crisis and resulting recession of the early twenty-first century. Their scramble for housing which often included camping in public parks or living in RVs in the Williston, ND Walmart parking lot revealed the connection between economic displacement, housing, and marginalization. In an effort to contextualize these experiences, this chapter considers the important work of archaeologist of the contemporary world on migrants, borders, and homelessness as a way to consider how borders, marginal places, and displacement contributes to the experience of contemporary American life. Chapter six is among the more discursive chapters of this book in that it considers the role that institutional housing played in on military bases, college campuses, and residential schools. Like workforce housing in the Bakken, bases and schools sought both to promote orderly life and to obfuscate, whenever possible, signs of resistance or disorder. Archaeology of contemporary and historical sites has revealed the tensions between the carefully managed public appearance of these sites — which often taken on a global scale — and the experiences of their residents. Chapter seven continues to consider the interplay between the American and the global by considering topics important to the study of the contemporary city in both a chronologically broad American context and the geographically expansive transnational context. The ruins of the post-war and post-industrial American city speak to trends in the global economy that shifted manufacturing from American cities to cities in the “Global South.” The remains of an industrial past form a dramatic backdrop for ongoing racial violence, protests, and various forms of urban redevelopment which draw upon historical and transnational precedents. The final chapter of the book will attempt to tie some of the threads introduced in chapters five, six, and seven together in recent archaeological research in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While the work in the Bakken primarily focused on workforce housing with its connections to military, institutional, and urban forms, our time in the Bakken and our attention to human cost of the oil industry also forced us to consider issues that went well beyond the temporal and geographic limits of Western North Dakota. As a result, the final chapter will also introduce some remarks on how the archaeology of the contemporary world has engaged with issues of global climate change. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the idea of the Anthropocene, which seeks to describe the human impact on the Earth in geological terms. The interest in the Anthropocene among archaeologists of the contemporary world offers yet another example of how the very notion of the “contemporary” defies tidy definition and how the contemporary American experience can be planetary in scope.

Three Things on COVID

Like most of the world, I’m anxiously reading about the rise of the latest COVID variant, Ba.5, and worrying about how it will impact my health, the health of people in my community, and our daily life. I’m already hearing about the consequences of this new, highly transmissible variant, on the operations of summer programs, and on the fall semester.

This has spurred three poorly formed ideas that I’m sharing here mostly to get out of my system.

1. COVID and Compliance. To be absolutely clear, I’m vaccinated, boosted, prone to follow the various protocols and mandates, and inclined to express a kind of good-natured annoyance when I see people flaunting the rules, ignoring social distancing practices, or wearing the famous chin mask. 

That said, I have this growing feeling that the way we talk about COVID and compliance is evocative of how we talk about capitalism especially in the 20th century. In particularly, we are told that compliance with  the expectations of capital will led to not only personal prosperity but also economic growth and collective prosperity. Thus, in the so-called “neoliberal” regime that has emerged since the 1980s, the state has worked hard to eliminate policies and practices that run counter to capitalism even if this involves cutting away the social safety net, removing the guard rails from the market, and, at times, working to suppress alternatives that might offer viable ways of life outside of he capitalist regime. The inducement for these policies is that some social, economic, and political discomfort now will yield a better life for individuals and society in the future.  

It’s hard to know whether the continued roiling of the COVID pandemic will lead to renewed mandates and protocols as schools reopen in the fall. To be sure, we’ve been told that if we just comply with various policies, including vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and, if need be, lockdowns, the possibility exists that we can return to normal pre-COVID practices. Not only does this seem increasingly unlikely, but also calls into question whether “the science” behind efforts to reduce the spread of COVID provides a sufficient foundation for real world policy making.    

2. Migrant COVID. Over the weekend, I read most of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). One observation that Chabrabarty makes is that displacements associated with modernity, capitalism, and globalization extend well beyond humanity. As the deer happily munching on the hostas in our garden know, displacements extend to local megafauna who often depart from habitats increasingly encroached upon by development and the privatization of property. As many local gardeners know, the only way to keep deer from grazing on delicacies destined for human palates is to fence off gardens. Thus the borders between human and “natural” habitats, if such a designation makes sense in the contemporary world, become increasing hardened. Traditional migration routes become “wildlife corridors,” traditional ranges become “preserves,” and living things that stray from their designated environments become invasive. 

Obvious the COVID virus is not the same as megafauna, but efforts to contain its spread seem in some ways to echo our efforts to constrain the movement of both fauna and, more tragically, humans displaced environmental destruction, climate change, economic and political colonialism, and war. 

It has become almost a bit cliche to speculate on how we might blur the division between the human and non-human world. It seems like our global response to COVID, that so often focuses on efforts to disrupt the movement of the virus between context, between communities, and between people, offers a vivid example of how various routes of displacement long used by more visible species are also suitable for less visible and less living creatures. 

3. COVID and Time. Finally, earlier in the pandemic, I speculated a bit on COVID and time (here, here, and here). One thing that reading Chakrabarty’s book has pushed me to think about is how much time makes a difference in how we experience crises in the contemporary world. For example, it is well understood that the rate of change associated with global climate change has made it difficult for political institutions much less individuals to make decisions and policies necessary to avert what is almost certain to be catastrophic climate change. 

COVID in contrast is doing what viruses do. It is adapting and surviving, but as we continue to struggle to keep pace with its changes and its movement. COVID testing often lagged behind outbreaks and new variants of the virus have outpaced our ability to produce new vaccines (much less policies). It is often imagined that the time of “nature” is slower than “human” time, but we also need to acknowledge that the time of nature can be much faster than human time. The COVID pandemic is a tragic reminder that our ability to understand and respond to our surroundings is as much a matter of time as a matter of conditions.

An Afterword for my Book

My current plan is to read my entire book manuscript (on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience) two more times before I submit. Once to finish the introduction and once to finish the citations. It’s not a very pleasant task.

At some point over the next two weeks, I also need to write a brief afterword to the book. My original afterword, which you can read here, fell a bit flat with the series editors and after re-reading it, I felt like I was perhaps trying too hard to bring my book up to the moment and didn’t perhaps do enough to locate my book within the field as I see it developing in the future. This is particularly important for my books because the editors urged me to consider my book as a pair of case studies rather than a proper survey of the field. As a result, the afterword (rather than a formal conclusion) needs to make a gesture toward broader currents in the field and acknowledge (without necessarily being being an outright apologia).

Yesterday afternoon I was reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). Chakrabarty, who was involved the subaltern studies project in the 1980s and 1990s, noted that this project for all its radical politics and activist bent didn’t recognize the catastrophic impact of human climate change and how it would refract across their political commitments. 

I suspect that my book has suffered from the opposite. It’s concern with the experience of capitalism and some of the mechanisms associated with the carbon economy (and ultimately climate change) led me to overlook they way in which race, gender, ethnicity, religion and so on produced structures designed to both support carbon capitalism and be dependent on it. Of course, foregrounding this connection would involve a different kind of book, anchored in different case studies, and fortified by different research. 

That said, I still need to note that the threads of this other book exist in mine. For example, the experience of undocumented migrants intersects with issues of race and climate as we anticipate the rise of climate migrants who have seen their traditional ways of life, economic and social standing, and political institutions crippled by rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, or other forms of supermodern destruction. In this context, the experience of migrants provides a window into the experience of climate change by making the expansive timescale and global scope of climate visible, tangible, and politically immediate. In a similar sense, my work in the Bakken attempts to capture the human experience of the carbon economy, with the concept of the “Boom” standing in deliberate contrast to the geological time of oil and the timescale of the “Anthropocene.” Archaeology, it seems to me, is a good tool to think across timescales, but even then, we perhaps have only started to scratch the surface of understanding how material in our contemporary world makes manifest in an immediate and person sense both the immeasurable expanse of deep time and the centuries-long encounter with modernity. 

Reviewing An Archaeology of Structural Violence

Over the weekend, I re-read Michael Roller’s book, An Archaeology of Structural Violence, for a formal book review. I excitedly blogged on this book a couple of years ago, but I didn’t exactly read it with an eye toward writing a formal review. 

It turns out that writing a formal review is much harder than reading a book for my own research and this book was especially challenging for some reason. Here’s my first effort at it:

Michael P. Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a Twentieth Century Coal Town is a provocative and compelling study of, Pardeesville and Lattimer, two former company towns outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the heart of the state’s middle anthracite coal fields. The book has two goals. The first is specific and focuses on the particular history of these communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. For this, Roller draws on archival material, oral histories, and archaeological field work. The second is more general and perhaps more significant. Roller uses the specific history of these communities to elucidate the various forms of structural violence that have shaped the 20th century more broadly. In this way, the book contributes to a long-standing and important theoretical conversation in historical archaeology that explore how racialization and labor, capitalism and consumerism, and heritage and suburbanization broke down collective forms of life and create modern individuals susceptible to exploitation. Roller frames his goals with the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, an episode of lethal violence by deputized citizens and law enforcement against striking immigrant union members protesting unjust labor practices in the anthracite mining industry. This moment of subjective violence offers a foil to his diatonic treatment episodes of structural violence across the remainder of the twentieth century.

The book is complex and and its precisely articulated and expansive theoretical framework resists easy review. After a perfunctory introductory chapter, Roller concedes to convention and makes an initial effort toward framing the history of the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania within a more expansive theoretical framework. Roller anchors his definition of structure violence in various Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers as well as critical theory, psychoanalysis, and literature. Giorgio Agamben and Hannah Arendt inform Roller’s understanding of the connection between nationalism, race, and capital long twentieth century. In this context, the immigration process striped new arrivals of their rights as citizen or subject and reduced them to “bare life.” This created conditions where they could form pools of inexpensive and surplus labor which capitalism, and the vagaries of national coal markets, required for profit. Roller draws upon Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin to articulate a concept of governmentality which both subjects individual freedoms to the state and accelerated the creation of citizens as consumers. This process involves breaking down their collective ethnic, religious, and social identities and replacing them with individual rights defined in relation to state and to capital as both producers and consumers. This change did not occur all at once, through over “nuanced periodicity of structural violence” across the longue durée of the twentieth century.

Roller continues to refine and adapt his model of structural violence through the following chapters which consider both singular episodes of physical violence and violence associated with everyday life in the the coal industry, in company towns, and in the region’s struggling post-war economy. Chapter two provides a brief survey of the history of the Pennsylvania anthracite coal industry which emphasizes the key role of waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Chapter three drew upon archival evidence and archaeological prospecting in an effort to untangle the events of the Lattimer Massacre which left 19 striking miners dead and forty more injured when law enforcement and deputized citizens fired into the marching miners in an effort to disperse the unarmed crowd. From an archaeological standpoint, the recovery of three or four fired bullets dating to late-19th century adds very little to our understanding of the events.

Archaeology plays a larger role in chapter three which Roller dedicates to the study of the two company towns, Lattimer No. 1 and Lattimer No. 2 (now Pardeesville) and the development of neighborhoods of “shanties” adjacent to the neatly organized rows of company housing. Roller argues that these shanty towns developed contemporary with the company towns and represented a deliberate strategy by the companies themselves to maintain a supply of low-paid immigrant workers as a surplus labor supply necessary to ensure the maximum profitability of the coal mines during the early twentieth century. Historical maps and aerial photographs, oral histories, and a targeted excavation of one now-demolished home offered a narrow glimpse into the ephemeral histories of these buildings. Chapter five focused on the analysis of privy deposits excavated from the home. The deposit was the product of a single clean up event in 1959 and consisted of household material dating from the middle decades of the twentieth century. Rollers uses this material to explore the development of machinic mass consumerism. At the very moment when the mining economy of northeastern Pennsylvania falters and the company towns released to become private property and public institutions, the residents of these towns demonstrate their own place in American society by consumption habits explicitly developed by the state and the private sector. The ideas explored in this chapter are among the most significant in the book and produced a stimulating debate in volume 53 this journal.

The final two chapters consider the moments of structural violence that occurred after the decline of coal. The chapter six deployed psychoanalytic theory to considering how the strategies developed by the communities who continued to live in the former company towns allowed them to find enjoyment in the emerging post-Fordist economy. Roller emphasizes the existence of surplus enjoyment present in communities fortified through their shared struggle to survive in the mining economy and is manifest through the self-sufficiency earned through backyard gardens to religious festivals and a deep sense of community. The final chapter considers the breakdown of these strategies in the face of the relentless pressures of late-twentieth century post-Fordist individualism which dissolves the tightly knit coal-patch communities and reconstitutes them as atomized suburbia while paradoxically seeking to benefit from a nostalgia for the region’s industrial past.

Roller’s book offers a rich theoretical template for the diachronic study of structural violence over the long twentieth century. Readers looking for a detailed study of the archaeology of extractive industry in Pennsylvania coal country will likely be disappointed by the relative lack of attention to the industrial archaeology of labor in the various aspects of coal production. The book likewise lacks discussions of comparanda outside of a narrowly regional context nor does it explicitly contribute to recent surge of interest in community archaeology. These limitations should not overshadow the book’s contribution to the history and archaeology of capitalism and structural violence in the twentieth century. Roller’s work offers a nuanced and sophisticated template that should exert an meaningful influence in the discipline for years to come.