Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: Six 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 six 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. 

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 six of the first seven chapters with the latest in bold:

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

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

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

Archaeology on Campus

This weekend, I read Russell K. Skowronek and Kenneth E. Lewis’s ten-year-old Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia (2010). It is an edited collection of articles that deal with excavations on American college campuses. The book is very solid and while it does not contribute much to the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, it does help situate archaeological work on college and university campuses in a broader context.

Here are a few thoughts on this book that will contribute to my ongoing chapter writing:

1. College Archaeology and Historical Archaeology. I was aware of many of the campus archaeology projects presented in this volume, but, in many cases, I did not realize how long-standing this work was. In fact, campus archaeology is essentially as old was historical archaeology itself with important projects at Harvard and the University of South Carolina beginning in the 1970s just as historical archaeology itself was finding its footing in the US.

I was a bit surprised, however, that despite being contemporary with the emergence of historical archaeology, the studies presented in the volume seem not to engage much (or at least explicitly) with Orser’s famous “haunts” of capitalism, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. Of course, one could easily enough argue that the campus itself is so saturated with these four elements of contemporary society that explicit references to these themes would be insultingly redundant. That being said, it is interesting to me how little the articles in this book engaged the larger issues at play in historical archaeology (in contrast, say, to the work of Laurie Wilkie in her The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) published the same year.)  

2. As Public Archaeology. Excavations on college and university campuses have produced excellent opportunities of public archaeology. The visibility of campus excavations, the long-standing interest in campuses as places of memory (see below), and the interest in tradition and history that supports many aspects of campus life, positioned archaeological work as a natural extension of the kind of public history that already saturates college and university life.

It is hardly surprising that many of the excavations featured in this book took place on campuses that take particular pride in their “antiquity”: Harvard, William and Mary, UNC, and Michigan State. The interest in the early days of these campuses (even if the excavations failed to produce “Thomas Jefferson’s lost pocket watch”) complemented and amplified existing historical claims and arguments for persistence and venerability that characterize so much university “boiler plate” marketing material.

It may well be that good archaeology makes good marketing.    

3. The Limits of Text. Most universities have histories that trace the develop of the institution and the associated “great” men and women who guided the schools through their formative years. In general, these histories emphasize key institutional developments – curricula, faculty accomplishments, campus construction, and founding of new divisions and programs – which are frequently well documented in university archives and annual publications.  

Less common are sources that shed light on student life. In some cases, this is because student life was varied and dispersed and more susceptible to the occasional glimpse than the sustained view. In other cases, student life, and the private life of campus in general, took place intentionally outside of public view in ways that were consistent with the rise of respectable bourgeois values across American life. Campus archaeology has shown a particular interest in the private aspects of campus life especially when they contradict the sanitized public documents presented in institutional history or complicate views of institutional history.  

4. Campus and Memory. Most university campuses serve as places of memory for students (and even some faculty) as a result documenting changes to campus over time becomes more than just an exercise in historical work. Campus archaeology has the opportunity to contribute to memory work by preserving layers of campus experiences even as the university campus undergoes consistent adaptation (see below). 

Most university campuses are festooned with monuments to real or imagined pasts. Memorials to departed students, member of the university community, administrators and leaders emphasize the persistence of the university campus. Campus excavation, in this context, offers a performative confirmation that the past matters and institutions will remember.

5. Documenting Adaptation. Of course, the counterpoint to the campus as a place of memory is the campus as a dynamic landscape continuously adapting to the new needs of the community and the institution’s mission. 

The excavations presented in this volume reveal campuses in almost constant flux and made clear that the adaptation of campus buildings did not always reveal itself in the formal textual record of the institutions. Much like the history of the private life of the campus community, the history of a campus in flux runs counter the prevailing trends in the institutional record which tends to emphasize the persistence of campus structures, spaces, and traditions.

The tension between memory and practice complements the tension between tradition and progress that stands at the center of the post-secondary mission.   

Three Things Thursday: Ruins, Books, and the Quarterly

Things are a bit busier than usual these days, so I thought I’d share some of the stuff rattling in my office with a little Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m pretty sure that I won’t write it, but someone should really pull together a review essay on recent books about ruins. I’m hoping to finish a short review of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities (2020), which I’ve drafted here, and a few weeks ago, I read and enjoyed Filipe Rojas’s The Pasts of Roman Anatolia (2019). I read and found useful parts of Simon Murray’s 2020 book, Performing Ruins, which stands at the intersection of archaeology, drama, and social critique. It wouldn’t be difficult to add Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling new edited volume Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (2020) or the massively collaborative Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (2020) volume to the list. Lynn Meskel’s  A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (2018) fits the theme on the basis of its title alone (I’ve blogged about it here) and Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) would fit into a larger conversation about ruins and ruination as well. Finally, Susan Stewart’s book, Ruin Lessons (2020) has been languishing on my “to read pile” for most of the year and I just need to suck it up and read it.

Obviously not all of these books consider ruins in the same way which perhaps makes a kind of comparative review a bit awkward. On the other hand, the range of different approaches to ruins could make a kind of oddly compelling essay in the right hands. 

Things the Second

It’s always great to get some media coverage for a book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This week the Williston Herald published a nice interview with Kyle Conway about Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. One thing that struck me about this article is that not only did it do more than just rely on the book’s press release, but it also — and perhaps more importantly — drove traffic to the book’s webpage. More than that, this traffic resulted in downloads. For an open access press like mine, downloads are a pretty precious commodity because they mean books are getting into people’s hands.

The Digital Press is also excited to announce that One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 is now available from The Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Proceeds from the books sold there will go to support the maintenance of the Commonwealth Monument. If you’re thinking about buying this remarkable little book, now is a great opportunity to buy it and make a difference.

Finally, over the past six months, Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2018) has become a surprise best seller for The Digital Press. Following on this success, Dr. Burin was invited to host one of Humanities ND’s “Brave Conversations” about the electoral college. The event is online and, frankly, a bit pricey at $50 for a non Humanities ND member, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it! You can check it out here.

Thing the Third

This time of year is, for the foreseeable future, NDQ time. This means I spend hours processing contributions to the Quarterly, organizing paperwork, and putting the volume into some semblance of order. I detailed my process here.

What makes this all tolerable is that I also get a chance to spend time again with our accepted submissions. This means re-reading the poetry, fiction, and essays that make their way into each issue of the Quarterly.

My excitement usually gets the better of me and I begin to share some of the content from the issue on the NDQ blog. This morning, I shared two of John Sibley Williams’ poems. Go and check them out here.

More on Campus Archaeology

At this point of the semester, I’m resorting to all sorts of gimmicks to keep some kind of writing discipline.

This morning I have a Zoom meeting at 8 am so my goal is to write until 8 am, do a quick edit after my Zoom call and then move on to my next impending catastrophe (which I believe is processing North Dakota Quarterly contributions). I’ll obviously post the results of my frantic writing morning. 

Here’s what I got today. It’s all part of a chapter for my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can read more about the book here and more about this particular chapter here.

This picks up where my last post left off.

Timothy Webmoor and his colleagues studied Building 500 on Stanford University’s campus prior during a phase of abandonment prior to its repurposing as the Stanford Archaeology Center. Their work applied a wide range of experimental techniques that sought to capture the complicated interplay between materials and objects associated with this building. From the start, they recognized in Building 500 a common kind of building on university campuses. It was neither a ruin of the kind that has attracted photographers to places like Detroit in pursuit of “ruin porn,” nor was it a building in continued, active use. The indeterminate state of the building, perhaps evocative of the process of revaluation described by Michael Thompson in his “rubbish theory,” obscures its status as a ruin as it undergoes continuous transformation into new, useful, forms. The constant regeneration of buildings across university campuses reflects the practical realities of these fixed investments and finds a parallel with the processes that encourage the refitting of buildings that make up the “tail” of military sites. Moreover, it produces “transitory ruins” that preserve signs of abandonment, ruination, reuse, and adaptation that challenge conventional archaeological practices and emphasize the ontologically blurriness of ruins as a category. For Webmoor and his team, this encouraged holistic practices of documentation that challenged archaeology’s traditional commitment to metrology and the dividing the whole into parts as a means of complete documentation. Instead, Webmoor employed overlapping practices of documentation that included both conventional practices such as photography and textual description as well as a range of video techniques, audio recordings, maps, illustration, and list making designed to represent the messiness and complexity of this building. For Webmoor, these approaches reflected an interest in understanding the materiality of the building as not simply a passive object awaiting documentation, but as an active participant in the archaeological process. The fluid responsiveness to the ruins themselves produced methods of documentation that emphasized a care for objects and their role in creating our shared world.

The application of these techniques to a building on a university campus may be more than an exercise in convenience. While Webmoor stresses the proximity of ruins in our daily lives, campus architecture represents a distinctly dynamic assemblage of buildings and experiences. Not only are campus buildings regularly adapted and repurposed to serve the needs of a changing group of students and faculty, but, perhaps paradoxically, they represent the material backdrop for students during a key transitional time in their social lives. This sense of attachment is manifest in the fondness of Zeta Psi members for their former house on campus and their concern that the new house has compromised the sense of brotherhood among more recent fraternity members (Wilkie 2010). Despite the significance of architecture to the experience of campus life, buildings are also continuously falling in and out of ruin and abandonment as they are repurposed to serve different functions and to maintain pace with the changing expectations of research, learning, and student life.

In 2018 and 2020, I worked with a small team of students to document two buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Our work was very much informed by Timothy Webmoor and his teams approach to Building 500 on Stanford’s campus, but also embraced many of the pedagogical goals articulated in the work of Wilk and Schiffer. The work in 2018 focused on a pair of buildings associated with an institution called Wesley College which after being a partner with the University of North Dakota for nearly 50 years was purchased by UND in the 1960s. The two buildings originally housed dormitories, classrooms, recital halls, and administrative offices for students who attended classes at both Wesley College and UND. After the purchase of the college, however, the buildings underwent significant renovations and served as laboratories, faculty and staff offices, and classrooms before being demolished in 2018 as part of a wider effort to reduce the campus footprint.

By the time our team gained access to the building, it was formally abandoned by its previous occupants and the classrooms, laboratories, and offices were no longer in use or accessible to the public. At the same time, the building remained cluttered with objects that were either too large to easily remove, outdated, disposable, or otherwise unsuitable for repurposing elsewhere on campus. We encouraged the students to pay as much attention to the material left behind as part of the buildings’ recent abandonment as the earlier transformation of the structures and traces remaining of their original use. The students embraced the tension between the more recent assemblage of abandoned objects – from obsolete computers to mid-century office furniture, hard-used classroom furnishings, and depreciated window airconditioners and laboratory technology – and traces of the early-20th uses of the buildings from the partly obscured proscenium arch of the original recital hall to the corner sinks remaining in offices and student names etched in windows and bricks that preserve the original function of the building as a dormitory. Following Webmoor’s lead we documented many of the rooms with video and photography and prepared “Latour Litanies” of objects left behind in offices and labs. We also worked with a member of the music department to record the sound of the recital hall, which while compromised by later architectural interventions, preserved an “echo” of its former acoustics. As part of that program, we recorded a final concert in the recital hall with a small live audience situated amid the discarded classroom furnishings. The acoustic signature of the building became part of another work that combined music, video, and performance as a way to situate the abandonment and demolition of these buildings as part of a larger critique of higher education in the US and on our campus. Finally, upon discovering that one of the buildings was a memorial to a soldier who died during World War I, we organized an public ceremony designed to recognize the memory of this individual as well as the demolition of this building nearly 100 years after the end of hostilities.

The combination of multimodal documentation practices and performance located the near contemporary use of this building amid a long tradition of adaptation and reuse. This not only complicated idea of abandonment and ruin on a university campus, but also revealed a range of strategies, practices, and temporalities that produced the assemblage left behind by the last occupants of the building. The prevalence of outdated technology, for example, suggested strategies designed to maintain obsolete and near-obsolete computers for certain kinds of technical uses. This may well have reflected the ebb and flow of resources acquired through research grants which allowed for the large scale updating of technology, but then encouraged the reuse and maintenance of this technology well beyond its typical use-life. We also encountered how architectural adaptation to early 20th century buildings transformed elaborate spaces designed to communicate masculine values and refinement into less distinctive, practical spaces. The formal living room of the male dormitory, Sayre Hall, featured coffered ceilings, wood panelling, mosaic tile floors, a fireplace, and large windows and French doors recreating the ambience of urban, male-only, early-century social clubs. The addition of a drop ceiling, wall-to-wall carpeting, modern doors, and wall plaster overwrote the prestige communicated through the earlier space and created a room well-suited, in its final phases, as a computer room for campus technology services. The more functional arrangement of the room made it essentially interchangeable with any number of similarly functional spaces on campus and susceptible to being demolished in an effort to reduce the practical footprint of campus buildings.

From Camps to the Contemporary Campus

This morning, I finally got back to working on my long simmering book project, and I picked up where I left off well over a month ago. My current chapter is on military camps and college campuses. I had a completed draft of the first part of chapter done toward the end of July, and now I’m turning my attention to a brief survey of archaeological work on contemporary life on college campuses. 

Ideally, I’ll conclude this chapter with a brief summary of my work on the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

Here’s what I wrote today.

Christopher Tilley and Kate Cameron-Daum in their study of the activity of the Royal Marines in the East Devon Pebblebed heathlands noted that the unique landscape fo the pebblebed heathlands served the rigorous training undertaken by the Royal Marine Commandos in this landscape (2017). This landscape plays a key role in shaping the body of the soldiers as they endure grueling weeks of training activities set against human and natural features in this distinctive environment. From copses of trees and hills to paths, foxholes, and water features cut into the hard pebbly ground of the heath, the experience of training in this unforgiving terrain contributed to the sense of camaraderie among Royal Marines as well as their tactical abilities (Tilley and Cameron-Daum 2017, 84-123). Like the Nevada Test Site and the Woomera rocket range in South Australia, sites such as the East Devon heathlands formed part of the sprawling battlefield of the Cold War and in same cases to the 21st-century “War on Terror.”

The Cold War, however, did not play out only in military training and testing sites. American college and university campuses likewise contributed to the shaping of generations of citizens who contributed to the larger scientific, political, and cultural project that reinforced and critiqued the Cold War rivalry between totalizing views of democracy and capitalism and those of communism. As Laurie Wilkie’s brilliant study of the fraternity Zeta Psi on the University of California’s Berkeley campus has shown, fraternity life played a key role in shaping the white, male, upper class identities of the fraternity’s brotherhood. Through a careful and creative reading of material culture, architecture, and documentary sources, Wilkie traced the role that Zeta Psi fraternity played in shaping the identity of its brotherhood and reflecting and amplifying the larger social situation of American university life and culture in the late-19th and early-20th century. Her excavations of the two generations of Zeta Psi fraternity houses that had become the property of the University of California in the 1950s demonstrated the potential for archaeological work to reveal a nuanced and deeply human image of fraternity life that navigates a complex middle ground between the dystopian visions of fraternity life present in the mass media and the utopia aspirations of their founders (Wilkie 2010, 7-8).

Wilkie conducted an archaeological field school at the Zeta Psi fraternity house where she worked with students to document and excavate the site. This approach represents a significant trend in the discipline (Skowronek and Lewis 2010). On campus field schools not only offer more inclusive opportunities for students (Dutton et al. 2019) but also provide good opportunities for outreach to the campus community whose support is often vital to the sustainability of programs (Klein et al. 2018). The results of such field work invariably complicate the relationship between often-pious official histories of the campus community and evidence for the lived experience of student (and faculty life). Dutton’s discovery of bullet casings dating to the end of the 19th and early 20th century in excavations on Brown University’s campus suggest that students did not take contemporary on campus gun bans serious at that time (Dutton 2019, 307). Similarly, work at the former Zeta Psi house produced a significant number of alcohol bottles from the era of probation indicating that the residents of that house continued to consume alcohol despite the legal ban (Wilkie 2010, 195-199). These kinds of the disjunctures between official policies and rules and practices are ubiquitous in historical archaeology. In general, attention to the archaeology of the contemporary university and college campus’s has focused on the past. This is consistent with the often conservative attitudes toward campus life and the physical fabric common at American universities. The emphasis on tradition as a way to create memories shared across generations of students creates an environment where archaeology would complement the larger mission of the university in preserving and presenting its own past and image of persistence.

Several attempts, however, have been made to focus more narrowly on the archaeology of contemporary campus life. In the early 1980s, Wilk and Schiffer, for example, proposed a class that used the material culture of the University of Arizona as the basis for studying and documenting archaeological formation process, stratigraphy, survey, and hypothesis building as well as a more acute understanding of modern material culture (Wilk and Schiffer 1981). They started by introducing students to evidence for wear patterns, architectural stratigraphy, and discard patterns across campus on a material culture tour. Students were encouraged to develop hypotheses for these patterns and eventually document them on their own. More recently, Stacey Lynn Camp’s “Campus Trash Project” at the University of Idaho integrated some of the lesson of William Rathje’s garbology project with contemporary environmental and conservation concerns on the university campus (Camp 2010). Like most campus archaeology projects, part of the goal of Camp’s work was to train students in methods of intensive archaeological documentation. By documenting the distribution of trash across campus, the discard practices associated with regular events like tailgating, and the impact of trash on ecologically sensitive landscapes, Camp’s project sought also to inform policy decisions and propose better ways to manage discard on campus. In a similar project G. Logan Miller developed an archaeological methods class designed to documented the distribution of cigarette butts on the Illinois State campus (Miller 2017). The decision to document cigarette butts, in a time when many campuses are going smoke free and many see smoking to be in decline, served to demonstrate that archaeology can challenge the “hegemonic narrative“ found in the documentary records. Miller and his students were able to show the cigarette butts were most often recovered in high-traffic areas, but also that most cigarette butts were over a month old and likely moved from their original location of discard. This attentiveness to site formation, time, and distribution created a context that would allow for more refined analysis of his dataset. Their simple conclusion that smoking continues to occur at measurable levels on and around campus contributes to the larger trend in campus archaeology that seeks to complicate traditional narratives of campus life.

Bakken Housing in Sixty Years of Boom and Bust

I don’t usually make a big deal when an article or chapter that I write appears in print. After all, it feels a bit like telling everyone that I’m just doing my job and despite the appearances of this blog, I’m really trying to spend more time promoting and publishing the work of others.

That being said, I’m really happy with the chapter that I wrote with Bret Weber and Richard Rothaus. It appeared this week in Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota 1958-2018.

You can read our chapter here.

I distinctly remember wiring the first draft of this chapter while sitting on the relatively uncomfortable couch at Renos Apartments in Polis on Cyprus. For some reason, I had struggled to think of something compelling to say for this chapter. The volume brings together chapters from a book published by the University of North Dakota Press in 1958 called the Williston Report with a series of new chapters written by experts on the contemporary Bakkem oil boom. Since the Williston Report  deals with housing in a number of different contexts, we had to disentangle the authors’ observations and judgements on Bakken housing from across multiple sections of the book. 

More significantly, we had to figure out how to update their observations both in terms of the ongoing discussion of housing and its relationship to social justice and in terms of the specific situation in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. This means attempting to understand how the view of housing as an investment in the 21st century shaped attitudes toward housing in the Bakken in the context of a highly mobile and increasingly precarious workforce. In short, we consider how different attitudes toward housing and home shaped the Bakken situation in the 21st century. This was particularly appropriate because the 1958 Report was written at a time when many mid-century attitudes toward housing, suburbanization, and associated values were coming into sharper focus.

And, we did this all in a dense and disjointed body of Caraherian prose that is sure to force the reader to search long-delayed predicate and play “find the verb” amid the dense forest of subordinate clauses, appositive remarks, and various particles. We use the word “indeed” far more than is strictly necessary.

If you can wade through what passes for academic writing, my hope is that you’ll find something of interest and maybe even value in our contribution to this book. Even if you don’t, the download is free

The Archaeology of Burning Man

Last weekend, I read Carolyn White’s new book, The Archaeology of Burning Man (2020). It was published by the University of New Mexico Press which has been doing really nice work lately. The Archaeology of Burning Man appears in their Archaeologies of Landscapes in the Americas series. If I were going to write a book on our work in the Bakken oil patch, I would seriously consider sending it to that series!

White’s book, as it title suggests, looks at the famous Burning Man festival that occurs in late August and September in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Over the past decade, Burning Man has attracted over 50,000 people who occupy a massive temporary city constructed on an ancient dry lake bed or playa. The festival is ticketed, but once at Burning Man participants pledge not to engage in any commercial activity, to embrace a gift economy, to work toward radical self reliance, and to leave no trace on the ecologically sensitive desert landscape when the event concludes. The highlight of the festival is the burning of two large structures built for the event: a wooden effigy of a man, on one night, and then, the next night, a large wooden complex called the temple. 

White’s work benefits from not only years of careful documentation of the event, but also collaboration with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, just to be clear) and the even coordinators who provided her with access to almost all parts of the pre-event, event, and post-event planning.

Rather than review the book, I’m going to follow my usual practice of highlighting a few things about the work that are useful to my work on the archaeology of the contemporary world.  

1. Description. The core of this book is a series of detailed description of various context in and around “Black Rock City.” While White works at different scales, starting with a detailed discussion of the planning and organization of the city itself, she nevertheless remains focused on the kind of detailed description characteristic of archaeological work. Such “stratigraphic” attention to detail not only captured various spaces and sites at a moment, but also emphasized the human scale of the event. Only rarely did her descriptions go beyond the space encountered by a person moving through various contexts in the city whether those are associated with the staff attending the city’s main gate or the various temporary domestic spaces occupied by participants in the festival. As a result, the book only rarely steps back and offers a cartographic perspective on Black Rock City.

As an archaeologist of the contemporary world, White’s attention to detail really made me happy. So many books and articles on contemporary sites feel descriptively impoverished when compared with the level of detail presented in the archaeology of an ancient site. In fact, most archaeology of the contemporary world leans rather heavily on winnowed descriptions bolstered by theory or presented in order to advance a particular argument rather than to report on the situation. White’s work runs counter to this. While she includes a discussion of theory in the beginning of her book (and this, to be frank, feels a bit like something added at a reviewers request), most of the book eschews overtly theoretical reflection and privileges granular descriptions that rarely even go so far as to offer observations on function of objects present in a space. 

2. Formation Processes. White’s attention to the entire process of constructing and disassembling Black Rock City on the Nevada playa offers fascinating insights into formation processes in the 21st century world. As part of the Burning Man ethos and their agreement with the BLM who oversees the Black Rock Desert, the participants agree to leave no trace. As a result, the entire structure of Black Rock City is meticulously removed from the desert playa and the surface of the ground is carefully restored to its pre-Burning Man state. 

Of course, the practice of building and then removing an entire city of as many as 70,000 people from the landscape in less than two months is a distinctly modern (and probably late modern) form of formation processes that reflects not only contemporary attitudes toward the environment and nature and the massive capacities of modern equipment and the intensive communication and enforcement of social expectations.

Much of this speaks to how speed works in the 21st century (along the lines of Virilio’s dromology). Even a city can be ephemeral as people, things, and, of course, capital move in ways that explicitly reduce their visibility. The rapid deployment and removal of the Burning Man festival events also reveals the artificiality of the our modern concept of nature. The pristine character of the Black Rock playa does not reflect the absence of human activity at the site but its intensive and highly regulated presence. Like the deep horizontal bore holes in the Bakken that leave almost no traces on the surface, the meticulous removal of the Burning Man encampment speaks to our increasing ability to create the presence of absence in the landscape and (echoing somewhat the work of Kostis Kourelis that I discussed yesterday) transform places in non-places almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, a careful archaeologists or pedologist might be able to recognize the signs of  manicured nature long after the Burning Man organizers removed Black Rock City. At the same time, the ability to remove “MOOP” (matter out of place), speaks to new ways of thinking about the place of humans in our surroundings in an era catalyzed by the ability to deploy intensively energy and resources.

3. People and Places at Home. White focused particularly on domestic spaces in Black Rock City as they existed as individual camps (which might house as many as 50 people) and in villages (groups of camps around a particular theme). Because she always worked at the human scale, the difference between a large and small camp or a camp that was part of a village or standing alone was sometimes hard to discern. From an archaeological perspective, then, the desire to emphasize the smallest possible context sometimes obscured the larger processes at work.

For example, I often found myself wondering what the arrangement of objects revealed about the function of domestic spaces. While White followed Henri Lefebvre distinctions between public, private, and intermediate spaces these were largely dependent on the arrangement of domestic space in relation to obvious public spaces such as roads. This was largely convincing, but at times I wanted to understand more clearly how people used their public and private spaces and how these uses complicated our understanding of public, private, and intermediate. A Roman house, for example, had public space that was nevertheless clearly marked off from the space of the road and as a result, access to the public space of the house was still a sign of some privilege (especially when compared to access to the road outside). A “client” gained privilege through the access to the home of a prominent “patron” through his presence in the public, yet also restricted, space of a patron’s home. 

I found myself curious about how access to public and private spaces in Burning Man camps not only defined the assemblages present in these spaces, but also communicated various relationships between individuals and groups. I also found myself curious about what people did when they gathered in public space and how this differed from private space. (A tempting little intimation came when White noted a space where folks could gather that was not visible from the street, but they could be easily alerted to the presence of law enforcement). Certain things like cooking appeared to take place in public and in private spaces in various camps suggesting that certain activities served different function and spoke to the diversity of approaches to life in Black Rock City.

4. People and Places within the City. In a related sense, I never got a clear sense for what happened at Burning Man. I understand, of course, the burning of the man and the temple as culminating events. I also appreciate the spirit of cooperation, fellowship, and creative camaraderie that the event encouraged, but I’m less clear on what people did, on a day-to-day level, in the Black Rock Desert. 

This may be part of the consequence of White’s focus on domestic space and the adoption of private, public, and intermediary as the basic modes for interpreting these spaces. This distinction between public and private, however, leaves much unsaid. Public space in camps seems to mainly function around eating, drinking, and socializing, but public space across the entirety of Black Rock City is harder to understand. References to yoga and dance classes, “art cars,” and even concerts offer tantalizing glimpses of the range of public activities at Burning Man, but how these shape a city dedicated almost entirely to performances and social activities (as opposed to economic or political ones) remains unexplored. 

To be clear, this book is good and, more importantly, it is significant for the archaeology of the contemporary world in an American context. To my mind, it is the first book length treatment of a contemporary site that fully embraces an approach grounded in American historical archaeology. Jason DeLeon’s work is great and important, of course, but his book length work, The Land of Open Graves, defies any single method drawing as heavily on ethnography, photography, and public policy discussions as archaeology. My work, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, was perhaps too playful and experimental to be easily classified and has few archaeological precedents. Bill Rathje’s book length work was journalistic in tone and lacked the rigorous scholarly apparatus of White’s book. In this way, it is a watershed in our field and an important contribution to the archaeology of the contemporary world. 

The Archaeology of Refugee Camps in Greece

This blog is all about conflicts of interest and, in that spirit, I want to recommend a really great article by my friend and collaborator Kostis Kourelis in the most recent issue of Change Over Time.

The article is called “Sites of Refuge in a Historically Layered Landscape: Camps
in Central Greece” and is part of an issue dedicated to the heritage of war, conflict and commemoration. Instead of the usual consideration of battlefields, cemeteries, and other monuments established to mark fixed places in the landscape, Kostis plots the movement of a group of migrants through a series of camps in Greece over the course of a single year (2016). The movement of this group of people (and their fragmentation at various points) and the ephemerality of the camps in which they lived offers a counterpoint to our conventional idea of imagining spaces of heritage or historical memory as fixed places. 

Of course, there is precedent for places of movement being recognized as national moments (e.g. various sections of the Oregon Trail, for example). At the same time, as Charles Hailey notes in his classic study of camps, ephemeral architecture may well represent the future of housing, work, and life. More than that, there is something particularly urgent in the need to mark the experiences of groups and individuals in motion and the artifacts associated with their lives. If the experience of forced migration and being a refugee involves reducing individuals to mere life (as Giorgio Agamben has argued), then finding ways to represent this process in a persistent way presents an opportunity for resistance. A heritage of the ephemeral, the intentionally marginalized, and the disenfranchised represents a critique of the power of the nation state as a source both of the past (as traditional heritage tends to assert) and of the privileges of life so frequently associated with citizenship and legal rights. 

Kostis’s article is more elegant and subtle than my assertions here. More than that, he does a nice job documenting the sites of camps and their features as well as their historical situations in Greece. Contemporary camps for migrants often stood alongside planned villages established in the aftermath of the exchange of population in the 1920s reflecting Greece’s long history of accommodating new groups. The movement of contemporary migrants also intersected with the longer history of Greece both as part of the Ottoman Empire and from the Classical period. These intersection reveal another key line of critique present in Kostis’s article in that it reveals the fragility of the national narrative itself. The presence of a 16th-century mosque of Sinan in Trikala, mere meters from one of the migrant camps connects the Greek city with the Syrian city of Aleppo from where many of the migrants hailed. These pre-national monuments in Greece which have only just begun to be incorporated into a coherent national narrative continued to offer some resistance the alienated state of the Syrian migrants. While they may lack legal standing in Greece, the mosques of Sinan remind us that not only is their current situation historically situated, but also that they move through a shared cultural world where heritage can serve to resist efforts to reduce individuals to mere life.

Kostis’s article got me thinking a good bit about how our work in the Bakken could provide a framework for a heritage of booms and busts not just in one landscape – that is western North Dakota, which in many ways reflects a history of booms and busts – but across the entire US. In fact, the mobile population drawn to North Dakota in the 21st century oil boom are often the same people who participate in oil booms elsewhere in the US or who move seasonally to work in regions with small populations and limited surplus labor. Marking the location of work force housing camps in the Bakken, for example, could serve not only to commemorate the ephemeral, but also to document the interconnected social, economic, and political worlds of 21st century labor.

By challenging the notion of the local as the source for political and ultimately human rights, a heritage of the ephemeral and the mobile whether labor of migrants fleeing from war and destruction, provides a way to resist the reduction of individuals to there mere humanity. 

Grand Forks and the Cold War

As summer winds down and I’m starting to gear up for an uncertain fall semester, I’ve started to think about ways in which some of my little research projects this summer work together.

At the start of the summer, I spent a good bit of time working on a big “windshield survey” of mid-century housing in Grand Forks. This project had three main goals: (1) identify architecturally significant housing from between 1945-1970, (2) develop a sense for the overall character of mid-century housing including trends in housing styles, and (3) trace the expansion of residential housing and neighborhoods in Grand Forks from 1945-1975.   In compliance with our contract, we have no only surveyed around 37,000 houses and produced maps showing the development of housing over time in the city. We are also preparing about 20 more detailed reports on houses that are architecturally distinctive or are representative of particular styles of housing in town. 

At the same time that this project was underway, I started to work on a pair of chapters for my slowly progressing book that considered the impact of post-War and Cold War architecture and ideology on the American landscape. From the rise of communities centered around 20th-century monuments to consumer culture (e.g. malls and shopping centers) and reimagined forms of schools and churches, to the privileging of new high-tech, synthetic, “space age” materials, late-20th century, the Cold War’s emphasis on capitalism, the social conformity mediated by “mainstream” Protestantism and new educational ideas and practices, and the use of technology permeated everyday life in Grand Forks. 

While these trends were national in scope, Grand Forks also had a more proximate reminder of the Cold War. In 1955, the US Air Force started construction on the Grand Forks Air Force base which was initially designed to serve the Air Defense Force’s 478th Fighter Group and the 18th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. The base ultimately became a center for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 bombers (and later B-1Bs and refueling plains), and a range of dispersed radar installations and ICBMs as well as the Sentinel Anti-Ballistic Missile system. In short, the Grand Forks Air Force Base was an important node in Cold War nuclear deterrent as well as the defense of the United States from Soviet missiles.

In some way, then, the GFAFB and the city of Grand Forks represented a complimentary pair of places that reflected the reach of Cold War ideas from the military to the civilian landscape. The growth of the University of North Dakota supported in part by the post-War GI bill and federal grants designed to accelerate the development of science and technology and the construction of Interstate 29 in the late 1950s as part of Eisenhower’s efforts to create a network of standardized roads that would allow for the rapid movement of military equipment throughout the US. 

That the first wave of post-War development in Grand Forks occurred between the early 20th century downtown and the campus of the University of North Dakota is hardly surprising. This pattern of development continued pre-War trends, but also reflected the growing significance of UND to the local economy and community. The construction of Interstate-29 emphasized the north-south development of residential and commercial areas in the city and encouraged development to the south of town. This, paradoxically, drew Grand Forks away from the Grand Forks Air Force Base west of town creating a clear geographic division between the civilian world of the city and the military world of the base. As housing in Grand Forks extended to the south so did new commercial corridors including shopping centers and shopping malls that benefited from easy access to the interstate 

 As we start to wrap up this project, we’ve also begun to think of other features that associate Grand Forks with the Cold War. For example, we wondered how many buildings in Grand Forks included bomb or fallout shelters. We know of at least one or two examples of houses with private fallout shelters in their basements and as well as a few rusting fallout shelter signs that remain visible on public buildings. We also wondered about the relationship between architects and construction companies working in Grand Forks and those on the GFAFB. We know, for example, that both schools on the GFAFB –  Carl Ben Eielson Elementary and Nathan Twining Middle School – share the mid-century modern design of contemporary Grand Forks schools. More than that, the USAF championed mid-century modern design throughout their bases. The affinity, then, between the designs of homes, schools, and commercial establishment in Grand Forks and at the base reflected reciprocal paths of influence that defined how the modern world should look architecturally, geographically, and, of course, politically.

More on Military Camps and the Cold War

The last week has been pretty hectic. In fact, it’s been so hectic, I more or less pulled the plug on working on another chapter of my ongoing (slow going?) book project. After a couple of day of working on syllabi and publishing projects, the old itch returned, though, and I took another swing at the chapter that I’m currently writing.

Chapter 6 will deal mainly with the archaeology of military camps, the Cold War, and the contemporary college campuses. I posted the a very rough draft of the introduction on Monday and then another chunk of it here. Here’s a third installment. It obviously needs work, but it feels like it’s starting to head somewhere.

The vast scale of mid and late 20th century military sites likewise offers a challenge to archaeologists seeking to document and preserve them (Schofield 2005, 24). The Nevada Test Site, for example, saw close to 2000 tests of nuclear devices from its opening in 1951 to implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1992. The site extends over 1360 square miles in southern Nevada and contains a wide range of landscapes, monuments, and artifacts associated with the development of the United State’s nuclear deterrent. As a number of commentators have noted, for most of the 20th century, the NTS represented a major front in the Cold War where the US demonstrated their continued commitment to nuclear weapons and peace through strength. Efforts to document key areas of the site have revealed not only the development and use of this important installation over time, but a wide range of post-depositional processes that have shaped the assemblage present across this massive installation. Archaeological work at Fenchman Flat, an area of almost 100 square miles which saw nuclear tests throughout the 1950s and 1960s, revealed an area with 157 buildings and structures, most of which were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (Beck 2002; Hanson 2011; Johnson et al. 2000). The most unusual of the sites recorded in this area were the wide range of features erected to test the effects of nuclear devices on typical American homes, businesses, and and landscapes. The installation of temporary forests, the construction of realistic suburban dwellings, various forms of bomb shelters and, in one instance, the depositing of a massive metal safe in the blast area served to test the ability of various structures to endure a blast. In many cases, the remains of these features continue to stand on Frenchman Flat as enduring reminders of this site’s role as an active front in a Cold War arms race. The presence of ersatz civilian structures in specific military surroundings offers an inverted image of Paul Virilio’s concept of “Total War” which traced the spread of bunkers, walls, and installations throughout Europe and North America (Virilio 2008, 18).

The work at the Nevada Test Site also included the documentation of Camp Desert Rock which functioned to house soldiers and officers associated with the nuclear tests in the 1950s. The study the camp revealed how the space was adapted to accommodate changing functions over the its short, 6-year history (Edwards 1997; Hanson 2016, 87-94). Moreover, the changes documented by Edwards during her survey of the site showed how the archaeological study of military installations, even from the relatively recent past, could reveal changes that escaped notice even in the copious archival records of the modern military (Hanson 2016, 91-92). For more recent or contemporary sites, the absent or incomplete nature of archival documents reflects secretive nature of US military operations. Archaeologists, however, have found ways to document secret or “black sites” using publicly available satellite imagery. Adrian Meyers’ use of Google Earth to map the development Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta and attendant facilities at the US installations at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba (Meyers 2010). This work, which relied entirely on Google Earth imagery, documented the rapid increase in building associated with the secret detention facilities between 2003 and 2008. Meyers’s revealed the speed with which the war on terror escalated and traced the expansion of the Guantánamo installations. Many of the first structures at the various detention camps were portable units imported from off the site which were later replaced by more permanent concrete style prison buildings. By tracing these changes in architecture at the site, Meyers was able to see the growth in capacity at the various camps and understand the increase in inmates either realized or anticipated at the site. This served to make visible the secret workings of US military installations and also to preserve a record of change at the sites to compare in the future to declassified archival material.

The use of archaeological methods as a medium for protesting military activities by making them visible extends to work documenting protest sites that developed alongside Cold War military installation. For example, work to document the Peace Camp site outside the main gate the the NTS demonstrated the extent and character of protests against nuclear testing, the eviction of the Western Shoshone from their traditional land, and the environmental impact of military activities on the fragile desert ecology (Beck et al. 2007; Beck et al. 2011; Hanson 2016, 100-105). Ironically, the camp’s iterative organization parallel, in some ways, the adaptable character of the various Guantánamo Bay camps or the development of Camp Desert Rock. If the early versions of the camp were largely ad hoc and aside for some fire rings and tent pads small and loosely organized. Subsequent iterations of the camp reveal greater organization and formality with neatly delineated spaces for activities ranging from sleeping, cooking, meditation, art, and the sanitary needs of the protestors. Unlike the hierarchical organization of Camp Desert Rock where VIP visitors and officers had increasing creature comforts, the Peace Camps appears to have remained egalitarian in organization. In this way, it shared the organization of later activist camps from the massive artistic conflagration of Burning Man to protest camps associated with resistance to capitalism associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.