Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

This past week, Bret Weber and I put the final touches on a chapter that we’re contributing to Kyle Conway’s innovative Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018. The book combines the republication of the 1958 Williston Report with a series of new chapters that consider the Williston Report’s conclusions in light of the early 21st century boom. Having read the entire manuscript, the book is a useful response to our tendency to see boom as unprecedented and the challenges associated with them as unique. The similarities between the 1950s boom and the 21st century boom in Western North Dakota and local responses, demonstrate that while all booms are not the same in terms of scale, character, and setting, it is possible to learn from past booms, to avoid certain mistakes, and to anticipate the future challenges. (Whether we do this or not, has less to do with knowing the past (despite the famous Santayana quote) and more to do with whether we care.)

As you might expect, Bret, Richard Rothaus, and I offered our observations on workforce housing. The contribution isn’t perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. We do a much better job integrating some of our interviews into our analysis and the sections from the 1958 Report and the other chapters in the book offer useful foils and points of expansion for our contribution. 

Check it out here.

And stay tuned for the book in early 2020!!! It’ll be another contribution to our “Bakken Bookshelf”!

Chelmis and Historical Archaeology in Greece

This fall, we received some really helpful reviews on an article that we submitted to the Journal fo Field Archaeology on our work documenting the Modern site of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. Among the comments was the suggestion that we develop the relationship between our work and historical archaeology more fully. Fortunately, I’ve been reading a good bit of historical archaeology over the past couple of years mostly for a project on the archaeology of the contemporary world. Below is my first effort to locate our work at Chelmis in this context. It’s rough, but very fun to write. 

First, historical archaeology has emphasized the impact of capitalism on our material environment. In fact, capitalism is one of Charles Orser’s famous “haunts” of historical archaeology along with colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. While the archaeology of the modern Greek landscape remains in its infancy, there is a clear interest in how capitalism in both the recent past and in the 19th century shaped land use and settlement. [I blogged a bit on some related work yesterday, but one should include here Mark Groover’s survey of the archaeology of North American Farmsteads as well as his important work at the Gibbs farmstead as representative of the interest in capitalism.]  The famous “Contingent Countryside” of the Southern Argolid embodied the changing strategies of Greek communities as they adapted to the demands of regional and transregional markets. A. Vionis work in Boeotia has likewise recognized cycles of economic boom and bust in the Ottoman countryside that along with various political and environmental factors shaped the countryside in the 18th and 19th century. Changes in the furnishing of Greek houses, for example, paralleled the rise of Western bourgeois sensibilities that demonstrated both access to a wide range of middle class goods, capital to purchase these objects, and leisure time to enjoy small luxuries (Vionis 2012, 335-336).

The appearance of mass produced good in Chelmis, like milled nails and tools, aluminum pots and pans, and plastics, demonstrates this community’s changing relationship to markets, to the networks that supplied manufactured goods to the Greek countryside, and to rural practices. The relatively small assemblage of household goods, particularly ceramics, suggests that the buildings at Chelmis were primarily used for seasonal habitation prior to the appearance of mass produced goods at scale across the Greek countryside. A similar trend occurs throughout Western Europe and North America where the assemblages associated with the rural buildings change significantly in response to market penetration in the countryside.         

The study of settlement in the Greek countryside also represents an interest in the archaeology of rural settlement and the countryside that emerged in the UK and, to a less extent, in Western Europe. These studies are not necessarily separate from the longstanding interest in capital, but have tended to focus particularly on the role of modernity in shaping the use of the activity countryside. Chris Dalglish’s book, for example, focused on changes in rural life in Scotland brought about by various rural “improvement” programs of the 18th and 19th century. Charles Orser, on of the grand old dudes of historical archaeology, studied three Irish rural houses from the the same period and considered the changes to the rural landscape as part of the larger process of rationalizing the landscape. In fact, much of the work on the British landscape, as Matthew Johnson has unpacked, seeks to capture the relationship between the modern and premodern world in the countryside and understand not only the world that was lost but also the processes of change.

While the settlement at Chelmis is almost certainly later than many of the rural landscapes that underwent improvement, rationalization, and modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, it nevertheless, was also shaped by efforts of the Greek state to transform the landscape. The development of settlements like Chelmis on land between the steeply terraced fields of the mountain villages and the fertile field of the Argive plain reflected efforts by the Greek government to encourage private ownership of formerly state lands. Transhumant pastoralists often developed these lands which were near their winter pastures and allowed themselves greater economy and social flexibility by creating relationships with villages on the plain. The end of season use of the settlement reflects several trends and policies as well. The decline of transhumant pastoralism in Greece, for example, which scholars have documented over the last 40 years reflects changing attitudes toward the movement of flocks through fields and toward the place of pastoralists in the economic and environmental life of the countryside. Mechanized agriculture has also changed the Greek rural landscape. It’s made temporary rural housing largely unnecessary and made it increasingly convenient for farmers to live full time in villages that also provided state and private amenities ranging from banks, to post offices, grocery stores, cafes, schools and government offices. Finally, urbanization and the inexorable draw of regional urban centers, like Argos and Nafplion, as well as Athens drew population from the countryside and away from rural life ways. 

These processes are not unique to Greece but the material evidence for these changing practices and relationships in the Greek countryside remains underrepresented in archaeological literature and rarely articulated in the context of either the broader fields of European (and particularly British) landscape and rural archaeology or (largely North American) landscape archaeology. Instead, there’s a particular strand of landscape archaeology in Greece which tend to look to Classical antiquity as its point of reference and contact, and this tends to imply a kind of continuity in the Greek countryside. At the same time, Greek scholars have a long standing interest in folkways, vernacular architecture, and historical studies of the countryside that often serves the development of national narratives. Our work at Chelmis is situated at the intersection of these analytical paradigms and also looks to historical and landscape archaeology to complicate our perspectives on the modern countryside. 

Mechinic Consumerism

Yesterday, I started to digest Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology ((2019) 53:3–24), “The Archaeology of Machinic Consumerism: The Logistics of the Factory Floor in Everyday Life” (h/t to Kostis Kourelis!). Roller examines an assemblage from a mining town in Pennsylvania as a way to consider the rise of what he calls “mechinic consumerism.” Mechinic consumerism is a blanket term that describes the network of practices, technology, social forms, and landscapes that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. This network manifests itself in this assemblage through the physical evidence for the growing prevalence of machines in manufacturing, the logistical infrastructure necessary to produce the diverse objects in the assemblage, the recognizability of objects associated with national brands and the shared experience of department stores, a common aesthetic language, and the sheer abundance of objects in this one assemblage.

The article offers a theoretical grounding for this modern assemblage drawing on Marx, Deleuze and Guatari, Althusser, and other lights of the Frankfurt School to expand how we think about the assemblage present in this Pennsylvania privy. Paul Mullins and LouAnn Wurst offer thoughtful and critical comment in a pair of responses and Roller, in turn, responds to their critiques. Since they offer such useful and perspective commentary on this paper (and they’re much better archaeologists and thinkers that I am!), I won’t critique the paper per se, but I will babble on about how it provides a framework for understanding a few assemblages that I’m working to deal with these days.

1. Chelmis. Last spring we submitted an article that was somewhere between a methods article and a preliminary report to the Journal of Field Archaeology. Because this isn’t really a kind of article, we’ve been asked to revise and resubmit. As part of that work we need both to expand our description of the artifacts from the site and to contextualize it more fully in the changes to Greek material culture during dramatic changes that take place within the 20th century Greek landscape, economy, and society.

The site at Chelmis, for example, not only reflects changes in rural land use and settlement structure tracking the development of marginal lands as part of transhumant practices in the late 19th or early 20th century and the ultimate abandonment of these lands with the decline in transhumant pastoralism and changes in the agricultural economy of Greece (and the Peloponnesus) after World War II and the Greek Civil War. Mechanized agriculture, greater economic integration on the national and international level, and changes in rural land use policies shaped the rise and abandonment of Chelmis and the use of the structure at the site. Along with these changes, villages increasingly emerged as the centers of economic, political, and social life connected by roads and other forms of infrastructure to cities and this reorganization of life and movement in the Greek landscape also contributed to the structure of assemblages at Chelmis. 

The deepening integration within political and economic systems in Greece directly influenced the material culture present at the site. The use of milled nails for example demonstrated the changing character of manufacturing in Greece over the life the buildings. Their abandonment as habitation and their episodic reuse as storage offers a diachronic view of changes both to rural activity and the network that such activities require. The presence of donkey saddles, wood and milled metal beds, fertilizer bags, glass veterinary medicine bottles, and plastic Nescafe shakers track not only the use of these places but also discard practices and the access to various objects.

2. The Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the most remarkable things about the assemblage present in the four, now-demolished, buildings that constituted Wesley College on the campus of the University of North Dakota is that they preserved such a diverse assemblage of material. Like the privy studied by Roller, these buildings accumulated objects over their 100 year history and these objects – as well as the buildings themselves – mapped the changing values, resources, and networks that defined higher education in North Dakota over a century. 

From the original donors of the buildings to the tangled masses of obsolete cables found in an abandoned lab space, each set of objects opens onto a complex network informed as much by the expansion of capital and “mechinic consumerism” to regional and supra-regional social networks that blossomed from the marginal and transient spaces of the Northern Plains. I wish I had more time to immerse myself in this project.

3. The Alamogordo Atari Excavations. Two years ago, I wrote an article on the excavation of Atari games in Alamogordo, New Mexico that emphasized the various narratives that intersected to create meaning for this distinct archaeological context. You can read the paper here.  Narratives remain attractive to me as a way of critically access meaning across archaeological assemblages (and, as far as I can tell, the critical engagement with narratives in an archaeological context has not been applied to literal archaeological assemblages or to more theoretically tinged corpora of networked objects. 

To my mind, one of the great challenges of understanding assemblages of objects, practices, methods, and experiences is articulating the overlapping and interdependent meanings that these groups of objects produce. How do we produce narrative strategies that unpack these assemblages with their often recursive and sometimes contradictory meanings without collapsing into redundant, impenetrable, or unrepresentative prose. In some ways, the critiques of Roller’s article offered by Mullins and Wurtz reflected the limits of narrative and presentation in archaeology as much as any theoretical or practical shortcomings.

4. Publishing Archaeology. Mechinic consumerism is about more than just reading and articulating meaning in archaeological assemblages from the past. It also reflects how we produce archaeology through narration and publication. Last spring, I continued a on-and-off project that explores in some sense, the archaeology of publishing archaeology. I argue for the significance of the term “work flow” with its 20th century roots in scientific management practices and elided it (somewhat awkwardly, I’ll admit) with concepts of flow developed by Deleuze and Guattari. You can read that here

A deeper and more critical engagement with the process of publishing and the ecosystem in which it functions – the assemblage – offers a way to consider the impact not only of what we publish, but how we publish. The publication process is as dependent on practices embedded within the larger system of mechinic consumption as the material that we frequently study. The final section of Roller’s paper suggests ways to resist the forces of mechinic consumption that range from recycling to reuse, conservation, and traditional practices that exist outside the pressure of direct market forces. It’s idealistic for me to imagine that my little press can offer real resistance to the pressures of capitalism and consumerism in our society, but if it can scratch out a little garden – no matter how commodified – I’m satisfied. 

Chairs Telling Stories

I read last week that Michael Wolf died. He was a photographer whose work mostly concerned cities. As part of his interest in urban street life he produced a series called “Bastard Chairs.” You can check it out here.

There’s something strangely personal about chairs. They reflect our daily routine and our daily movements. They are our constant companions and the make their forms and limits felt in our bodies. I have a favorite chair at home that reminds my neck and back weekly of our incompatibility. At various times in my career, I’ve collected orphan chairs from around the various buildings where I worked and moved them to my office. They aren’t terrible comfortable or attractive, but they sometimes prove useful. An office or a room without a chair seems particularly abandoned or unoccupied. A chair represents human presence and is a useful metonym for the human who occupies it: e.g. department chair. 

One of my favorite books is Jonathan Olivares, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. (2011), and it was a helpful guide to the abandoned office furnishings in the Wesley College buildings that were destroyed last summer.

Here are some of the chairs left behind. I love how they’re rarely at the center of the photo and often out of focus. At the same time, they represent the absent presence of the individuals and groups who dwelled in these spaces.

IMG 0673

IMG 0479

IMG 0469

IMG 0541

IMG 0503

P1000904

P1000914

P1000954

P1000966

P1000984

IMG 0621

IMG 0607

P1000862

P1000852

IMG 0342

P1150862

P1000781

IMG 0399

IMG 0206

IMG 0356

DSCN4327

P1000728

P1150920

P1000835

P1000755

Rivers, Floods, and Trash

The Red River and and Red Lake River literally define Grand Forks. The founders of the settlement situated it at the confluence of these two rivers anticipating that it would become a profitable regional depot for riverboat traffic moving north and south along the Red River. The Red River valley snakes its way across the now-vanished bed of the glacial Lake Agassiz forming a shallow valley through one of the flattest landscapes on earth.  

As much as the river has defined the geography of the town of Grand Forks, it has also defined its history. A series of devastating floods in the 19th and 20th century, including the massive and highly destructive flood of 1997, have shaped the character of the community and many in Grand Forks reckon recent time by before and after the flood. Each spring, the town turns its eyes to the rising flood waters and the newly constructed flood walls. This spring, the flood hit 48 feet, but this remained well below the top of our 60 foot flood walls.

One of my favorite things is to walk along the edge of the receding flood waters. It forms a temporary beach wrack where debris pools and is stranded by the receding water.

IMG 3671

The retreating waters leave behind lines of debris on tiny ridges marking the maximum extent of the flood.

IMG 3689

Like the coast wrack in Norway described by Þóra Pétursdóttir in her 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205), the waters of the Red River leave behind of their journey along the Minnesota and North Dakota border. Some of the debris redistributed is clearly local like the blue bags filled with dog shit that people use to keep the trails tidy.

IMG 3687

The river excavates and shifts subtly objects dropped on the golf course that stretches along the wet side of the flood wall.

IMG 3708

IMG 3695

The river also returned our love of plastic water bottles, aluminum soda and beer cans, and styrofoam and plastic cups.

IMG 3682

It also reminds us how much we use styrofoam forms, extruded polystyrene, and other plastic objects – like PVC pipe – that float along on the river’s current until it drops this unintended cargo at random ports.

IMG 3701

IMG 3697

Over the last few years, I’ve been working along the banks of the Inachos River in the Western Argolid. Unlike the Red, the Mediterranean Inachos River is primarily a seasonal torrent that cuts deeply through the rocky landscape.

IMG 2700

Like the Red River, the Inachos also carries trash during its seasonal romps through the Argive countryside. In fact, the force of the Inachos is enough to serve as garbage chute for communities along its path who discard trash into its bed which is carried away each winter with the rains.

P1140058

P1140063

If I had a bit more energy and imagination, there is a nice little comparative paper thinking about modern trash in the two riverine landscapes and two situations. 

 

Hyperart

A colleague sent me a fascinating little article in the Norwegian Archaeological Review by Stein Farstadvoll titled “Vestigial Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and
Hyperart” (h/t to Derek Counts). The article applies the concept of Hyperart, developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, to the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Akasegawa defined hyperart as “material vestiges, things that have become detached from their intended purpose and function.” Farstadvoll’s article proposes that a red polypropylene snow stake found in the vestiges of the 19th century landscape garden fit this definition. The snow stake was out of place from a functional standpoint as it was not marking a road edge or feature that needed to be visible during deep snowfall. It was also out of place temporally standing in a landscape otherwise defined by abandonment. The rupture between the snow stake and its surroundings in both the time and the place render the object meaningless or at least profoundly ambiguous. Anyone who has done archaeological work – particularly archaeological survey – has invariably happened across these kinds of Hyperart.

Two little scenes from my work in the Western Argolid may well qualify as Hyperart. One is a Greek coffee cup that hangs from a nail in a wood cabinet in another wise ruined seasonal house (kalyvi) at the settlement of Chelmis.

  
P1020495
It’s not so much that the resident of the house wouldn’t enjoy a cup of Greek coffee from time to time so that the object is out of place. It’s that the cup remains hung by its delicate handle from the nail in the wooden cabinet even after the roof of the house has long collapsed and the house no longer serves the function that would offer an appropriate context for coffee drinking. 

P1020490

P1020493

The juxtaposition between the coffee cup still in its place and the otherwise ruinous condition of its surrounding has never failed to attract our attention. In fact, this past summer my colleagues and I joked about how many photos we’ve taken of this forlorn coffee cup hanging by a nail in a house that is collapsing more and more every year.

The settlement of Chelmis is connected to the nearest village not be bonds of kinship or even, necessarily, regional economy, but by a road and electrical lines. The electrical lines take a more direct route than the road which roughly follows the slightly meandering path of an east-west running ravine. The electrical lines run along a straighter line and cut through olive groves and fields and often stand some 10 or 20 meters south of the road. They provide power to one or two houses that Chelmis that continue to be used and the church of the Panayia nearby. 

P1020502

The posts that support the electrical lines also have street lights. These are strange because in many cases the electrical poles are not near the street. These lights do not light up the street. The might, of course, serve another function, for example, to show whether the power lines have current, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps at some point the road ran closer to the electrical poles. Maybe the electrical poles were supposed to be installed along the road, but for whatever reason were not. We know that during the spring when the Chelmis was occupied for threshing grain and in the winter when the flocks were present, children from would have walked from the settlement to the village for school. Perhaps they would have left in the morning when it was still dark the the streetlights, though misaligned, would have shown the way through the countryside.

Today, they don’t seem to serve any purpose and we’ve never been in that area at night, so we don’t even know if any of them work. Maybe they’re vestigial. Maybe they’ve always been out of place.    

Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.     

 

Defining the Contemporary in Time and Place

The final sections that I need to write for (first draft of) the introduction to my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience serve to define the scope of the book. I’ve located the archaeology of contemporary America in its historiographical and, to some extent, theoretical contexts, but my book still requires some formal limits. In a practical sense, my book is going to be short (<80,000 words) and synthetic and invariably will not be all things to all people. 

As with most books on archaeology, its scope is both chronological and spatial.

For time and place:

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience exists at a dynamic intersection of traditional practices and innovative ways of understanding our relationship with the past and present. This means that any definition of the archaeology of the contemporary must be both provisional and flexible enough to reflect the range of contributions present under this broad banner. The chronological definition of the contemporary world will have less to do with some narrow period centered on the present, and more to do with the predominant economic, political, and social conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This period saw the ascendence of neoliberal economic programs, the development of the internet and greater access to digital technologies, an accelerated pace of globalization with the end of the Cold War, and aa growing anxiety surrounding the human wrought changes in the environment. Moreover, many archaeologists working in the second decade of the 21st century experienced these changes first hand. It also coincides with material that falls within the last 50 years and outside of the conventional (and legal) definitions of protected heritage in the United States. This chronological definition, of course, does not limit our interest only to objects manufactured over the last 50 years or identified closely with this span of time. This book will also follow the lead of Shannon Lee Dawdy, Laurent Olivier, and Alfredo González-Ruibal in recognizing the role of the most distant past in the present and how the interplay between the past and the contemporary complicates the persistent linearity of the modern narrative.

As for the geographic definition of this work, most of the examples will derive from North America and the United States more narrowly. In this way, the book recognizes and seeks to trace a distinctive character of the American experience which in large part reflects the priorities present in the field of historical archaeology. At the same time, trends in globalization and the increasingly fluid movement of goods, capital, and individuals over the last 50 years has introduced significant complexity to traditional definitions of historically constituted regions. The concept of “late sovereignty,” for example, articulates the increasingly blurred boundaries that define the authority of sovereign states in the 21st century. The political and economic power of multinational corporations and the reach of the internet across national boundaries contributes to a declining sense of geographically defined cultures and experiences. The rise of non-descript non-places at a global scale and the the mass movement of populations displaced by political and economic forces has further eroded a sense of provenience and distinctly national experience. This book will still focus on the United States and North America, but it will also be attuned to the various courses of influence, capital and movement that transform the contemporary world.

Ruins and Curated Decay

This weekend I read Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017). It is a pretty great little book that filled my mind with ideas that cut across a number of things that I’ve been working on (or being tempted by) lately. Her book considers an alternative view of preservation that encourages allowing the formation of ruins rather than the continuous intervention necessary to arrest the decay in historical buildings. She draws on examples from the storm-battered coast of the U.K. and rural Montana that illustrate how allowing certain sites to decay and fall into ruination creates a different attitude toward our material world, nature, and time.

In particular, the process of decay undermines the view that historical buildings should persist forever outside of time. Instead, she proposes a post-human view of these buildings that locate them as part of the natural world, recognizes the dynamic character of the building’s materiality, embraces the potential of  fragmentation, and, nevertheless, still places ruins in historical and mnemonic landscapes. Above all, Desilvey emphasizes that conventional practices of preservation are not the only way to produce meaningful heritage.

The book spoke to three of my projects in slightly different ways.

1. Chelmis. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a paper that document the modern (20th century) settlement of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. The site consists of over a dozen Balkan-style long houses in various states of preservation and collapse. What drew us to this site was both a commitment to documenting the 20th century landscape of the Western Argolid, but also our interest in sites of ruin and decay that are not neatly preserved with color coordinated concrete, carefully manicured pathways, and thoughtful conservation plans. The decaying ruins of Chelmis (and sites like it), stand as a kind of counter monument in Greece as they have little legal protection as modern ruins that are both ubiquitous in the countryside and not particularly significant to some national historical narrative (e.g. Classical antiquity, Byzantine and Christian heritages, et c.). In fact, their modest form, association with rural life and transhumant pastoralism, and isolated location provides a scenario where nature and material culture collaborate slowly to obfuscate their history from the national landscape. Our efforts to document these buildings and integrate them into a larger discourse on the Greek countryside is not simply a race against nature and ruination, but part of a larger view of the landscape that is defined by the interplay between natural and cultural processes both diachronically and spatially. These buildings literally embody the work of landscape archaeology.

2. Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This year, I started a term on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission’s job, as far as I can gather, is both to document (or assigns to be documented) historic districts, neighborhoods, and buildings in Grand Forks and also to monitor existing historic sites and work with developers, the community, and city leaders to preserve the integrity of city’s historic landscape. This is a good thing, in general, but the work of this commission is complicated. Grand Forks, like most places in the U.S., continues to see growth and development, some of which runs counter to the commission’s charge of preserving the historical fabric of the community.

Desilvey’s book got me thinking about the various historical landscapes present in Grand Forks. These range from typical historic districts like downtown or the Near Southside Historic District to spaces with more complicated legacies, like the ruins of the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the ghostly traces of abandoned neighborhoods preserved on the wet side of the greenway’s flood wall. In fact, the tension between preservation and occlusion manifests in the city’s fabric and almost total absence of ruins represents the community’s struggle against the terrible destruction power of the almost-annual Red River floods.

3. Wesley College Documentation Project. My study of the four remaining buildings of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota didn’t really understand them as being ruins. I recognized, of course, their complex histories as dormitories, administrative offices, classrooms, and lab spaces. I also realized that what we were doing by documenting abandonment was actually documenting the process of these buildings becoming ruins even though this process was ultimately accelerated by the bulldozer. By taking the abandoned buildings serious, documenting their fabric and the objects left behind, ritualizing their final weeks, and commemorating their history in text, music, and images, we managed to engage with the final months of these buildings before their physical form was removed from campus.

What intrigued me the most was the conversation surrounding these buildings in their final months. There were, of course, those who looked for ways to conserve, preserve, or repurpose these buildings in order to remember the history of Wesley College, its leaders, and these “modern” buildings. By maintaining their presence on campus, they would have also served as a reminder that not all that is progressive, innovative, or modern is necessarily destined to persist, to grow, and to improve. The university administration, of course, had valid reasons to remove these buildings. The cost of ruins on a university campus remains steep and they were no longer contributing practical space to campus functions. They also likely saw these buildings as telling the kind of cautionary tale that they aspired to avoid (or at least obscure): progressive fantasies of campus renewal, innovation, and restoration may fail. Ruins, of course, are not particularly welcome by campus leaders because they remind them of their own futility in the face of social and economic change, nature, and taste. 

The potential of ruins to remind a community of time, materiality, decay, and our deep entanglement with nature make them particular valuable monuments. It is all too easy to consign ruins to the countryside where the traditional line between natural and civilization is ragged and blurred. The deeply progressive hopes of communities and campuses need ruins too to temper their own deeply modern impulse toward continuous improvement and remind us that the present rarely planned and always negotiated.   

Archaeology and the Contemporary

One of the most interesting trends these days in archaeology (and maybe history too) is what I’ll call the “temporal turn.” My suspicion is that it arose from the broader critique of modernity and modern time which arose in the humanities in the 1990s and early 2000s (for example Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (2004)) which originated, in part, in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Among archaeologists, Gavin Lucas’s Archaeology of Time (2004) and Julian Thomas’s Archaeology and Modernity (2004) marked a bit of a watershed in framing the explicit significance of time to our discipline. In the last decade, this interest in time has accelerated both in the humanities and in archaeology and the archaeology of the “contemporary past” embodies in some way this growing interest in how time shapes what we understand and do as archaeologists.

Right now, the final part of my introduction introduces the idea of time and the contemporary and attempts to unpack the complexities of these debates in part to frame what an archaeology of the contemporary world really means. Contemporaneity, for example, has a different meaning to synchrony, and Gavin Lucas has pointed out that contemporaneity primarily indicates “a relation between objects” and that this relationship does not necessarily imply that the two objects were made at the same time or are the same age. For Lucas and most archaeologists of the contemporary world, the appearance of the past in the present is a feature of contemporaneity that resists stratigraphic sequencing or the linear ordering of time. The tension between archaeologist’s interest in seriation and synchrony and the experience of contemporaneity served as a useful challenge to linear views of time, progress, and modernity.

This definition of contemporaneity has inspired archaeologists of the contemporary to think more broadly about how we frame our work temporally. For example, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work on post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrated how patina produced the past in the contemporary world and challenged modern views of obsolescence and progress. Laurent Olivier has similarly argued that archaeological time has parallels with the irrationality of objects and time within memory and the unconscious. Objects appear and disappear from our memory driven by stimuli that we don’t always control or understand in the same way that past appears in the present. Cornelius Holtorf has suggested that pastness is a key element in establishing the authenticity of the archaeological object, but that this is not simply a chronological function. Significantly he argues that how we narrate the past and its relationship to the present plays a key role in producing meaningful pasts.

Archaeologists often establish the relationship between past and present through a series of methodological moves that define our object of study. Excavation, for example, establishes the pastness of objects by revealing them beneath the very ground of the present. The careful scrutiny of objects and attention to signs of use, wear, and patina produces narratives that locate the object in relation to other agents to separate it from the present and to create a sense of pastness. The ironic work of archaeology seeks out the occluded to reveal the hidden reality of objects and our experiences.   

If we begin, however, with an assumption that an object is also contemporary and not essential of the past, then we complicate the traditional narrative and methodological strategies of archaeology that seek to locate objects within the linear time of the modern world. This, in turn, challenges notions of progress, obsolescence, and relentless pressures to innovate inherent to capitalism. Instead, an archaeology of the contemporary world embraces the ruin, patina, the persistent, and the marginal. As Buchli and Lucas noted at the turn of the 21st century, archaeology of the contemporary world can “constitute the unconstituted.” In other words, it’s not simply the work of alienating the familiar through methods, but also the work of articulating the uncanny, the abject, and the traumatic, and even the ephemeral and banal. 

To do this, however, it has to experiment with methods. Rodney Harrison famously suggested that we embrace the surface assemblage as the method and model for an archaeology of the contemporary. The lack of stratigraphic distinction between the deposits insists that we consider the objects as all existing in the present and the assemblage itself the product of sampling strategies established by the archaeologist. Other archaeologists have explored the potential for different narrative structures that abandon the linearity of the modern novel, for example, or the ironic posture of 19th century history in exchange for different ways to understand the relationship between us and objects. Parataxis, for example, juxtaposes different images, narratives, and descriptions and creates the potential for different understanding of time, agency, and objects. (I’m thinking a good bit about this approach to presenting my work with the Wesley College project!).

Contemporaneity also involves an attentiveness to more specific social goals. The modern concept of progress has often served to separate “us” from “them.” When Schiffer and Gould proposed an “archaeology of us” in the 1980s, they recognized the tension between texts and objects, for example, and how archaeology could provide another data point in attempting to create realistic model of human behavior. At the same time, embracing contemporaneity encourages archaeologists to resist the temptation to create others on methodological or chronological grounds and to remain open to voices, pasts, experiences, and objects that we might overlook or otherwise dismiss.