Archaeology of Oil Production: The Bakken in Context (Part 3)

As I race toward the semester finding its footing, I’m still churning away at a few winter break projects including a paper on the archaeology of oil production. I posted the first part of the paper last week and a second part yesterday. Today it’s time for the third part.

At this point, the paper is a bit rough and I think there’s a bit of mission creep visible in the following section, but I figured that I’d better get words on the page now and I can spend some time revising and adding citations over the next week or so.

The Bakken

At this point, this contribution has probably taken a rather abstract turn or proposed an archaeology of oil that is effectively a totalizing archaeology of modern existence. The Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota offers a more tangible case study of part of the contemporary petroleumscape. The Bakken formation itself exceeds 200,000 square miles and extends from the North Dakota-South Dakota border into Saskatchewan and from central North Dakota to eastern Montana. Starting in 2012, the North Dakota Man Camp Project sought to document and analyze workforce housing in the Bakken amid the 21st century Bakken oil boom. Our work in the region allowed us to develop a familiarity with not only its history as an oil producing area but also as a dynamic, modern landscape continuously adapting to the needs of extractive industries.

The earliest history of oil extraction in the Bakken begins in the late 1920s when Big Viking Oil Company and the Standard Oil Company of California sunk a series of deep test wells into a formation known as the Nesson Anticline along the Missouri River in Williams County, North Dakota. These wells did not come into commercial production. In 1951, however, the Clarence Iverson #1 Well nearly Tioga, ND did produce at commercially viable level and the H.O. Bakken #1 well drilled in the same year gave the oil fields centered on the Nesson Anticline their name (Conway 2020 for a survey of this boom). These wells produced “sweet” easy to refine North Dakota crude oil and initiated the first North Dakota oil booms A subsequent boom in the late 1970s, triggered in part by the global oil crisis earlier in that decade, reinforced the potential viability of North Dakota oil fields, but conventional drilling had limited success extracting the oil from the “tight” shale layers of the Bakken and restricted the profitability of the Bakken formation to periods of exceptionally high oil prices. The development of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies in the early 21st century initiated the third Bakken Boom and the emergence of as fracking made it possible to extract Bakken “sweet crude” in more cost effective ways and American the Middle East . These technical improvements invariably led to growing estimates of the size and potential profitability of recoverable oil from the Bakken formation and since 2014 the state’s 16,700 productive wells have produced over 1 million barrels of oil per day, despite the fluctuations in global oil marks.

The long history of oil production in the state of North Dakota has received only sporadic attention. Various surveys in the state, for example, have documented significant well sites including the Iverson #1 Well and the H.O. Bakken #1 well, and they have acquired state site numbers. Other forms of oil infrastructure, including pipelines and gas processing plants, also have received inventory numbers in the state archives. Unlike other major oil producing states, however, none of the petroleum related sites have received nomination to the National Register of Historic Places or undergone HAER documentation. In its most recent historic preservation plan, however, the state has recognized “Petroleum” as a significant context theme for the state and that suggests that more comprehensive documentation is possible. More significantly, as has been the case globally, the history of petroleum production has shaped the archaeological landscape of the state as surveys and excavations associated with the routes of pipelines, gravel pits, well pads, and other infrastructure have provided windows into the state’s and the region’s past.

The irregular efforts to document the material remains of oil production in the state and the ephemerality implied in the concept of the “boom” motivated our research program. The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused primarily on workforce housing and the emergence of so-called man camps along major routes through the area. These temporary housing facilities served the thousands of short term laborers who arrived in the Bakken both to work in the oil industry and to take advantage of economic opportunities that Bakken oil boom created in the region. The largest and most sophisticated facilities formed massive compounds capable of accommodating thousands of workers and providing meals, recreation, and even water treatment facilities. Many more workers, however, found accommodations in smaller facilities, RV parks, or in quasi-legal camps in shelter belts, abandoned small towns, and, perhaps more famously, the Walmart parking lot in Williston, North Dakota. The camps reflected negotiation between architectural forms dictated by the requirements of mobility and the expectations of domesticity created by suburban traditions. As a result, oil not only required housing for the expanded workforce in the oil field but also influenced the form of that housing. Narrow housing units designed to travel on the roads or by rail pulled by vehicles powered gasoline or diesel literally embedded the life of oil workers within spaces shaped by oil. Worker’s efforts to adapt their RVs and mobile homes to the requirements of life in the oil patch, often involve the addition of mudrooms often made of scap wood. Set perpendicular to the narrow length of the units, the mudrooms compromised their mobility and like flotsam blocking the flow of a creek, they attempted to establish a kind of fixity during a boom defined as much by the fluidity of oil as human and financial capital.

Our efforts to document and study these workforce housing sites led us to situate them in an ever more expansive Bakken petroleumscape. At the height of the boom, towering drill rigs and more modest workover rigs, used for well maintenance, arose in syncopated rhythms across the flat prairie horizon. Fracking sites consisted of dense, low-slung nests of pipe, pumps, and trucks often in the various colors of major fracking companies: red for Haliburton and blue for Schlumberger. Once fracked, the tanks, pumps, and pipes disappear and the site gives way to familiar bobbing grasshoppers of sucker-pumps, often painted tan to blend into the low prairie hillsides, standing on concrete wellpadqs and surrounded by rectangles of gravel. Recent improvement in drilling rigs have allowed companies to drill a series of wells on the same wellpad and as a result, more recent wellpads often have more pumps. Interspersed with pumping wells are flares burning off gases associated with fracked wells, low shoulders of pipelines protruding from the ground, and signs for deep injection wells used to disposed of “processes water” used in the fracking process. Tank farms, truck stops, food trucks, man camps, and fenced yards full of well casing and equipment, cluster at discernable nodes throughout the region.

Human movement through the oil patch followed the tidy grid section line roads and major thoroughfares. Rail lines and unit yards often shadow the main roads in the area and offers more visible links between the extraction and mid-stream transportation of the region’s sweet crude oil. The regular appearance of mile-long unit trains marked with the code “1267” on the Hi Line and in various rail yards across the state connects the flow of Bakken oil with larger collection networks. The tragedies in Lac-Mégantic and explosion in Casselton serve as tragic reminders of the volatility of this cargo. While these surface routes structured our encounter with the productive landscape of the oil patch, they also obscured the flow of the various liquids and gasses from well sites. The efficient routes of pipelines for oil, gas, and wastewater in contrast run to gathering stations, tank farms, the Hess gas factory, and deep injection wells.

In this broader context of sites and movements, workforce housing appears as momentary nodes in the network of human capital. These nodes reflect the consolidation of labor at the intersection of financial resources and the physical and historical environment in much the same way as drill sites, pipeline crews, and railyard crews. The ephemerality of these sites reflect the insistent present created by the speed of capital in global markets and its ability to subdue the intransigency of millennia of geology, the remoteness of the region, and the variability of the seasons. In other words, the spatial reach of financial capital, labor, and ultimately the oil itself facilities the rapid consolidation and dissipation of the material traces of human activities in the region.

The protest camps that emerged at the intersection of the Missouri River and the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrate how alternate forms of temporality can disrupt Bakken petroleumscapes that extends hundreds of miles from the source of oil. On the surface, the DAPL protest movement crystalized around the vulnerability of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation water intakes to the route of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River. Nick Estes’s thoughtful analysis of this protest, however, emphasized that it represented not a single response to a particular event, but part of a history of indigenous resistance to colonial control over the land and resources and a responsibility to preserve indigenous landscapes that embody ancestral knowledge, contemporary life ways, and future generations. In this context, the pipeline made manifest the rapacious desires of the present overwhelming the indigenous past. The capital that funded the pipeline anticipates and requires the continued flow of oil from the Bakken despite the proximate risks associated with oil spills and the longer term vulnerability of the world to the destabilizing impacts of climate change.

Archaeology of Oil Production: Petroleumscapes and Oil Time (Part 2)

It’s the first day of classes and I’m pretty excited to begin my “teaching sabbatical” this semester and focus my attention mostly on teaching. Like most sabbaticals, however, just because I’m shifting my focus, doesn’t mean that my other responsibilities will vanish. In fact, I’m working on wrapping up a paper on “The Archaeology of Oil Production” that’s due sometime this spring. 

You can read the first part of the paper here and below is the second part of the paper. 

I’m pretty happy with it so far (especially consider that I am working a bit to a deadline) and would love to get some feedback on it. Feel free to post thoughts, criticisms, or outright ridicule in the comments below. 

Petroleumscape and Oil Time

Efforts to reconcile the spatial locations associated with oil and oil production and the broader context of oil as the key commodity of global capitalism have long occupied scholars. Zigmut Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity appears, albeit indirectly, to owe some of its conceptual power to the liquid state of oil which constitutes the defining element of its value in modern markets. The ability of oil to flow and be stored in a liquid state made it easier to transport to market than coal or natural gas which require more substantial investments. The liquidity of oil parallels the concept of liquidity in economic terms where the ability of human and financial capital to move quickly in response to market pressures and opportunities has become a ubiquitous metaphor in contemporary capitalism. Philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze (1992), anthropologists such as Anna Tsing (2015), and geographers such as Deborah Cowen (2014), have produced probing and critical works laced with the concept of flow as the defining characteristic of late capitalism, modernity, and contemporary life.

Thus oil exists within a conceptual world that encourages archaeology to follow its flow both literally and as the manifestation of dense networks of human, financial, social, and political capital. In this sense, the concept of the assemblage has emerged as a useful tool to understand the interplay between various actors, technologies, and systems that describe the production of oil. While much of this remains tacit among archaeologists studying oil production, scholars outside the discipline are working to establish a robust framework for more sophisticated archaeological interventions. For example, historian Katayoun Shafiee (2018) has drawn upon science and technology studies (STS) in her effort to interrogate the development of Iranian oil industry in the first half of the 20th century. For Shafiee, the physical infrastructure such as drill rigs, pipelines, and the massive Abadan oil refinery exists only within an equally expansive assemblage of intangible diplomatic, financial, and racial infrastructure. The sociotechnical devices that define these relations dictated the colonial character of the material culture (and physical infrastructure) of the oil industry, such as the company town built for Iranian, British, and Indian workers at the Abadan refinery, but also created spaces for resistance which included strikes by Iranian oil workers, nationalization by the Iranian state, and volatility in the diplomatic landscape among oil producing countries. Similar works approaches have sought to unpack the significance of certain forms of technology, such as pipelines, in shaping the geography of oil and forging new political, economic, and social relationships. For example, the massive Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, both became the center of disputes over their technical and material capacities that made visible the complexities of the assemblage associated with oil production. In no ways were the environmental, political, and social subordinate to the technological, material, and economic character of the undertaking.

Carola Hein’s notion of petroleumscapes offers spatial vocabulary tailored to fit the often totalizing landscapes of produced by the petroleum industry. From the oil fields themselves characterized by wells, pumping stations, tank farms, and pipelines to the cluster of refineries and industrial facilities associated with global port cities such as Houston, Rotterdam, Philadelphia, Gujarat (India), and Singapore. Likewise the rise of the automobile and the design of urban space to accommodate the needs of personal and commercial transportation extends the petroleumscape from restricted spaces of industrial production to our everyday lives. An archaeology of oil production that stops short at considering oil’s distribution and use, for example, might overlook evidence for how oil producers created demand for products that resulted from oil refining methods and technology or supported visions of the world that assumed abundant petroleum based energy. At the same time, the idea of the petroleumscape has proposed form of oil heritage which articulates the significance of individual sites within historical networks of production. The sites associated with the now largely closed refineries around the port of Dunkirk in Northern France reflect the city’s century-long place in the global oil industry and includes the refineries themselves, but also ancillary industries, worker housing, and polluted soils that will invariably shape the community’s future. In many ways, abandoned petroleumscapes represent spaces of supermodernity where, as Alfredo González-Ruibal has observed, the hyperabundance of both visible and invisible material created forms of ruin carved out from the nearly incomprehensible scale of the flows produced by the liquid, late modern world.

For González-Ruibal there also exists a temporal dimension of supermodernity as an archaeological period which embodies the overrepresentation of the present which endeavors to destroy not only the evidence for other periods, but also the latent potential that the past possesses for different futures. Thus, the present formed by petroleum extraction, production, and consumption accentuates pasts that invariably culminate in a world made possible by fossil fuels. Alberto Toscano, for example, has argued that the presence of oil often produces “retropolitical” conditions that dictate a nation’s or a community’s political and economic development. In these situations, wealth derived from oil effective short circuited developmental models (e.g. Chakrbarty xxxx) that assumed wealth derived from increasingly industrialized labor would also produce concomitant social and political “improvements.” Thus, oil like so many supermodern developments located so-called petro-states in a present where they are “always-already failing” which justifies colonialist attitudes, interventionist policies, and rapacious economic strategies designed to liberate these states and regions from the source of their misfortune. From an archaeological landscape, the petroleum industry sees the past and the future primarily in terms of its value in the present. Contemporary attitudes toward archaeological sites, for example, represent them as cultural resources of value to the present or available for destruction in the name of economic and political strategic interests. Thus, oil has the capacity to transform archaeological remains from the past into fungible resources that occupy the same balance sheets as technological, political, and social costs involved in the extraction, transportation, and distribution of oil. The cultural resource management operations supported by oil, then, represent one element in the larger process of oil production, and a broadly defined archaeology of oil production should also include a critique of how oil in the present dictates the value of the past. This process is fundamentally similar to the way that  oil reserves primarily represent value as collateral for present wealth.

A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a short paper that examines a class that I taught a few years ago to document the two buildings associated with Wesley College on the University of North Dakota campus. This class ran as a 1-credit companion to a 3-credit course on the university budget.

I finally have a more or less final draft prepared. The paper argues my one credit course embraced what I call a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that rejected the outcome oriented approaches favored by the institution. 

Figure 1

You can read the paper here and do let me know what you think.

Two Article Thursday: Immigrant Journeys in Sicily

For the last couple of years, I’ve had Emma Blake and Rob Schon’s “The Archaeology of Contemporary Migrant Journeys in Western Sicily” from JMA 32.2 (2019) on my “to read” list. Unfortunately, I didn’t even have a copy of the article “to read” it. Fortunately, a colleague came to my aid and I was able finally to read the article and read the very recent piece by Elizabeth S. Greene, Justin Leidwanger, and Leopoldo Repola in the most recent AJA on a similar topic: “Ephemeral Heritage: Boats, Migration, and the Central Mediterranean Passage.”

Both articles documented assemblages associated with voyages across the Mediterranean by migrants looking to enter Italy (and possibly Europe beyond). Blake and Schon look documented five assemblages located near the western coast of Sicily which suggest deposition by small groups of migrants who came ashore nearby. They likely traveled from Tunisia which is the closest point to the western Sicilian coast and, significantly, represented a long standing point of contact between the island and Tunisian coast. In fact, historically migrants cross back and forth for seasonal work and prior to 1990 a passport was not even required. Today, of course, things are different owing as much to changes in border regimes supported by Italy’s membership in the EU in the 1990s to more recent anxieties prompted by populist politics and fears of regional instability. 

Blake and Schon compared the assemblages found near the coast with assemblages documented by Cameron Gokee and Jason De León from the Sonoran desert left behind by migrants who risked the desperate crossing of this dangerous landscape. In some cases, the differences are pretty straight forward. Objects left behind in Sicily did not show the same efforts to camouflage their appearance as those in the desert. In other ways, however, the assemblages suggest similar strategies for migrants. For example, the assemblages showed the discard of clothing, water, and anything else that might indicate travel. They also included hygiene products such as deodorant and body spray that indicated efforts to fit into local society.

There were other somewhat unexpected patterns in these assemblages such as the relatively dearth of objects clearly associated with Tunisian origin (such as brands or labels that indicate a product could only be acquired in Tunisia). This speaks both to the globalized character of our material world where objects can cross borders and shed evidence for their origins in ways that humans struggle to do.

Greene et al.’s article focuses on a ship used to traverse the dangerous two day passage between Libya and Eastern Sicily. The document the ship after it had been intercepted by Italian border officials. Unlike the rather small assemblages documented by Blake and Schon the assemblage associated with the former fishing boat impounded in Sicily was expansive. It included not only clothing, food and drink, and objects like blankets, scarfs, and cushions adapted to the migrants’ journey, but also signs of discarded documents, modifications to the boat itself, and medical supplies.

As with the material found in the Blake and Schon assemblages, this material came from both Libya and a much wider area indicating how in the contemporary world goods move more easily across borders than humans.  

To be clear, neither of these papers is really about the material culture per se. Both papers show how the study of material culture has the potential to humanize the plight of migrants who undertake dangerous journeys to escape from even more perilous situations. The abandonment of clothes and objects not only marked a key phase of their trip but also a poignant one as they shed material indicators of the past in the hope for a better future.


As a side note, I was excited to see that that AJA had published an article that demonstrated how their new publication policies would work in practice. Historically, the AJA focused its interest the Mediterranean (broadly construed to include Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia) in the period from prehistory to Late Antiquity. Over time, most scholars have come to recognize that this was not a particularly useful chronological or geographical definition as a significant number of projects in the Mediterranean were diachronic in character and a scholarly interests even among those identifying as “Classical” archaeologists now regularly included comparative and interregional perspectives. 

This article represents the first, in my memory at least, that focused exclusively on the contemporary period and while the study area was in the Mediterranean heartland, it is easy enough to understand the context of his article as much more expansive. As a gesture to authors, this article is incredibly important because it shows that the AJA is not only ready to embrace the diachronic complexity of the Mediterranean, but also abandoned a periodization scheme that carried on a colonialist and, for many, racist legacy by isolating “Classical” antiquity as a period deserving particular attention. Obviously, this is position that was no longer tenable for the flagship journal of the Archaeological Institute of America in that it neither reflected the attitudes of its diverse membership nor the contemporary political landscape. I love that an article interrogating the human cost of the contemporary political landscape of the Mediterranean marked the editor’s more expansive reading of their editorial policy (which also reflects its expansion in May 2021) and look forward to the continued development of the journal in light of these new political and discipline commitments!

Music Monday: Places and Assemblages

This weekend, I started to try to work my way through my pile of “to read” articles and I started with a pair by John Schofield: with Ron Wright, “Sonic Heritage, Identity and Music-making in Sheffield, “Steel City”” in Heritage & Society 13 (2021) and with Liam Maloney, “Records as records: excavating the DJ’s sonic archive,” in Archives and Records (2021). 

Both are nice articles in their own right and continue Schofield (and collaborators) long interest in the archaeology and heritage of popular music. The first article looks at the urban context for the Sheffield music scene in the final decades of the 20th century and builds on not only familiarity with urban history, venues, and a bands, but also interviews with veterans of the music scene and a survey of a leading national magazine New Music Express (NME). Schofield and Wright argue that the city’s distinctive post-industrial heritage and relative “cultural isolation” (which they left a bit undefined) allowed for the emergence of a unique sound characterized by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Pulp, and, most recently, the Arctic Monkeys. This traced not only the DIY culture of Sheffield where small manufactures emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry. This culture of small scale adaptation amid industrial transformation (and in a post-industrial landscape) suffused the city’s music scene with independent minded producers, promoters, and musicians. The confluence of musicians at venues (often made available through abandonment associated with de-industrialization)  and festivals ensured the regular cross pollination across genres. The sounds of Sheffield, particularly the drop hammer associated with steel production, likewise contributed to the Sheffield’s “industrial sound,” which they integrated into their music through the rise of digital technology. 

The methods that Wright and Schofield employ seem relevant to any distinctive music scene in the US from the New York or Chicago jazz scene of the 1950 and 1960s, to the Detroit music scene of the 1970s, or even the distinct Philadelphia or Minneapolis punk and rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Even the dispersed urbanism late 20th century sprawls of Los Angeles or D.C. would seem susceptible to similar kind of inquiry. 

The second article looks at record collections by DJs as important archives. Schofield and Maloney note that any effort to understand the ephemeral experience of DJ sets requires that we understand the archives on which they are based. That said, scholars have only rarely take DJ archives seriously with the exception of collections such as Africa Baambata’s at CornellEven then, we often reduce the archive to the names of albums or tracks and overlook the various indications for how DJs use their collections. These indications ranged from cue stickers affixed to records themselves (to aid with beat matching) to notes on record covers, wear patterns, and other signs of wear and tear associated with use. 

Of course, there are intriguing models for how record collections have shaped in our culture. I can’t help but think of Harry Smiths collection and eccentric interests have shaped our view of American folk music. Similar efforts to understand the libraries of important literary figures, such as my friend Shelia Liming’s work on Edith Wharton’s library, have unlocked new reading of their works. The ephemerality of DJ sets, however, make them a bit unique. The opportunities for spontaneous creativity through the juxtaposition of music creates opportunities for new ideas and new experiences of even thread worn classics. The genius of a DJ is the genius of someone else’s library, but one that exists just for a moment. Being able to understand the production of the moment through its material traces offers archaeologists and historians a window into the craft of a DJ and the experience of music. 

The Alamogordo Atari Excavation as the Archaeology of An American Experience

My blog is late today mostly because it took me forever to write this new conclusion to the final chapter in the first part of my book project on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. You can check out the book project here and get a broad sense for how the book is organized.

This conclusion is an effort to connect our work at the Alamogordo landfill more clearly to the archaeology of the American experience and to tease out how “garbology,” the recent discussion of things, and media archaeology and archaeogaming help us understand contemporary society more clearly. I’m not sure that I’m there yet, but I feel like this is a good bit closer to where I need to be than I was, and I suppose this is the goal of revision.


The conclusion of this chapter is also the conclusion of the first part of this book. The first four chapters of this book have sought to unpack some key concepts in the history of the archaeology of the contemporary world and provide a context for the Atari games excavated from the Alamogordo landfill. The archaeology of contemporary garbage, the ongoing conversation about things and consumer culture, and the emerging significance of media both in and for archaeological work developed at the intersection of archaeology and contemporary American culture. These developments in the field both paralleled and interrogated significant moments in the American experience: the so-called garbage crisis of the 1970s, the growing critique of consumerism in the 1980s, and the embrace of digital technology at the turn of the 21st century. The recursive relationship between the American experience and the emerging field of the archaeology of the contemporary world means that studying the development of the field is every bit as significant for understanding the character of American society over the last 50 years as the material and immaterial culture that the archaeology of the contemporary world takes as the object of its inquiry.

This recursive critique of the American experience provides a context for the excavation at the Alamogordo landfill. The excavation revealed the detritus produced by a small southwestern city, and, although we were not able to explore it systematically, the assemblage included artifacts consistent with late 20th-century consumer culture. From celebrity posters to housewares, beer cans, catalogues, newspapers, broken household plastics, and holiday wrapping paper, the landfill itself embodied consumption practices of the city of Alamogordo that parallel the national markets. The material in this landfill, however, also spoke to the post-depositional processes that created unstable scarps, noxious smells, and harmful gasses. These processes, ironically, made it truly difficult to study the landfill in a safe and responsible way. In short, the excavation of a contemporary landfill exposed us directly to the material challenges of doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world. The Alamogordo landfill’s chemical and structural volatility demonstrated how the processes that remove post-consumer waste create spaces whose very materiality resisted analysis and interpretation. Sites like the Alamogordo landfill exist outside the American experience by design. As Michael Thompson’s classic study Rubbish Theory postulated, the removal of the games from the experience of American life through their time in the landfill allowed them to acquire a new status that quite literally clung to their physicality. The smell, the damage done to the cartridges, and the certificate of authenticity all reinforce the provenience of the games which enabled them to follow a trajectory from trash to treasure. The marginalization of modern trash deposits allowed the games to pass sufficiently out of mind and circulation that they could acquire a new value and cultural significance.

The use of the Alamogordo landfill as the dumping ground for Atari games also anticipated recent literature that has stressed how the disposal of e-waste is a global industry. Marginal spaces like a small city in the New Mexico desert became appealing sites for the bulk deposition of corporate e-waste for both economic and regulatory reasons. This coincided with a broader view of the American West as empty space suitable for the disposal of a range of toxic and radioactive waste. In this way the practice looked ahead to dumping e-waste in South Asia and Africa in the 21st century where objects manufactured with material extracted from the Global South would return to the Global South when no longer useful. The deposit also revealed the international and national networks of manufacturing, distributing, and disposing of Atari games. The distributed origins of the American experience relies more and more heavily on global networks of trade and manufacturing. Objects such as the Atari cartridges represents relationships that extend well beyond the national borders. In this way, we can see how Congolese miners, Chinese assembly line workers, Filipino ship crews, midwestern retailers, and Nigerian landfill scavengers encounter and participate in a globalized American experience that supports our consumer culture. In the 1980s, the emergence of these global networks contributed to how Atari gaming consoles re-shaped middle-class American domestic space. In the 21st century, the glass screen of the modern cellphone represents the best metaphor for this distributed experience. Designed to allow us to have experiences that are materially present in the palm of our hand and infinitely expansive through the images that appear on the transparent glass screen, they make manifest the distributed nature of contemporary culture. The Atari games excavated from the Alamogordo landfill, then, tell the story of the supply chains, e-waste, and a small town dump create the backbone of the late 20th-century American experience.

Discard practices and the distributed character of American experience represent the material components of the Atari deposit in Alamogordo, and in many ways, this emphasis coincides with archaeology’s traditional interest in things and materiality. When most of us think about Atari, however, we tend to think about the digital worlds that video games created. Even with the comparatively primitive graphics of the E.T. game and its unforgiving gameplay, the Atari game allowed players in the 1980s to transform the passive experience of watching television or films into an active encounters with characters, plots, and settings. The emergence of media archaeology explicitly considers how the games themselves operated at the intersection of various media forms. This relationship between the games and the blockbuster film E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark amplified their significance and generated excitement in anticipation of their release. Moreover, the excitement surrounding these transmedia artifacts coincided with a growing interest in blurring of boundaries between media experiences and the physical world in movies such as Tron and novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer. The excavation of the E.T. games in a project funded by Microsoft and streamed through the company’s X-Box gaming console leveraged the nostalgia for Atari games to promote the latest transmedia platform. The work of archaeogaming specialists both at the excavation and in the wider field of video game archaeology demonstrated how both the physical and digital artifacts associated with contemporary media co-constitute the distinctive experiences. Whether these encounters in digital space traced by the global reach of the internet are sufficiently spatialized in the physical world to constitute a distinctly “American experience” remains to be seen. What is more clear is that manufacturing, discard, and our interconnected digital world presents new opportunities for archaeology to interrogate the present and future of physical and digital objects.

Trash and Modernity

This weekend I read Rachael Graff’s Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (2020). This is obviously a book that I should have read about a year ago, but for some odd reason, did not.

I really enjoyed the book and admired Graff’s ability to balance between intimate and highly specific details and more expansive conclusions. She handled issues of particular significance to both historical archaeology – namely the emergence of consumer culture – and to archaeology more broadly as a discipline – namely time and modernity – with brilliant common sense and this will almost certainly open up these often tricky and abstract debates to a wider audience.

Graff’s book looks at two site which she and her colleagues excavated in Chicago. One is in Jackson Park which was the site of the 1893 World’s Fair and the other is on Chicago’s Gold Coast and associated with the Charnley House (now the headquarters of the SHA) designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both the World’s Fair and the Charnley house represent major statements of modernity in the United States. The Fair celebrated progress and the coming of age of mass consumer culture. The triumphant parade of convenience, innovation, and capital at the Fair established Chicago’s place in the constellation of major American cities and distinguished contemporary American (and European) culture from its more exotic, “primitive,” and “undeveloped” peers. In this context, the “closing of the American frontier” represented a coming of age for American society where the science, industry, and technology has established American culture on a new and radically different trajectory. 

The Charnley House is often considered the first “modern house” in the United States. It’s clean lines, modern conveniences, and open plan represent an important example of a kind of domestic architecture that severed the relationship between the space and design of elite homes and their traditional functions. Graff’s work is not very interested, however, in the architecture of the Charnley house and instead focuses on a rather substantial midden discovered adjacent to the house and filled with trash deposited between the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. In other words, just as the World’s Fair was showing off the amazing creations of industrial science and technology, the various residents of the first modern house were disposing their trash in same way that had occurred for centuries (if not millennia). That the trash deposit consisted of a wide range of modern manufactured products simply reinforced the notion that modern and “non-modern” behaviors existed side-by-side in the city of Chicago as it negotiated its own place in the narrative of progress.

Graff reinforces the tensions between the egalitarian promise of the “modern” with the realities of life in Chicago with detailed prosopographies of the organizers of the World’s Fair and the society in which folks like the Charnleys circulated. In contrast to the shadowy lives associated with the individuals who worked at the World’s Fair, collected the trash from its massive venue, and manufactured the goods so proudly displayed, Chicago’s elite pop from the page in high relief and parade about as vivid reminders that the progress and modernity associated with closing the frontier were unevenly distributed.

There are a few things in this book that directly relate to my research interests and made me regret not reading this book until now.

1. Garbage and Modernity. One of the first chapters in my book is on garbology which I connect to the development of archaeology as a modern discipline. Of course, Graff’s book makes this point amazingly well as it situates the excavation of trash as more than simply attempting to uncover a window into late 19th and early 20th century Chicago, but the excavation of the modern world itself. This connection between modernity, archaeology, and trash offers a nice way to emphasize how a growing awareness of a disposable culture informed how archaeologists connected their discoveries to what people did in the past. 

2. Ephemerality of the Modern. One of the most remarkable things about the 1893 World’s Fair is that the entire site consisted of ephemeral buildings. They were built, wired, connected to plumbing, and then removed within a few years. The ephemerality of the fair in many ways represented the disposable culture of the trash heap projected on a monumental scale. Ironically, however, the things that made the fair work proved in some ways to be the most persistent. The infrastructure of pipes, wiring, and foundations likely remains below the level of Jackson Park and preserve, in some ways, the lives of the more monumental world above ground.

The relationship between pipes and wires and infrastructure and the monumental, if ephemeral, traces of modernity embodied in the World’s Fair is a brilliant metaphor for the contemporary situation where we struggle to erase the visible reminders of humanity’s hubris and irresponsibility (or never ending quest for profit and progress), while leaving behind the traces (scars?) of what made this all possible. I can’t but help think about the ephemerality of work force housing in the Bakken oil patch and how much of the the subsurface remains will persist. Or, more to a point, the flow of capital might not be particularly visible, but the impact of this capital and the networks of colonialism, violence, and power that make it possible will last for centuries.

3. Time and the Fair. The ephemerality of the fair ground reveals the way in which the fair used a sense of time to contrast ideological arguments. The disappearance of the fair paralleled the growing understanding of materiality as ephemeral and promoted obsolescence as a driver of  consumption in an economy whose capacity to produce was constantly bumping up against the limits to the capacity to consume. 

The constant coincidence of past practices (such as dumping trash in an alleyway next to an elite residence), future hopes (in the promise of progress) and the fleeting present (embodied in the disappearance of the fair) created the kind of temporal pastiche that has come to characterize our experience of the modern world. The various temporal encounters that celebrated in such works as Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or her notion of “clockpunk” archaeology suggested that the modern world’s relentless commitment to progress would obscure the persistent values of the past for the sake of the past. Instead, the 1893 fair suggests such “residual” features are not some form of irrepressible patina that challenges our commitment to modernity, but rather a feature of the modern appropriated by its totalizing discourse and presented to reinforce the potential for the next iteration of the present to make available past pleasures in new and improved form (now with MORE NOSTALGIA ™). 

As someone fascinated by mechanical watchmaking and vacuum tube stereo amplifiers, the concomitant rise in vintage watch market and the efforts by watchmakers to produce upgraded and improved versions of vintage designs demonstrates the recursive need to preserve the past as both a baseline for progress and as aspirational goal. The continuous efforts to capture the “vintage sound” of vacuum tube stereo components with the latest technology is not some form of anti-capitalist critique, but part of a larger process of commodifying the past in the present. The ephemerality of the present, then, is part of a larger strategy to create “instant classics” in which memory itself becomes a fungible commodity. It goes without saying that the rise of archaeology is part of this same effort to turn the past into something that can be sold.  

Music Monday: Nina Simone’s Gum

This weekend, I read Warren Ellis’s Nina Simone’s Gum. My punk archaeology buddy Kostis Kourelis sent it to me as a holiday gift and for that I’m immeasurably grateful. It’s really a genius book and one full of such unguarded earnestness and emotion that I’ve decided to add it to my class on things next semester. 

The book tells the story of a piece of gum (and a towel) that Warren Ellis, a musician and long-time collaborator with Nick Cave, retrieved from a piano after a Nina Simone concert in 1999. He had kept the gum in his possession for nearly 20 years before deciding to include it in an exhibition that Nick Cave had somehow coordinated in Copenhagen. The decision to include this prize possession in the exhibit pushed Ellis to think about this precious relic in a much more expansive way. The gum not only became a reminder of his experience at a Nina Simone concert, but also his own journey which began with a cast off accordion retrieved from an Australian dump and continued through his own development as a person and musician. In the hands of Ellis the piece of gum became a talisman that protected his journey and creativity and was somehow at least partly responsible for his success.

When the gum leaves his hands, he discovers that its power to inspire care, compassion, and empathy travels with it. From the artist who made a mould of the gum to the jeweler who turned the mould into silver mementos, the couriers who traveled with the gum on its way from London to Copenhagen, and the curators who ensured that the gum remained safe and secure while they prepared for its exhibition, the gum seemingly drew people into its orbit. This is partly because Warren Ellis was such an earnest curator of the object and believed so much in its power. This belief imbued the gum with a kind of sanctity that others experienced as well. The significance of the gum both to Ellis and others was documented across the book in a series of text messages, emails, photographs, and anecdotes. They walked the fine line between sincerity and incredulity, but always seems to lean slightly toward the former. There’s something amazing about witnessing a world with just a bit less irony.

At first, I reckoned that Ellis, the gum’s protector, was especially susceptible to the kind of emotional energy that objects like Nina Simone’s gum conveyed. After all, the book details a few encounters that he had with Beethoven’s ghost that left him rattled and transformed. 

The more I read the book and thought about it, though, I came to understand Ellis’s almost spiritual attachment to the gum.

So, this will sound weird, but I’ve been a bit bothered lately by how I got rid of my old grey Ford F150. I moved quickly when I bought my new truck last year. It was the beginning of the great used car inventory crash and the truck that I wanted was available at a decent price. As a result, I had move efficiently to ensure that I could get the truck I wanted at the price I could afford. When everything came together, I was offered $1000 for my 15 year old F150 and just walked away from it parked in a customer parking spot at a local car dealership.

Of course, my old truck has none of the sentimental and little of the associative power of Nina Simone’s gum. In fact, in 2004, Ford sold over 900,000 of them and even today they remain common sights on the roads of our small town. But the truck did carry with it significant memories: research trips in The Bakken oil patch, cruising around town with my yellow dog, pulling a two cars from a ditch during a snowstorm, and myriad conversations with friends and my partner across the now-vintage bench seat. 

These memories were enough to make me think about the truck a bit differently and regret leaving it without any ceremony and without so much as a photograph. I recognize, of course, that sentimentalizing a truck or a piece of gum can lead to a kind of commodity fetishism that risks obscuring the processes and people whose labor our material world represents. At the same time, there is no doubt that objects – from ancient relics to modern conveniences – provide us with nodes in complex networks of human relationships, temporalities, and memories. 

Ellis’s book doesn’t aspire to be a theoretic treatise on the significance of things or our entanglement or how they work, but it offers a personal and disarmingly wholesome view of how one object – a piece of gum – created a window into what makes us human. 

Problematizing the Present

Over the weekend. I read Nick Estes’s book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019). The book is good in all sorts of ways although I suspect that the story that it tells won’t be new to anyone who followed the #NoDAPL protests or who is broadly familiar with the history of Native American activism and protests. 

That said, it remains a book worth reading as Estes models the kind of activist scholarship that typifies that best books published by Verso. More than that Estes makes the connections between not only the political struggles associated with Native Americans on the Northern Plains and the important role that this plays in recent and contemporary activism. For someone less familiar with the two important (and violated) treaties of 1851 and 1868, the book makes clear the relationship between these treaties and the legitimate grievances of the signatory tribes against the US. The DAPL protest camp stood on land recognized as belonging to the Sioux according to the 1851 Treaty which while violated by the US government, nevertheless remains “the supreme law of the land.”  

While everyone should be familiar with the basic narrative of Estes’s work, there are two elements of his book that struck me as both exemplary and particularly useful to my own book project.

First, Estes is very direct in recognizing the important role that Native American scholars have played in documenting and interpreting the history of US-Tribal relations. In terms of “citational politics,” Estes clearly identifies the national affiliations of Native American authors throughout his text making clear how the history of US-Native American relations involves not only the kind of activism associated with AIM or the DAPL protests, but also the kind of activism that comes from writing incisive, sophisticated, and compelling academic works. Estes’s book contributes to the academic tradition which he cites and adds the most recent chapter in the history of Native American protests.

Second, and more importantly to me, Estes provides a window to Native American thinking about time. The title of the book is Our History is the Future, which offers a counterintuitive view of history which both recognizes it as distant, but also recognizes it as culmination of the present. Whether this alludes to a cyclical understanding of time (where the past is always the future) or a more revolutionary (see the pun?) view that sees the future as the reclamation of the past forfeited in the present remains a bit less clear. I tend to suspect that Estes recognizes the present as a zone of sacrifice both by the architects of contemporary capitalism by activists who oppose them. For the capitalist, the wealth in and of the present only have value in their capacity to generate more wealth in the future. Thus, projects like the DAPL pipeline represent massive outlays of capital (social, political, and financial) in order to secure wealth in and from the future. The discussion of the DAPL pipeline has made clear that its goals are to facilitate the extraction of oil from the Bakken oil patch (which likely depends more on global oil prices than the cost of transporting oil) into a future. This is despite the fact that most sober commenters realize that we must begin to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. It is hard to reconcile this scenario with present investments designed, at least in terms of rhetoric, to make oil production and distribution cheaper and easier. The damage done in the present, then, whether through the sacrifice of capital or the destruction of Native land or the increased risk to the Missouri River watershed, represents an acceptable cost in the hope for future gains. 

The difference, of course, between Native Americans seeking to protect their land and water (and our water and land, by extension) and the oil and pipeline companies is that for oil and pipeline companies the past is more or less irrelevant. The present is meaningful as a sacrificial zone and the future is where value exists. For Native Americans, as the title of the book implies, the present is significant in that it is the continuation of a 200 year history of protest and negotiation by Native Americans in this region. More than that, the present protests embodies a long experience of protest and violence from Whitestone Hill to Wounded Knee that is very much part of their contemporary awareness. In this way, their sense of the present is not simply a short lived “sacrifice zone” as in the case of the oil companies, but rather a protracted period of sacrifice separated from past defined by autonomy, greater self-determination, and a more expansive view their relationship with the environment and natural resources. So when Estes says, our history is the future, he regards the present as period that has already been sacrificed in the name of the future.

This bring me to a final point. I’ve started to wonder a bit whether the very idea of the contemporary in an archaeological context isn’t problematic. Even the most casual readers of archaeological literature know that periodization schemes often preserve and reproduce problematic world views. While it remains entirely possible to redefine certain categories spatially, chronologically, and ideologically (see for example, the recent turn toward the “Global Middle Ages”), the archaeology of the contemporary world appears rather more committed to a view of the present that is narrowly defined by a white, “Western,” capitalist view of the narrow present. If a Native American at the NoDAPL protests could see their presence and activism as part of a long-present that includes Wounded Knee, AIM, and various other efforts to resist colonization and assert their right to exist, then this represents a very different view of the contemporary than is often advanced by archaeologists of the contemporary world. A view of the present and the contemporary that extends for over two hundred years subverts a present that is consistent with the proximate needs of capital and a sacrificial zone occupied by individuals and groups who must endure violence, pain, and dislocation in the name of a better future that remains continuously out of reach.     

Materiality of Music Monday

Last week, for some strange reason I started to listen to William Basinski’s Disintegrations Loops (which you can listen to here).

Basinski famously discovered the basis for these recording by accident when he was transferring magnetic tape recorded in the 1980s to a digital format. As the tape ran through the machine, it started to deteriorate and he became fascinated by the gradual disintegration of the music. As he ran the tapes through more and more, the tape continued to fall apart and Basinski continued to transfer the sound of the disintegrating tapes. He was listening to these recording in 2001 while he witnessed the planes crash into the World Trade Center towers in New York. He released the first part of the recordings as an album in 2002 and dedicated them to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The tracks are haunting as you might expect and require both some patience from the listener to hear the detail of the music changing, but also reward playing as a kind of ambient track which feels like it draws the entire world into its plaintive entropy.

(As a vaguely unrelated aside, one of my favorite parts of Bill Evans’ three disk recording of his 1961 classic date at the Village Vanguard in New York is the power failure which caused the tape machine to stop during “Gloria’s Step.” I’ve always wondered how the producer (Orrin Keepnews) of the 2005 complete recording decided how long to pause the playback on the first public release of the song. Perhaps he compared it to other version of “Gloria’s Step” or maybe he counted out the time based on the recorded part of the song. You can hear it here.)  

Of course what we’re hearing here is less the performance itself and more the disintegration of the medium. And this reminds me how much archaeology is visual rather than auditory practice (even though many archaeologists will admit that, say, changes in strata can be heard in the sound of the trowel scraping across the soil or the thump of the pick into the earth). When it comes to documenting spaces, however, we almost always fall back on texts, plans, photographs and the like. In other words, the sound of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops which documents the formation processes encountered by the magnetic tape as it breaks down would fit only awkwardly within traditions of archaeological practice.

This got me thinking about some of the work I did a few years ago with the Wesley College Documentation Project and our plan to use sound to document the space of the now destroyed Corwin Hall recital room. We published some reflections on this over at Epoiesen. I was reminded of this work after reading the chapters from Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains (2022) that documented the iconic Detroit jazz venue, the Blue Bird Inn, and its influential rock music venue, the Grande Ballroom. Both buildings have undergone significant changes since their prime as active venues with the Grande Ballrooms roof caving in and the Blue Bird Inn’s stage removed. The scale of these changes would obviously be audible in recordings made at either venue. What’s more, because there are earlier live recordings at the Blue Bird Inn (and I have to assume at the Grande Ballroom), it would be interesting to compare a contemporary recording with one from the past. While I understand that microphone placement, equipment, mixing boards, the PA and all sorts of other variables influence how sound is captured in a space, I think some of that could be sussed out based on probability and some historical sleuthing. Capturing the sound of the contemporary space would offer another way to think about how the buildings’ materiality influenced their distinctive character as performance venues. As Ryzewski pointed out, the use of copious quantities of horsehair plaster in the Grande Ballroom contributed to its distinctive sonic characteristics. At the same time, the collapse of the roof and the deterioration of the interior would presumably be audible in a recording. Comparing recordings of the space in its bustling prime with those in the space as near ruin would offer a distinctive perspective on their materiality. More than that, it would be fitting for buildings designed to accommodate performances to be recorded in ways that documented that function. It is telling, for example, that Ryzewski had jazz musicians from Wayne State play on the stage of the Blue Bird Inn. It suggests an understanding that performing once again on the stage could provide insights into the function and character of the space.

I know that I’ve posted on this kind of thing before (even just last week), but it continues to fascinate me!