More Afterword: The Archaeology of the Capitol Insurrection

Yesterday, I wrote a bit more of the afterword of my book and described how the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests shaped certain aspects of my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. Of course, the events of the summer of 2020 also put into relief areas of my book where I would have invested more critical attention were it written a year or two later. The following paragraphs are a bit on the raw side and reflect my efforts to articulate in a formal way my ideas. I obviously need to contextualize the events at the Capitol more clearly than I have done here, but this feels pretty easy to do. What I was hoping to present here is evidence for a core of a decent idea that will serve as fitting reflection on the chaotic and distressing time in which I wrote this book.

The final part of my afterword will reflect on the events of January 6, 2021 and how my immersion in the book writing and revision process drew my attention to the materiality of the insurrection and investment of the Capitol building. Just as the protestors in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death sought to transform and recode urban public spaces, the rioters who stormed the Capitol likewise attempted to manipulate objects in an effort to stake claim to public space and affairs. To be clear, this is not to suggest that protestors of the summer of 2020 and the insurgents who sought to seize the Capitol in January 2021 are morally equivalent. Nor do their tactics or the context of their protests represent similar attitudes toward public space. Instead, an archaeological reading of Capitol insurrection suggests that the aggrieved supporters of President Trump and various conspiracy theories created situations where objects out of place communicated their desire to disrupt the conduct of public affairs. In contrast, the protestors who worked to remove or recoded monuments in urban areas did so in an effort to create new public spaces that reflected the social and racial character of their community. The rioters who invested the Capitol appeared in most cases to have no systematic aims in their use of objects during the event other than to disrupt public order through creating objects out of place. 

The most iconic image associated with the Capitol riot involved Adam Johnson walking through the Capitol carrying Speaker of the House of Representative’s lectern. He wears a hat emblazoned with the President Trump’s name and faces the camera and waves. His destination with the lectern remains unclear from the photograph, and it appears that his removal of the lectern is primarily a symbolic gesture that parallels the protestors’ claims to take the country back from what they viewed as illegitimate forces. Johnson is literally taking a symbol of the country with him in an effort to take back the country. His destination, ultimately, remains unclear. 

A similarly disturbing photograph that saw wide circulation showed three secret service agents with their guns drawn in the House of Representatives chamber. They braced their guns on a large piece of furniture which they had moved to barricade the door. Like the photo of Johnson carrying the lectern, this photo represents the disruption of public affairs through the displacement of an object. The bench becomes a barrier against violence and a visible threat of force in the civic space of the House chamber whose very function is to negotiate differences in a peaceful way. The horrifying stories of the use of a fire extinguisher to kill Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick similarly represent the radical displacement of an object designed to provide security in a time of crisis. Thus symbols and spaces of peaceful public and civic activities become reappropriated for violent ends.  

The rioter’s desire to “take back their country” likewise contextualizes their decision to displace the American flag with campaign banners emblazoned with President Trump’s name or battle flags of the Confederacy. By their own logic, these displacements did not represent an effort to permanently transform public space by replacing the flag of the United States with that of the president or a defeated Confederate army, but an effort to disrupt public affairs by removing the symbols of political sovereignty. Their claims to represent American political ideals and the deliberate admixture of traditional national symbols, however, made clear that these displacements, just as the secret service’s movement of the bench to block the door of the House chamber, were temporary measures designed to suspend what they saw was compromised public conduct.

The trauma of the COVID pandemic, the protests in the summer of 2020, and the Capitol insurrection of 2021 pushed me continuously to reflect on the roles that archaeology and objects play in articulating the diverse realities of a contemporary American experience. The ability of objects to disrupt, transform, and protect our sense of community served as a constant reminder that archaeological perspectives on the contemporary world provides a way to tease out more complex and sympathetic understandings experiences. While this book has likely fallen short of providing a context to come to terms with diverse and unprecedented events of the “long 2020,” my hope is that some of the objects, issues, and situations presented here offer a way forward to producing a more inclusive world.  

More Afterword: An Archaeology of the 2020 Protests

This week, I’ve returned to mulling over how to write a meaningful afterword to my short book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short section about writing a book with the COVID as a backdrop. Today, I want to try to draft a few words on writing during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 and the riot-cum-insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both of these events had significant material aspects that help us understand their impact and their significance in our contemporary world.


I was writing Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City when the police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. I revised it against the backdrop of the protests that this senseless killing prompted. Like many white archaeologists, I listened intensely to the conversations that Floyd’s killing pushed to the fore, read with fresh eyes books such as Whitney Battle-Batiste’s Black Feminist Archaeology (2010) and the urgent work of Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al.2020) as well as works by activist-writers and scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi (2016, 2019), Robin J. DiAngelo (2018), Keise Laymon (2018) and others. To my embarrassment, much of my reading took place too late to shape the contents of this book, but Floyd’s death and the wave of protests that it triggers has indelibly impacted how I think about racism and anti-racism in the United States and the archaeology of contemporary American society.

I was especially drawn to the moving images associated with the removal of racist monuments across the US. My father grew up in Richmond, Virginia and my parents were married at a church of Stuart Circle, named after a monument to the Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, on Monument Avenue in Richmond. I went to college in Richmond and during that time Monument Avenue, its stately homes, and its procession of Confederate leaders fascinated me. It was not a surprise that the these monuments became targets for protestors during the summer of 2020. The majority of people living in the City of Richmond, like many cities in the US, were African-American, the city was home to two major, historic HBCUs, Virginia Union and Virginia State University, and had a history of African-American political leadership dating to the 1970s. At the same time, the city had struggled with poverty, violent crime, and its tragic and complicated legacy as capital of the Confederacy, capital of the state of Virginia, and a symbol of a more racially, socially, and economically diverse New South. 

As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, another city with a complex and tragic history of racism, Monument Avenue attracted my attention, in part, because it stood in such contrast to the landscape of my childhood. Like many suburbs in the US, the post-war suburbs of Wilmington lacked monuments which made explicit reference to the area’s history. In fact, the most prominent structures in the landscape tended to be commercial and corporate buildings and schools characterized by the austere, functionalist style of mid-century modernism. Public spaces, such as parks, stood as open spaces devoid of historical associations or statues, but filled with playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, and other practical paraphernalia that marked their function as public space. Having grown up in this typical mid-century suburban environment, the presence of figural monuments to white men in spaces such as Monument Avenue in Richmond (or Rodney Square in Wilmington) defined the historical character of the traditional urban core. Figural monuments marked urban space as both distinct from my contemporary suburban landscape, but also legible and familiar as part of my historic identity as white, male American. 

The effort to recode public space amid the protests associated with the murder of George Floyd depended in some ways on understanding the history and material manifestation of post-war settlement change in the US. The construction of middle-class suburbs around the functional, if iconographically impoverished architecture of the single-family home, the shopping center, the school, and the park, left the predominantly white residents of these subdivision to project to re-imagine and appropriate urban landscapes as historical spaces rather than lived spaces. 

In this context, the demands for the removal of statues celebrating the achievements of racist white people by the predominantly non-White residents of US cities that monuments represented an effort to claim urban areas as their own. The covering of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond with colorful graffiti demanding racial equality transformed the monument from a lingering reminder of the painful legacy of an American anti-hero to a visually dynamic call for social change. Push back from predominantly white and, I’d suggest, predominantly suburban residents against the visual impact of these recoded monuments reflects a generation-long expectation not only that urban areas exist as public mausolea to their own imagined past, but also that contemporary urban residents do not have the right to appropriate their lived environment for their own community. In this way, the re-coding of the Robert E. Lee monument and the removal of statues from urban areas elsewhere in the US represents in material terms the demand for the end of the police violence against Blacks and other people of color. By claiming the right to transform or remove public monuments, Blacks and people of color visibly claim their right to control public space and publics affairs, especially policing, but also education, social services, and other vital functions that shape their lives and wellbeing, in their own community. 

Recent work by Christopher Matthews in East Orange, New Jersey and Krysta Ryzewski in Detroit highlight how the archaeology of the contemporary American experience supports racially diverse communities as they work to assert their control over urban public spaces not just by re-claiming their historical presence in the urban landscape — as projects like the well-known African Burial Ground excavations in New York City establish — but also their claim over the contemporary city, its monuments, its streetscapes, and its social functions. The backdrop of the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder roused me from my white suburban complacency by making clear that the re-coding of monuments in American cities was not simply an effort to erase the memory of a racist past, but to establish their right for anti-racist future. That my book does not understand the significance of this movement and these action speaks loudly to my own upbringing and white privilege which suffuse my perspectives on the contemporary world. 

More Archaeology and Space

One of the really neat things about writing the archaeology of the contemporary world is that the field is relatively new. As a result, there are new ideas, approaches, and projects emerging constantly that add to substantively to how we think about both the emerging field and the “recent past.” 

This week, I’ve been looking through some of Justin Walsh and Alice Gorman’s work on the archaeology of the International Space Station. I got an alert that Walsh had uploaded a pair of papers to Humanities Commons and down the rabbit hole I went. I blogged earlier about Alice Gorman recent book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe (MIT 2019) which brilliantly wove together studies of the material culture of the space age and subtle Lacanian and Freudian analysis. 

Walsh and Gorman’s recent work is less post-modern and lacks the kind of sweeping culture critique, but it also feels a bit more “grounded” (if you excuse the pun) in the materiality of the ISS. For example, the a recent article in the journal Religions, titled “Eternity in Low Earth Orbit: Icons on the International Space Station” examines the role of icons aboard the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS. Wendy Salmond, Justin Walsh, and Alice Gorman reflect on the history of Soviet and Russian space flight and the role of images in Russian culture and institutional practice. The parallel placement between photographs of Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin and various icons reinforced the link between these images and cultural and national identity. The regular depiction of cosmonauts with the icons in the background, but also frontally as icons themselves provides a literal example of the tie between religious icons and a new generation of popular icons. This leans upon an understanding of Russian and Orthodox culture and the role of icons and the church in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. By commenting on the presence of Soviet heroes and, later, Russian icons in the brutally functional environment of the ISS, the authors make a little reference to Victor Buchli’s seminal early work, An Archaeology of Socialism (2000), which describes the transformation of “red corners” in Russian apartments from spaces where Soviet and communist heroes were on display to one populated by Orthodox icons and other prestige objects.

The appearance of such a domestic feature upon the ISS is a bit jarring, of course, largely because photographs of the station make it appear more similar to a laboratory or even a factory than domestic space. That being said, the defining feature of the ISS is that it is a place where humans live, often for months at a time. The blurry lines between what might constitute public and private space in the ISS offers a chilling vision of the future as we experience the collapse of the hard-fought 20th century divisions between work and life (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic).

At the same time, the study of photographs for the ISS traces a long-standing archaeological interest in domestic space. Walsh and Gorman’s ambitious, artificial-intelligence powered efforts to analyze the thousands of photographs from the ISS presents a fascinating opportunity to understand how residents of the station use and adapt their space over time. You can check out some of their dataset on Open Context. It also reveals the strange character of the ISS which is neither purely public, in the sense that NASA appears to both control the dissemination of photographs from within its modules and access to the station is restricted (if for no other reason than it is IN SPACE), nor entirely private. It reminds me a bit of the spaces imagined by Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Red Mars which were constantly being reused, reoccupied, and inhabited without ownership or even signs of personalization. On the ISS, I would guess that living spaces, working spaces, and spaces for recreation and downtime are in constant flux and photographs of residents at work and at least some of their personal affects are subject to cataloging, photographing, and other forms of scrutiny.

The strange character of the ISS got me wonder about the ethical rules that guide both NASA and Walsh and Gorman’s work. This isn’t to suggest that they’ve done anything unethical. Instead, I wonder how one goes about constructing new sets of ethical guidelines for such new and experimental spaces. Would Walsh and Gorman need to secure the consent of the residents of the station before studying their space? Or would the public nature of the space and the work of its residents make it acceptable and ethical to subject them to critical attention? Walsh’s recent short chapter on the use of photography to study the ISS, which also appeared on his Humanities Commons page, doesn’t seem to deal with this, but I suspect it’ll have to be part of their long-term thinking about how to study these distinct environments. An article that he and Gorman wrote that seems to be scheduled to appear in Antiquity sketches out a future method for an archaeology of the ISS that hints at collaboration with residents there as well as through official channels to understand both life in the ISS as well as practices of discard, reuse, and consumption.  

I’m pondering this as I have a long-term research program focusing on about 10,000 photographs taken in the Bakken oil patch. These photographs document the exterior of various workforce housing units and provide evidence for the various choices, priorities, and public efforts to craft identity in the oil patch. This project is a pretty intensive one and probably involves more energy for analysis than I have the capability of mustering at this stage of my career. At the same time, it involves some of these same ethical issues. The exterior of workforce housing units are public in some ways the same way that the facades that constitute streetscapes are public. We talked to residents, explained our project, interviewed and photographed individuals, and have written about their experiences. At the same time, there’s something unmistakably intrusive in using photographs to zoom in on personal habits, even those that play out in public space. The ISS in some ways is a kind of workforce housing and one where privacy, personal spaces, and opportunities to present national, religious, and personal identity are scare. As the prying eye of archaeology seeks to understand these situations and spaces, I suspect we’ll excavate new ethical ground that will contribute as much to how we produce new knowledge as the typical challenges associated with access, preservation, and formation processes.  

Panic Writing: Things and Consumer Culture

One of the wonderful things about revising book chapters is something that I call “panic writing.” For me, it comes from the overwhelming sense that I’ve left something crucial out of a chapter. It’s usually vaguely defined absence or gap and it triggers an avalanche of ideas, supplemental reading, and self doubt.

It usually results in a new section in a chapter and a call to my writing buddy David Pettegrew before I can return to the work of revising. 

While revising Chapter 3 (which you can locate and in the table of contents that I provide in this post), I decided that I needed to write a section contextualizing the archaeology of contemporary things within the context of archaeology. This is a vast and complicated topic, but I did a quick summary of it with some representative, but not exhaustive citations. Enjoy and, as always, feel free to offer feedback!

Things and Consumer Culture

American historical archaeology has had a long and complex engagement with things and the emergence of modern consumer culture. As any number of scholars have observed, all historical archaeology is inevitably about material culture (Mullins 2011, 2-3). Starting in the mid-1980s, historical archaeologists started to take cues from Deetz, Miller, Appadurai as well as others (e.g. Campbell 1987) and have explored the archaeology of consumer culture through concepts such as “consumer-choice” (Spencer-Woods 1987; Gibb 1996), Louis Althusser’s concepts of ideology (Leone 1984; 2010), and world-systems theory (Hall 2000). This has produced dynamic body of work that is too large to survey in a meaningful or even representative way in a volume such as this (for a recent survey see Mullins 2011; Heath et al. 2017). In general, however, much of this work has kept at arm’s length the many of the more complex theoretical debates that have shaped the field of material culture studies and anchored their analysis in carefully contextualized excavations. They have nevertheless recognized the global context for modern artifacts, the utility of telling stories through and about individual objects, and a growing interest in the materiality of things (Martin 2017). In general, this extensive body of work has sought to explore how things defined social roles and American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one would expect, historical archaeologists have largely focused on material dating to before the 1950s and derived from archaeological rather than systemic contexts (Schiffer 1972). As we noted in Chapter 2, however, broadly ethnographic comparisons grounded in critical attention to the systemic context of objects have often helped to archaeologists understand the practical, symbolic, and economic function of artifacts in the past. For example, Paul Mullins in his survey of the archaeology of consumer culture introduced the book with a discussion of the Hummer SUV as a way to demonstrate the complex way that an object produces status in contemporary society (Mullins 2011). Elsewhere, Marlys Pearson and Mullins (1999) studied the development of outfits and accessories for Mattel’s Barbie from its introduction in the 1950s to the 1990s and demonstrated that the doll neither reflected a specific image of femininity nor a set notion of domesticity. Instead, the changes in Barbie’s accessories revealed the instability of those notions in contemporary society and the changing realities of Mattel’s financial situation. The Hummer and Barbie’s accessories situated these objects within consumer culture and offered ways to understand both contemporary and historic social, political, and economic relationships.

The use of objects to negotiate racial identities has emerged as a particular staple of studies of consumer culture in historical archaeology. Archaeologists have recognized the wide range of objects associated with various 19th- and 20th-century ethnic communities: Chinese laborers (Voss and Allan 2008), Japanese-Americans (Ross 2011; Camp 2020), Greek immigrants (Kourelis 200x), and Italian railroad workers (Wegnar 1991). Maria Franklin’s recent study of buttons from a 19th-century African-American cemetery in Houston demonstrates how even the simplest of every day objects, clothing fasteners and buttons, can shed light on strategies of self-presentation and the negotiation of identity in the segregated south. The individuals interred in the Freedmen’s town cemetery revealed a community who wore many of the same clothing as white Houstonians despite rise of Jim Crowe laws at the same time. Mullins 2002 work, Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture, examined how African Americans in Annapolis acquired, used, and discarded consumer objects. Mullins unpacked the complex negotiations that marked out the desire both for affluence, social standing, and political power through access to goods associated with White respectability which they could use to undermine and resist the racist character of the same White consumer culture (Mullins 2002). Efforts to at resisting racist policies manifest themselves distinctly in gardens built by interned Japanese-Americans revealed the distinctive ways in which these communities sought to preserve memories of their previous homes, provide recreation for their fellow prisoners, and grow vegetables common to Japanese cooking (summarized in Camp 2020). Adrian and Mary Praetzellis (2001) have demonstrated that 19th-century Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans in California likewise used both imported and local objects to negotiate identities that allowed them to conform to expectations of Victorian gentility while continuing to preserve aspects of distinctive ethnic identities and practices. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s villa from 1852 features traditional Mexican adobe architecture behind a Gothic facade; contemporary boarding houses for Chinese laborers destroyed by a fire preserved both imported Chinese ceramics and Victorian vessels common to White tables.

Archaeological consumer culture provided a framework for understanding how objects contributed to status, ethnicity, race, and citizenship in the 19th and early 20th century. It located the negotiation of identity within the context of the emerging market economy and the construction of a notion of consumer citizenship established by shared material aspirations. The development of a taste for new goods and the latest fashion, “novelty” in the words of Lorinda Goodwin (1999) in the 18th century infused older more durable artifacts with a “patina” of age that reinforced the traditional standing of the owners as members of a long-standing elite. The place of the North American colonies as important commercial ports and the access of a rising merchant elite to the latest goods from England and Europe marginalized goods with patina as a significant source of status. Recently, this notion of patina has been revisited, complicated, and significantly revised by Shannon Lee Dawdy. Dawdy has recognized in the patina on objects prized by some contemporary residents of New Orleans a way to critique contemporary attitudes and archaeological approaches to consumer culture.

The Bakken Outside the Box

Last year, I submitted one of my favorite little articles. It was co-authored with Bret Weber and is called “Bakken Hundreds.” You can read it here.

The article is a contribution to a volume called Archaeology Outside of the Box and we thought our piece would fit the main trust of the volume toward more unconventional archaeological projects and more unusual forms of writing about archaeology. Alas, when the reviews came back, we were told that our article was too far outside the box, but, our editor intervened and suggested that we might satisfy the reviewers with a long footnote. This would allow us to keep the structure of our article intact, while also contextualizing our project more formally. 

Because I’m really focused on other things at the moment, I’m using this blog space to work a bit on this footnote. For the various references, check out the the article here and as always, any and all feedback is welcome!

The North Dakota Man Camp project began in 2012 and sought to document the social, architecture, and archaeological conditions at work force housing sites in the Bakken Oil Patch of Western North Dakota. The project is directed by the archaeologists and historians, William Caraher and Richard Rothaus, and the social worker and historical Bret Weber, and over its seven year history included collaborations with architectural historian and archaeologist, Kostis Kourelis; visual artists, John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, and Ryan Stander; and colleagues in social work and history. The project team documented over 50 workforce using textual descriptions, photography, video, and over 100 hours of unstructured interviews with residents. These sites ranged in character from informal and illegal squats in tree lines near construction sites, which we called “Type 3” camps to large RV parks or “Type 2” camps and state-of-the-art camps provided by global logistics companies, which were “Type 1” camps in our typology. The main phase of the project concluded in 2018, but low-level fieldwork is ongoing with periodic visits to Western North Dakota continuing on an irregular basis. 

The 2008-2018 Bakken oil boom was the third such boom in Western North Dakota with earlier booms occurring in the 1950s and late-1970s and early 1980s (Conway 2020). The improvement in of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology in the early 21st-century and the high price of oil (which we included in the following article) encouraged oil companies to return to the Bakken and Three Forks formation. By April 2014, the thousands of Bakken oil wells were producing over one-million barrels of oil per day from sites concentrated mainly in Mountrail, Williams, and McKenzie Counties. The rapid rate of exploration and drilling along with the increase in production, drew tens of thousands workers to the region not only to work in the oil industry directly, but also to work in construction and service industries necessary to support the growing population. As had happened in previous booms, the increase in population outpaced housing and a wide range of temporary housing situations filled the gap (Caraher et al. 2020). 

Our original goal was to document and analyze workforce housing conditions and to produce a dataset that could inform historical and policy studies in the future. Our work in the Bakken, however, revealed more than just creative adaptions to the precarious employment, inadequate housing, and extreme weather. As the following article attempts to communicate, field work in the Bakken was also deeply affecting. The fieldwork team encountered diverse attitudes and situations that reflected the struggles, hopes, and experiences of workers in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the tireless efforts to negotiate the promises of middle-class life against contingencies of the global extractive economy. While our other publications provide a more scholarly view of our work in the Bakken (Weber et al. 2014; Caraher 2016; Caraher et al 2016; Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2020; Rothaus et al. 2021), this article seeks to offer an affective view of our experiences in this landscape and serve as a reminder that archaeology, especially of the contemporary world (e.g. Gonzalez-Ruibal 2019) is as much about our critical, reflective engagement with the contemporary situation, as the material context for the present. 

Writing and Revising: An Afterword

The more I roll up my sleeves and work on revising my book manuscript, the more I get the itch to write. Some of this is just me being lazy. It’s easier to write and garner a sense of accomplishment from the appearance of (relatively) well ordered words on the page. Revising is a humbling slog and whatever joy I get from playing with words at the writing stage, quickly evaporates as I have to try to discipline those words though revision. 

I also like to think that my itch to write more also comes from the desire to contextualize what I have written in the rapidly changing present. I wrote most of my current manuscript against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency, but I hadn’t anticipated the protests of the summer of 2020, the COVID pandemic, and the deadly riot of January 6th. These events seem too significant to ignore especially in a book that purports to deal with the archaeology of the American experience. 

It’s not just the events. The entire conversation surrounding the events, the COVID pandemic, and legacy of populist politics in the age of Trump has pushed me to consider how scholarly publishing should engage with this situation in a meaningful way. Even the most casual scroll through the social media feeds of academics reveals colleagues who have intensified their calls for social and racial justice, struggled under the increased burdens and workloads brought about by the COVID pandemic, used their platforms to engage often divisive and politicized issues such as the removal of statues, and taken on significant emotional labor in support of communities processing and responding to the daily that seemingly defined 2020. For my part, I’ve largely been silent. At best, I could justify this as giving more thoughtful voices space to be heard. At worst, this reflected my own inability to understand and process events and the dense layers of privilege that insulate my position.

All this is to say that I need to write an afterword to my book that acknowledged the time and situation in which I wrote this book.  

First, I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m a white, middle class, tenured, university professor without children and with a supportive partner and friends. This situation allowed me to weather the storm of 2020 and remain academically productive. This has caused me a great deal of ambivalence as I recognize that my privileged position has allowed me to continue to advance my career while others are losing their positions or have had to reorder their professional priorities in response to the pandemic’s disruption of traditional schooling or the need to care for sick or vulnerable family and community members. In contrast, the disruption of my traditional summer field seasons opened up more time for me to write and think intensively about various projects. 

I have also avoided engaging the COVID pandemic in a professional way. Historical archaeology has much to add to understanding the impact of pandemics on communities and social institutions both in the past and in the present. A recent article in American Antiquity, for example, composed jointly by the editors, situated the contemporary situation in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race. By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. A series of articles in the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response in past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. As importantly, Shadreck Chirikure in the same issue calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass’s article considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. A special issue of Social Anthropology, likewise dedicated to COVID, featured precious few articles that deal with the material culture or archaeology of COVID-19, but Natalia Magnani and Matthew Magnani’s article proposed a “rapid response” archaeology that documented the community’s and the state’s reaction to the COVID pandemic in the town of Tromsø in Norway. The specific outcome of such work remains unclear in this brief article, but the potential for this kind of research to understand how community’s responded to various policies in a rapidly changing situation seems more than clear.

For my part, I’ve fumbled with how my own work can contribute to an archaeology of COVID. I have pondered how COVID has changed our sense of time, and suggested that North Dakota’s response to COVID paralleled certain kinds of structural violence that archaeology has recently sought to explore. None of this has become more than notes, and this reflects both  a certain lack of urgency and a significant sense of insulation from the pandemic even as it ravaged my state and community.    

More critically, my work and this book reflects my perspective as a middle class, white, academic. As I develop my afterword more I want to demonstrate how my position(ality) shaped my understanding of scholarship on the contemporary world and how my own work and this subfield might evolve to address contemporary concerns in a more assertive and impactful way.  


Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve been posting the chapters of the little book that I’m writing on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. 

This is my way of simulating a practice that an old buddy of mine used to maintain a sense of progress with his book manuscript. Whenever he finished a chapter, he’d hang it from a hook on a book shelf in his office. When the book was done, he had a little gaggle of chapters hanging from their individual hooks in a row. It was inspiring to see!

As regular readers watched my book come together, they might have noticed that I hadn’t posted Chapter 1. There were a range of reasons for this. It was an article that I had written and then never submitted. As I revised it from an article, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it. I kept moving it to be the back burner and written, but not done. I was (and still is) boring. 

These days, I’m mostly focusing on revising these chapters to ensure continuity throughout the book and tidying up my citations. As part of that process, I polished Chapter 1 the best that I could and it can now take its place among the finished chapters. I plan to write an afterword or epilogue which I will include when it’s done. 

Here are the first drafts of all nine chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

Chapter 8: Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change in the Bakken

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

Submitted: Hearing Corwin Hall

Needless to say, the last few months have not been particularly productive for me, but every now and then I fought through the COVID-malaise to produce something. It helps when collaborators are invested and involved and when a project feels like it has significance for my lived experience.

All this to say that in the next 30 minutes, I’ll have (finally) submitted something based on our sometimes frantic, but always intriguing work with the Wesley College Documentation Project and Michael Wittgraf’s mixed-media piece “Hearing Corwin Hall.” I’m sending it to Epoiesen, an electronic journal that is equipped to bring together video, documents, images, and text.  

The article is called “Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus” and is cowritten with Mike Wittgraf and Wyatt Atchley, a talented photographer whose photographs offer nuance, atmosphere, and critique within the article itself.

The article has also benefited from my embarrassingly recent discover of Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) which helped me connect my own feelings of anxiety and dread to conditions on my campus (if not in larger society) and as a meaningful experience worthy of both critique and documentation. My hope is that this piece is the start of some of that work (especially as seen through Wyatt’s vision and Mike’s music and video). 

This is a pretty personal article for me, so I’d love it if you check it out here. Most of the links should work, but a few won’t because those are videos that we’ll hopefully publish if and when this thing gets formally published.

Wish us luck!!

Chapter 8: Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change in the Bakken

The last few weeks have felt like running in water. A perfect storm of long-standing responsibilities, short-term duties, and end of the year fatigue combined to reduce all progress to a twisted mangle of complicated and complicating task. Somehow, I managed to carve out some writing time to finish the final chapter draft of my book manuscript. It brings together my work in the Bakken with some of my recent thinking about how our work might inform the archaeology of contemporary climate change (some of which you can read here). 


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

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

To date, I have completed eight chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

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

Here are the first drafts of the eight chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

Chapter 8: Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change in the Bakken

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

The Bakken, Ontology, and Climate Change

Like so many people, I’ve been struggling to keep focused on long term or big picture projects. This has been a mini-disaster for my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience which had momentum and then lost it amid COVID, the semester, and various other commitments. You can get a sense for what the book looks like so far here.

The last few weeks, I’ve tried to jump back into writing mostly to learn that this is not how good ideas happen. In fact, over the last week or so, I’ve written the final section to the final chapter about four times. I posted two sections of this chapter already herehere, and here

Yesterday, I took a long and frankly melancholic walk with the dogs and churned over the section that I’m working on over and over and over. I finally came to a not entirely unsatisfactory solution and work up today at 4:30 am and spent the last 8 hours hashing it out. 

IMG 5814

My sound track today (and most of the last six months, to be honest) was Waxahatchee’s brilliant Saint Cloud. When I got to the final paragraphs of what I was working on, the song “Arkadelphia” came on. At the risk of being one of those guys, the lyrics sort of framed my thinking:

If you get real close to the ending
I hope you know I did what I could
We try to give it all meaning
Glorify the grain of the wood
Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good

Here’s the final section, warts and all. It needs citations and I’ll try to finish this before Christmas. Hat tip goes out to the folks who stimulated my thinking in my 2020 ASOR panel (which you can read about here). 

As per usual, any feedback, mockery, or kind words are always appreciated:

Labor, The Environment, and Climate Change

The details of workforce housing in the Bakken represent regional variation on a number of larger trends in the archaeological study of labor, attitudes toward the environment, and climate change. The final section of this chapter will introduce three vignettes that will help us to explore the connection between the labor regime that made the Bakken boom possible and issues of environmental justice and the intersection between our dependence on fossil fuels and climate change on a global scale. In general, historical archaeologists and especially archaeologists of the contemporary world have consistently recognize that the study of recent material culture can play a key role in not only understanding human’s role in the transformation of the earth, but also the impact of climate change and associated climate regimes on both evidence for the past and our society today. As we have seen in chapter 2, Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project developed amid the environmental concerns in the 1960s and 1970s that gained momentum in the long shadow of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the organization of Earth Day in 1970, and an increasingly energized environmentalist movement. Climate change, the impact of recent human actions on the biosphere and atmosphere, and the persistent mark of industrialization on the surface of the planet likewise characterized the wide ranging debate among historical and contemporary archaeologists on the “Anthropocene” in the Norwegian Archaeological Review in 2011 and the inaugural issue issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology in 2014. There appears to be a growing awareness that the violence associated with the traditional haunts of historical archaeology – colonialism, Eurocentrism, capitalism, and modernity – is manifest in a global trail of environmental destruction. This damage may now be coming home to roost in the form of climate change which promises only to exacerbate social, political, and economic instability inherent in a system that relies upon and promotes global inequality.

The parking lot of the Williston Walmart seems like an unlikely place to unpack the relationship between the haunts of historical archaeology, environmental degradation, and climate change. At the same time, it does offers a window into the changing landscape of labor in the United States. As early as 2010, new arrivals in the Bakken congregated in the Williston Walmart parking lot. Nationally, Walmart had a longstanding policy of allowing the overnight parking of RVs in their lots, and new arrivals looking for work in the booming Bakken oil patch took advantage of this policy especially as longer term housing was both scarce and expensive. By 2011, evening transformed the Walmart parking lot into a bustling settlement. The store provided groceries and other amenities, but as the media coverage made clear, life in the parking lot was not comfortable. While it is likely that the reports on crime in the parking lot represent local anxieties about change as much as the reality on the ground, there is no reason to assume that living in an RV in the North Dakota winter is pleasant. Many of those who end up staying in the parking lot have left communities hard hit by the Great Recession and see the hardships of living in an RV as the price of opportunity (Donovan 2012). The Walmart parking lot represents a degraded parody of the mid-century suburb. Planned suburbs such as Lakewood, California and Levittown, New York combined housing and shopping with abundant parking. This not only made clear the link between mid-century middle-class domesticity and consumer culture, but also emphasized the crucial role of the automobile in post-war life. In contrast, the Walmart parking lot occupied in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis revealed the faltering of the middle class dream of home ownership amid our persistent attachment to the convenience of consumer culture. Worker seeking jobs flow to the Bakken along routes already established by the global supply chains that support the consumer goods on the Walmart shelves.

The arrival of job seekers in the Bakken, by car and RV, connects our dependence on fossil fuels with the increasingly mobile society. The RV, a recreational vehicle, provided the middle class with a means to escape the fixity of suburban life. Its streamlined design marked its modernity and compatibility with car culture. The use of RVs as long-term, albeit temporary, housing in the Bakken demonstrated how the ever more rapid and dynamic flow of capital complicates notions of settled suburban life. The same vehicles used to house middle class families as they visited National Parks of the American West, now serve to house workers extracting oil from the same region. Efforts by workers to embellish their RVs and their lots suggests that notions of suburban fixity and private space persist even in housing manufactured with mobility in mind. The blurring of distinctions between settled suburban life and the mobility of capital and the middle class echoes the increasingly fuzzy distinctions that define the core and the periphery even in the historically peripheral space of the American West. The speed and mobility of modern capital and labor has complicated the spatial and conceptual boundaries that have defined not only regions, but also our relationship to the landscape and resources.

As we have noted elsewhere in this book, natural resources including oil, minerals, natural beauty, and “open spaces” (produced partly through the displacement or simply ignoring Native American populations) defined the American West. In many ways this definition followed the modern division between the natural world and the human world. National parks, for example, represented efforts to preserve natural beauty from human interference while the resources of the West exist for the advancement of American society. In effect, the American West became a model for the distinction between the cultural and the natural and the human and the non-human reinforced by its location at the periphery of the settled urban center of the Midwest and East. Fossil fuels, first powering rail, and later powering cars, trucks, and air travel, formed the connective tissue that bound the center to the natural regions which they dominated politically and economically. Scholars critical of the nature/culture dyad have come to regard this as a fundamental feature of modern and colonialist thinking that justified extractive industry and industrialization and their attendant disregard for the environment. In effect, fossil fuels facilitated closing the gap between the distant periphery which was the domain of nature and held resources destined for human consumption or preservation and a core defined by human culture. Concerns over climate change, accelerated largely by our rampant consumption of fossil fuels, requires that we recognize irreducible tangle of ties that connect culture with nature, the human with the non-human, and the fate of our species with dynamic transformation taking place on a global scale.

The global impact of the Bakken was visible in a widely circulate photograph of the Northern Plains at night which showed the region producing almost as much light as Minneapolis. The light was frequently and incorrectly attributed to flares burning off natural gas from oil wells in the region which reinforced perceptions of the Bakken as an ecologically irresponsible and inefficient folly. A more likely explanation for the light was the round the clock activity at drill sites, pipeline terminals, new rail yards, workforce housing sites, and other facilities developed the support extractive industries. Whatever the cause of its brilliant glow, the photograph evoked the famous 1972 image of the Earth from space colloquially know as the Blue Marble. This image apparently served as an inspiration for James Lovelock’s and Lyn Margulis’s Gaia Hypothesis (Lovelock 1979; Later 2017). This theory understands the Earth a self-regulating system comprised of all organic and inorganic entities which constantly adapt to one another (de Souza and Costa 2018, 6). The image of Earth as a Blue Marble reduces humans to yet another species barely distinguishable from space and existing within a global system of agents.

While archaeologists have been slow to embrace the Gaia Hypothesis, it has informed similar views of the world that seek to unsettle and complicate the human/nature dichotomy. Matthew Edgeworth’s notion of the “archaeosphere,” for example, reinforces the impossibility of separating human actions from wider material and natural world by emphasizing the full range of human modifications to the physical environment. The commingling of the organic and inorganic and the human and the non-human has become a key assumption in the effort to define the current geological age as the “Anthropocene.” This term, coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stroemer in 2000 (2000, Crutzen 2002) recognizes the fundamental human change to the geology of the Earth. The radiation from nuclear weapons testing, the redistribution of material through mining and drilling, the use of plastics and other manufactured inorganic compounds at a massive scale, and the increase in the amount of atmospheric green house gasses, among other indicators, will leave indelible traces in the geology of the planet (Steffen, Crutzen, McNeill 2007; 2011). While it has not been officially accepted as a geological epoch, it has nevertheless been a touch point for more expansive understandings of the impact of humanity on the physical environment. This has, in turn, fueled a growing interest among archaeologists in environmental change in the past and has added urgency to archaeological critiques aimed at understanding long term trends (Lane 2015). All of this has contributed to the realization among historical archaeologists that concepts such as the Gaia Hypothesis, the archaeosphere, and the anthropocene offer important concepts for interrogating the complex interplay between human and non-human actors in ongoing environmental change.

From the Walmart parking lot to the Blue Marble may appear to be a vast leap in terms of time and scale. The travails of Bakken workers doing dangerous work and enduring substandard housing conditions, however, connect the human costs of extractive industries to the global changes in both the economy and the environment. It also marks the potential for both historical archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world to bridge between local concerns, in this case workforce housing, and global concerns, such as climate change. Like so much archaeological work of the last two decades, this ability to move between scales, agents, and situations relies on our ability to complicate long-standing ontologies which have supported how archaeologist describe and interpret the world. By recognizing that categories of core and periphery, human and non-human, and natural and cultural are not only dependent upon one another for meaning, but also collapsing under the weight of the ever increasingly speed of capital, the contingency of human labor and living conditions, and new ways of seeing the Earth.