Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018

Over the last year, I’ve been whispering about this project a bit. Kyle Conway is editing an updated version of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (1958), and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will republish both original report and an updated slate of essays. The updated version will be titled Sixty Years of Boom and Bust The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018, and it will become a contributing volume to the Bakken Bookshelf and sit nice alongside The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016). 

Campbell et al 1958 dragged

If you’re interested in the original report, which anyone interested in North Dakota history should read. There’s a digital copy of the book available from The Digital Press’s page on the Internet Archive here (and if you’re interested in a paper copy one is available from Re-Ink Books in Delhi, India). 

Kyle Conway has sent me a little peek at the table of contents for the new version of the book. It looks fantastic:


1. Introduction: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust (2018), by Kyle Conway
2. Introduction and Summary (1958), by Bernt L. Wills, Ross B. Talbot, Samuel C. Kelley, Jr., and Robert B. Campbell

3. Physical Attributes of the Area (1958), by Bernt L. Wills
4. The Geographic Setting of the Bakken Oil Shale Play (2018), by Bradley C. Rundquist and Gregory S. Vandeberg 

5. Political Impact (1958), by Ross B. Talbot
6. Political Impacts (2018), by Andrea Olive

7. The Economic Impact of Oil Development (1958), by Samuel C. Kelley, Jr.
8. The Economic Consequences of Oil Development (2018), by David Flynn

9. Social Change in the Basin (1958), by Robert B. Campbell
10. Social Impacts of Oil Development (2018), by Rick Ruddell and Heather Ray
11. Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch (2018), by William Caraher and Bret Weber
12. Drinking, Drugs, and Long Waits: Community Members’ Perceptions of Living in a North Dakotan Boomtown (2018), by Karin L. Becker
13. Boomtown Bias: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws (2018), by Nikki Berg Burin

Appendix A: Methodology Note (1958)
Appendix B: Supplementary Tables (1958)

Kyle has also been playing around with the cover and grabbed a great photograph of Williston on his last visit to the area.


Ideally the book will drop toward the end of this year, but we’re probably dealing with the “long 2018” for this volume with an early 2019 publication date, but judging by the table of contents, I’m pretty sure that this book will be worth the wait.

Making the Book: Protesting on Bended Knee

The essays have been copy edited, sent back to their authors, and some have even been returned to the publisher! Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent and Patriotism in 21st Century America, is slipping gently into the production phase at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Yesterday morning, I started to think about how the book would look. I will keep the book at the 5.5 x 8.5 size to keep some continuity with Eric’s Picking the President from 2017. I’ve made the margins a bit more generous on the inside of the page to give the text block a little more room from the binding. I will keep the formality of the Janson font because it suits the seriousness of the books topic. 

As for the first page of every chapter, Eric suggested that we try to use a font that evokes the Civil Rights era posters from the 1960s. Like everyone, I immediately grabbed an image of the famous I AM A MAN poster.


Of course, it was likely wood type or even hand lettered like many of the posters of that era, so it was a bit of a non starter. I did try a vaguely art deco Rosina, that I used on the cover of Haunted by Waters.

Protesting TemplateDraft4 copy

I’m not sure that this font really works even if I do love the low strokes on the E (and, on the A which would evoke the low stroke on the “A” in I AM A MAN.)

For all the pages, I’d like to continue my emerging house style of using a small icon next to the title of each contribution. In this case, I’m using the fist from the cover of the book, which I think will be rendered in a bit less of a sketchy style in the final version. It will also evoke the Black Power protests at the 1968 Olympics on October 16th, which will coincide with out release date for the book. 

Protesting cover1

I think I’ll go with a simpler sans serif font for the chapter titles. I’ve recently been enamored with FF Meta (which would allow for a little unintentional trolling, if you know the recent history of this font’s use).

Protesting TemplateDraft5 copy

I also need to breathe some more room into the header of the page. I am trying to get a bit more sensitive in my use of negative space to create both balance on the page and as a form of emphasis without changing font sizes and weights. (I have this idea that for some project in the future using the same fonts and sizes throughout using only all caps and negative space for for emphasis).

Protesting TemplateDraft6 copy

The single fine line beneath the title gives it a bit of a 1990s vibe. I might leave it out of the final version, but for nostalgic reasons (I spent most of the 1990s with my head buried in a book!), I’ll leave it in for now.

As always, I post this stuff here because I want feedback (and praise, of course, but also I also enjoy snarky criticism!). 


Archaeogaming: The Book

Over the weekend I read Andrew Reinhard’s new, concise introduction to archaeogaming, titled Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (2018). I have had the good fortune of chatting with him a fair bit about archaeogaming in the field at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation, on my Caraheard podcast, and over email correspondence and conversations over the past five years or so. The concept has always intrigued me as an valuable approach to the archaeology of “Late Capitalism” or “Post Modernity” and a series of methods and practices worth developing if archaeologists continue to take seriously both their expansive view of materiality and their particular claim to being students of culture.


He defines archaeogaming in the title of his book as the archaeology in and of video games and carves out a space for it between the burgeoning and related fields of game studies and media archaeology. The book embraces its place between media archaeology and game studies by bouncing merrily between academic diction and more accessible prose which allows it to leverage the precise language of, say, Heidegger’s definition of “dwelling” with the campy, acronym-heavy, and breeze world of gaming lingo. Reinhard’s willingness to move between the densely philosophical, the methodological, and the colloquial would make this book a nice option for an introductory archaeology class where students learn about theory, methods, procedures, and techniques, but less frequently have opportunities to put these ideas into practice. An archaeogaming module, that encourages them to excavate, survey, or otherwise document a video game as a cultural artifact would be a nice complement or final project in an archaeology class. Reinhard’s book provides both the student and the scholar a way to think about what this kind of work will look like.

As is my usual practice, I haven’t the discipline or inclination to do a proper review. Instead, I offer three observations.

1. Gamification of Archaeology. I’m not a gamer and don’t own any video games, but one of the first things that struck me about this book is how much video gaming has shaped my engagement with “dirt and sherd” archaeology. From the graphic-user interfaces of software to the longterm interest in simulations, 3D modeling, and immersive environments, digital practices in archaeology drink from the same pool of practices and trends as does gaming culture. On a superficial level, the evident complexity of the kinds of video games at the center of Reinhard’s analysis make it clear that these games share with software used by archaeologists – particularly GIS and 3D imaging software – the need to allow for a wide range of mapping, marking, and measuring functions. In fact, a current publication project that I’m working on with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and Open Context has spent a good bit of time discussing how to measure a 3D-scan of an object across scales through an online interface. This past summer, I spent a good bit of time in the Western Argolid producing drone images of the landscape that will allow for higher resolution mapping of significant places in our survey area. The ability to zoom in from a satellite image to our drone photography or “fly” across the landscape to understand the spatial or visual relationship between two places at different scales (i.e. a 3 m cliff might be smoothed by a 5 m resolution digital elevation model into a steep, but passable slope, but in a higher resolution landscape model become a barrier to movement). While these these kinds of spatial analysis on the micro or macro scale are concerns of archaeologists, they have parallels with game play where issues of legibility across scales in immersive digital environments have particular consequence. So there is a resonance on a broad level between gamers and archaeologists who both share an interest in building worlds with an attention to detail across scale, a kind of cultural legibility, and a compelling vividness.

This isn’t limited, of course, to analytical work in the lab or office. Flying a drone involves a game like interface which occupies the pilots attention far more than the actual drone itself. Documenting walls or marking up photographs on a tablet involves looking at the tablet, manipulating graphics, and making aesthetic and procedural decisions in an interface that simulates work on paper, but also goes beyond it. These interfaces mediate between “meatspace” (to use Reinhard’s term) and “gamespace” (or whatever we might call it) that extends from our GIS and spatial analysis software to the interfaces on our tablets and drone consoles. 

2. Stratigraphy and Surface Survey in Virtual Worlds. One of the things that Reinhard explores is the relationship between games, game spaces, and archaeological knowledge. He describes the work he did on the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) which is a survey project focused on the procedural worlds created in the game No Man’s SkyYou can read more about that survey project here

What interested me the most is that survey archaeology – that is the study of assemblages of objects on the surface – was the chosen method for exploring the landscapes of video games. Not only is it useful for documenting the surfaces presented by game developers within games, but it also allows the archaeologist to create assemblages that extend from the world in the game to “meatspace” where digital recording methods, academic literature, conversations with colleagues, and knowledge about the game’s development trajectory and versioning as well as critical responses to the game itself come into play. As Reinhard states, archaeogaming doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the game itself, but extends to the world of the gamer, the interface, and the materiality of the game experience. The gaming experience is a surface that extends out widely in a network of entangled relationships.

At the same time, Reinhard pokes a bit at the idea of stratigraphy of video games. In some cases, stratigraphic relationships become visible in the history of the games themselves with keen observations possible by carefully reading the deposition of objects and features in the game landscapes. Stratigraphy is evident in aspects of games that evoke earlier version of the same game or earlier iterations of certain game types like quests or problem games. Stratigraphy is evident also in the way in which the player interfaces with the game or expects certain functions to work that build upon long standing conventions or gaming practices. It might even be possible to detect certain common game “engines” at play in games the provide, say, realistic gravity or other physical aspect of game place and allow players to anticipate how their avatar or character will respond to input. These basic (like in a foundational sense) features of game play can represent earlier deposits or moments of development in the game or in the gaming concept against which variation and change can be measured. Since strata are always defined by methods and practices, the challenge facing archaeogaming is defining these levels and their relationship to later depositional events. Reinhard appears well on his way to setting out some common methods for recognizing these stratigraphic levels. 

In other cases, stratigraphy involves digging down below the level of the graphic interface and into the murky world of code. Reinhard does not deal much with code in his book, but it clearly lurks right below the surface (heh, heh). Excavating code for the earliest deposition processes requires both a deep familiarity with programing practice and access to the codebase, which is usually zealously guarded by gaming companies. My guess is that parts of these games rely on code that is decades old and recycled – like ancient spolia – for different purposes in a wide range of games. Excavating the code of games would appear to be the next frontier for archaeogaming and to parallel nicely the recent interest in excavating archaeological practices. 

3. The Edges of Archaeogaming. There were a few places in the book where I thought that the edges of archaeogaming revealed its potential moving forward. For example, it is clear that archaeologists in video games, like in other forms of popular media, rarely follow our professional code of ethics. Laura Croft, literally raids tombs. Indiana Jones, punches (admittedly bad) people and steals their excavated finds and destroys their research projects. In other instances, some of the games themselves tend to present material culture as an analogy for “race” promoting a kind of narrow and problematic view of culture. These practices while problematic ethically for the practicing archaeologist can be suspended for the purposes of game play, just as players of the famous Grand Theft Auto game can run over families or shoot at cops. While we know that the grossest kinds of unethical (or illegal) behaviors in most video games are at best a kind of escapism and at worst a manifestation of the repressed desires to challenge authority, to destroy society, or to die, our understanding of the ethical limits within these virtual worlds are unclear. For example, there are some kinds of unethical behavior that are simply not acceptable in video games, but where these lines are drawn remains a topic for debate.   

I was also curious about whether archaeogaming ideas could be applied to so-called virtual worlds like Second Life or simulations like Sim City. For the former, users shaped landscapes and built structures which persisted when they were abandoned to leave strange ghost cities and worlds whose purposes were unclear. Games like Sim City have coded formation processes built into game play with neighborhoods falling into slums when resources or access are restricted. The archaeological thinking behind this simulation is that changes in resources not only lead to more elaborate buildings, but also their deterioration over time. Games like the well-regarded Civilization series similarly rely on archaeological assumptions to plot the development of groups and the competition for resources over time. It seems like these games embrace the relationship between disciplinary archaeology and “game space” in a way that could benefit both gaming and archaeology. 

None of what I’ve said in this critique is meant to be a criticism of the book or archaeogaming. In fact, I think this book does a lovely job opening up archaeogaming in a practical and intellectual way to scholars. I’m looking forward to Reinhard’s PhD Dissertation at the University of York to see where these ideas go in the future. Check out his ongoing work in this area at his Archaeogaming website.




Boeotia Project, Volume 2: The City of Thespiai

Over the last few weeks I’ve been snacking on John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass’s Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site (2017). It’s a big book that is both impressively synthetic and filled with many distinct observations on the distribution of ceramics and survey methodology. The book focuses on work done in the 1980s at the long-lived urban site of Thespiai. Like my own project at Koutsopetria on Cyprus, the intensive pedestrian survey was not designed to locate the site (or small ex-ubran sites in the countryside), but to document the assemblage, distribution, and extent of material at a “complex urban site.”  The distributional analysis of the ceramic material from the survey interested me the most, although the book also brings together architectural fragments, epigraphy, Ottoman administrative documents, and ceramic analyses into a series of synthetic histories of the city.

I might venture a more thorough review of the book after I work my way through it all, but, for now, I wanted to record a few observations on chapter 3 which unpacks the distribution of ceramic material across this large urban site. There are five things that piqued my interest in these chapters.

First, the intensive survey around Thespiai was done in the mid-1980s meaning that this project drew upon a kind of legacy data. The authors were particularly up front about the challenges of these datasets, the occasional irregularity of their survey work, and the adaptation of their methods over time. It was a nice reminder that for all the methodological rigor associated with survey and for all the efforts projects make to demonstrate the systematic character of their artifact collection, intensive survey projects both adapt over the course of projects and in response to the landscape. Bintliff and his colleagues occasionally used irregularities to their advantage, such as when they compared an assemblage collected from units that were accidentally resurveyed with that from the original collection to demonstrate that larger assemblages tend to be more diverse. 

Second, for many of the survey units Bintliff’s team conducted both standard intensive survey collection at 15 m spacing over units that were around 3000 sq m, as well as more intensive samples over 300 sq m from the same 3000 sq m units. Comparing the assemblages produced by these two different methods demonstrated that the more intensive collection samples did not necessarily produce more chronological information than the less intensive transect walking. This confirms some of the experiments that we ran at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and the preliminary analysis of our data from the Western Argolid Regional Project

It was a bit more striking that the density data from both collection methods produced more or less comparable. In my experience, more intensive sampling tended to produce much higher density per hectare than counting visible artifacts while walking units at 10 to 15 m intervals. The similarity in density counts and the distribution produced through the different methods is a remarkable sign that their less intensive methods were appropriately calibrated for the nature of the surface assemblage at this large urban site.

Third, over the last decade, I’ve been fairly concerned with issues of surface visibility in intensive survey. In fact, I’ve tended to think about visibility as having a particularly significant impact on the chronological and functional character of artifact assemblages. I’ve made two arguments for the role of visibility. First, as visibility decreases, assemblages tend to become less chronologically diverse and the most common artifacts, which tend to only date to broad periods, to dominate these assemblage. Second, low visibility units with particularly diverse assemblages likely represent windows into higher artifact density surfaces obscured by vegetation. 

Because I’m not particularly interested in overall artifact densities, per se, I’ve been reluctant to correct artifact densities for visibility and, instead, focused on identifying units with anomalous densities or diversity for their surface visibility.  Even if I was interested in overall artifact densities, however, I’d probably want whatever correction is applied to them unpacked more explicitly than the authors of this book provide. More than that, Bintliff’s long term interest in hidden landscapes might recommend greater attention to visibility as a key factor in obscuring and revealing periods that tend to be difficult to see on the surface.

Fourth, I was quite intrigued by the authors’ argument that earlier periods might be obscured by later period overburdens across the survey area. On the one hand, this is certainly the case particularly over the span of millennia, with evidence for prehistoric periods hidden, destroyed, or otherwise compromised by later eras that also tend to produce more materially visible marks on the landscape. I do wonder, on the other hand, whether the authors overstated their case a bit for the potential of various historical periods to obscure their earlier historical predecessors. The wide range of natural and human formation processes that shape contemporary landscapes ranging from cut terraces to erosional features, scars associated with historical (and contemporary) excavations, and the local movement of soil to level fields contribute significantly to the complexity to surface assemblages. While I don’t doubt that the area of the ancient city of Thespiai is relatively stable (or at least well understood by the surveyors), I suspect that the relationship between the plow zone and subsurface material is too tricky to make arguments for later overburdens in anything but very well understood situations.

In fact, one thing that I’ve come to appreciate from our soon-to-be-published work at Koutsopetria is how much earlier material finds its way into later buildings. For example, the annex room from the Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria clearly stands atop a clear earlier Roman horizon, but the walls, the floor and roof collapse, and the erosional overburden across the Late Roman building featured a large quantity of Hellenistic and even earlier Iron Age (and Cypro-Classical) material. We have our doubts whether the area around the Early Christian basilica saw activity in the Iron Age or even Hellenistic period, but the material present in the Late Roman building ensured that the Hellenistic and Classical periods, nevertheless, appeared in the excavation. This led us to suspect that some of the earlier period scatter across the Koutsopetria plain, might well reflect material that entered the plow zone from later buildings. Needless to say, the famous example of the Pyrgouthi tower where a predominantly Hellenistic scatter obscured a significant phase of 7th century re-occuptation springs to mind as well. 

The significance for understanding the the relationship between material from various periods also underscores the complexity of defining the extent of the site at any period as well as interpreting the presence of features like cemeteries or ritual activities in the landscape (much less estimating population size based on the size of a site!)  

Finally, one thing that I really appreciate from this work is the authors’ willingness to bring to the fore the various archaeologists responsible for producing the assemblages from the site. This extends from the charming story of the “Mad Dogs of Thespaia” to various roles played by two generations of ceramicists who read the material in the 1980s and 1990s and re-examined it in preparation for the book. Intensive survey has, at times, embraced a kind of impersonal style that places quantitative analyses and well presented maps before the work of the individual survey teams and ceramicists who produced the data. On the one hand, this makes sense as the rigorous collection of information from the field and the ceramic assemblages produces datasets designed for quantitative analysis. On the other hand, anyone who has worked on a survey knows that time in the Greek countryside, with sherds, and in the company of other archaeologists can shape the results of a project in ways that the tidy analysis often obscures.

As I work my way through the volume, I’ll likely blog more on this book over the coming weeks. It’s an important and expansive book, so stay tuned!

Burin Talks Kaepernick on Jack Russell Weinstein’s Why? Radio Show

If you didn’t catch Eric Burin talking about his new book on Colin Kaepernick on the olde tyme wireless last night, don’t worry! You can hear Eric and Jack Russell Weinstein discuss Eric’s new book project, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America which pulls together over 30 papers dealing with Colin Kaepernick, protest, and race in America. 

Here’s a link to the podcast version fo the show. (Here’s the version that was broadcast live.)

Eric burine 2

Here’s a blurb about the radio show from the Why? Radio page:

America is in the midst of a ferocious debate about protests on the football field. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality against African Americans, inspiring others to do the same. Some think he is justified, others claim he is just a belligerent employee. On this episode, we look at the philosophical issues behind this debate, and have a discussion that focuses on race, sports, patriotism, the history of the United States, and the nature of democracy itself.

Eric Burin is a Professor History at the University of North Dakota who works on American history, with special attention to slavery and race. He is the author of the book Slavery and the Peculiar Solution and the editor of the free collection Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which is available to download for free (or purchase in paper!). He is also the editor of an upcoming collection on the football protests, which will also be available for free, here.

And, if you want more about the book project, check out a preview essay, and to download your copy when the book appears, go and drop a bookmark on this link.

Protesting cover

Preview Friday at The Digital Press

I know that Friday is traditionally reserved for my quick hits and varia, but the last couple of summers, I’ve taken a bit of a break from that. 

I do want to send along something to read over the long weekend, though.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is offering a timely preview of a project that will appear this fall: Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee. This book brings together a diverse group of 30 voices writing about the roots, politics, history, and social impact of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. 

Check out the preview here and stay tuned for some more sneak peaks over the next couple of months!

PoBK Draft Cover

Surfaces in the Bakken

This week, I’ve been sneaking in some time to finish Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (2018). It is a familiar book and echos many of the themes and characters present in Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (2017). They’re both good reads.

But both books also bother me. Some of my complaints are the standard kind. Briody and Rao tend to focus on a particular cross section of the Bakken: people with troubled pasts who came to North Dakota during the boom either to strike it rich or, at least, to escape from their previous lives. Many deal with issues of addiction, violence, poverty, or other social ills, but their willingness to come to the Bakken offers a glimmer of redemption for these characters. Whatever difficulties that they have faced in life, Briody and Rao emphasize that individuals who trekked to the Bakken made their own decisions and retained their own agency. This agency, however, is a bit toxic in that it only establishes these figures as tragic heroes who cannot escape their own past despite their efforts. 

The tragic figures who populate these two books create a kind of tension. On the one hand, reading about the lives of these individuals is sufficiently removed from a kind of imagined suburban norm to represent some kind of economically, socially, or morally compromised “other.” On the other hand, their inability to escape their past remains us of destruction wrought by the Bakken boom on communities and the landscape. In other words, both authors push us to consider whether we can dismiss these individuals as damaged dreamers who came to the Bakken in an effort to redeem compromised lives or whether we are fundamentally similar to these individuals. Perhaps our thirst for fossil fuels, material things, and wealth has made us complicit in the both the social and environmental ruin that the Bakken seems to promise. 

If this argument runs through each of these book, it’s implicit. (Especially in comparison to Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s remarkable Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017)).

There is a superficiality to Briody’s and Rao’s books. That is not to say that they are not well-researched, well-written, or carefully arranged, but that their main interest is the surface. The descriptions Rao’s book are particularly intriguing. They trace the contours of the Bakken in great detail from the rugged badlands of McKenzie County to the featureless prairies of the US-Canadian border. The characters are likewise drawn in careful detail with drug dealing ex-strippers, struggling fathers, wealthy tricksters, and wary locals rubbing shoulders and weaving tales. The work of the oil fields also received sustained attention with drilling, fracking, wastewater disposal, driving trucks, and even “stacking” drill rigs described in detail. Truck stops, watering holes, restaurants, and RVs served as interview rooms and background for much of the book.  

The fascinating thing about Rao’s richly drawn landscapes and figures is that they were so gently superimposed on one another. They spaces and people produce exotic places that are as ephemeral as the boom itself. The surfaces glided seamlessly beneath each other without the creation of depth or substance like diaphanous drapery that only hints at its existence while leaving what it covers exposed. 

The expansiveness of these transparent – or at least translucent – surfaces eliminates any space for the kind of ironic revelations that are so familiar in academic writing. What you see is literally what you see. It does not stand in for something else. It does not craftily allude to its opposite. It barely trades in implicitness beyond the simple notion that in the 21st century we’re all tragic characters in the fight against environmental degradation, precarity, and exploitative practices inherent to capitalism and extractive industries.

I tend to think that the daily confrontation with the seemingly intractable challenges of capital, precarity, and climate change has revealed the variegated surfaces that these phenomena have produced. There is no larger lesson, there is not reality that lurks beneath these “structures,” and there is little to brook any deeper interpretation that goes beyond nuanced description. Even history itself succumbs to the expansiveness of this surface. The California Gold Rush, the Alaska pipeline rush, and the first boom are simply variations on the theme of booms, busts, and opportunism. For Rao, dreams and dreamers are just that. They don’t reveal some long suppressed wish, injury, or hope. Rao’s Bakken dreamers ARE these hopes, wishes, and scars. Interpretation is unnecessary and probably futile.  

In this way, Rao’s and Briody’s books stand as an explicit and familiar monuments that tells a well-known tale. The surfaces prepared by these authors offers the kind of complicated reflection that makes the possibility of othering the denizens of the Bakken impossible. We are what we see in the Borgesian surface that extends in all directions. There’s no need to dig any deeper because it’s just surface, all the way down. 

Summer Reading List

It’s almost summer here in North Dakotaland and while I continue to dream about wrapping up my various projects from the spring (and the winter and the fall and last summer). 

You can check out my past reading lists here: 20172016201520142013, and 2011. A quick read of these lists presents a litany of failed ambition rather than the story of my intellectual growth. Nevertheless, because I have to take most of my reading with me to Greece and Cyprus, there is a selection process that is less than simply random. In other words, once I have to plan, I might as well make a list.

First, there are two new books in my field that I need to read. In Cyprus, I plan to read Marietta Horster, Doria Nicolaou, and Sabine Rogge eds., Church Building in Cyprus (Fourth to Seventh Centuries): A Mirror of Intercultural Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean. (2018). In Greece, I’ll like turn my attention to Amelia Brown’s new book Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman, and Christian City. (2018). The latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice is dedicated to digital data reuse in archaeology and that seems relevant as my various projects look ahead to investing some significant time into preparing our data for publication.

My reading in the historical archaeology of the American West and the archaeology of the contemporary world will take a bit of a pause this summer, although I’m keen to spend more time with Mark S Warner and Margaret Sermons Purser’s Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens (2018) and to revisit some classics of the field including Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer’s Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (1981), Cornelius Holtorf and Angela Piccini’s Contemporary Archaeology: Excavating Now (2006), Paul Graves-Brown’s Matter, Materiality, and Modern Culture (2012) and Sefryn Penrose’s (et al.) Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape (2010). In this same context, I’ll probably have to re-read David Beer’s Punk Sociology (2014) as I put together a draft of my paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association annual meeting.

I’m going to putt off surfing the Edinburgh History of the Greeks until a bit later in the summer as I prepare my Greek history class for the fall. 

I also want to read some fiction. I was taken by a recent review of the republication of Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978), in part because reviewers gave it a bit of Under the Vulcano (1968) vibe. I’ve also Kindled up Andrew Sean Greer’s Less: A Novel (2017).

I’ve also queued up four of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. And on various recommendations from social media colleagues, I’ve added the first two novels of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle

Finally, I read a little interview with the Peter Ginna in the Chronicle of Higher Education and picked up his new book on editing.

This reading will be in addition to a few other projects that continue to simmer away and require a certain amount of maintenance reading over the summer. For example, North Dakota Quarterly has reopened submissions and The Digital Press has an important work pretty far into the pipeline and literally begging for a first read!

Finally, I’ve been threatening my fellow editors at NDQ to start reading some poetry. The advantages of poetry books is that they’re small and while they might be heavy in content, they tend to be light in form. I’ll likely drop a couple in my bag for the odd evening read.

The Letters of Edward P. Roberston of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times. 

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below: 

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935


This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.  

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.