A Visit to a Pallet Plant

Ok. I admit that it wasn’t exactly a pallet plant since the company no longer manufactures pallets there, but pallet plant is alliterative (in the most crass way) so more suitable than “a visit to a pallet redistribution facility.”

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Anyway. 

The guys at API Pallets here in Grand Forks were very generous with their time when even through Bret Weber and I encroached on their lunch break on a rainy Friday afternoon. They showed us around their facility and explained that pallets come in on trucks from “Canada” and are rated and then shipped out to clients throughout the region. They get a small quantity of pallets from local merchants, like the local pasta plant, but most of their inventory comes from other distribution centers. Their biggest client is a logistics firm in Casselton, ND situated on an important transportation corridor for rail and truck traffic through the northern plains.

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As for the pallets themselves, we learned that API rates pallets with three grades. A1 pallets are clean, have no splinting or splitting, and have evenly spaced deck boards. One of the most interesting moments involved the guy using his fist to demonstrate the ideal width between deck boards. I’ll return to this. B1 and B2 pallets have light damage or have repairs. Irregularly spaced deck boards, the insertion of blocks to support broken stringers, or obvious splitting and splintering throughout leads to lower ratings. The difference in price between an A1 and B1/2 pallet is about $3. They do repair pallets to raise them to either A1 grade or B1/2 grade on site. 

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One thing Bret and I began to think about it the way in which the size of a pallet (48 x 40 inches) has impacted life in the Bakken (and elsewhere). For example, modular housing units like the most common in the Bakken are designed to move by rail or truck. Pallets, of course, are designed to fit inside containers, semi trailers, and rail cars and move about the country carrying standardized loads. The existence of this regular unit of measure and the tendency in the Bakken to use this scale to organize human activities, whether it is life or work, provides a highly visible means of standardizing the space of human activities. 

It was heartening, then, to see the guy at the pallet plant use his fist to measure the distance between the deck boards. This gesture returned the pallet to the human scale.

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The guys there also commented on the various stamps added to pallets to mark them as being used at a particular farm or factory. Since the pallet pool is an open pool, meaning that whoever possessed the pallets had the right to resell them, these stamps were meant to mark out simply one stage in the pallet’s life and to manipulate the standardized form of the object without compromising its functionality.

Finally, our reuse of pallets is important because it defies the functional expectations of these objects and reshapes them to our human existence rather than the opposite.

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More Pallets, More Pallets!!

I finally got around to reading Jacob Hodes’ “Whitewood Under Siege” in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Cabinet (primarily because my distracting reading purveyor Kostis Kourelis sent it to me). The article explores the contentious and combative world of the global pallet market. In around 4000 words, it clarified some of my lingering questions about pallets and added another component to my growing interest in pallets in the landscape.

First, the article clarified some of the early history of pallets in the U.S. According to Hodes pallets found their current form by 1925, but did not see widespread use until WWII when the US military ordered millions of pallets to move supplies overseas. That makes a photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walker Evans Collection particularly interesting. I posted it last winter. The photo dates to 1941 and shows a small “toaster type” RV parked in a Sarasota, Florida. Clearly visible is a line of pallets serving as a deck and another pallet leaning against the trailer’s side. The use of pallets in this way continues into the 21st century, but this 1941 photograph shows that as early as pallets were in use to move bulk goods around the world, they began to be used for secondary purposes.

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The next important thing that I learned from this article is how the pallet ecosystem works. As my regular readers know, I’ve been thinking about how the Late Roman economy functions in light of the massive assemblage of Late Roman amphoras at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. I have tended to assume that large concentrations of similar containers represents the administrative and economic power of the state, largely because small scale exchange practices and producers have tended to be dynamic and contingent and to leave a less less visible signature in the landscape. The repair, manufacture, recycling, and redistribution of traditional wooden pallets is an open ecosystem with numerous small-scale participants facilitating the circulation of pallets around the world (with some notable exceptions like the Australian company CHEP who has demonstrated a willingness to go to war to protect its “closed pool” practices of pallet circulation).  So, if I owned a company in Grand Forks, ND, I’d go to my local pallet company – API Pallets of Grand Forks – to procure pallets to ship my goods. API also, I assume, purchases pallets from companies at a fixed price (typically less than $10 per pallet) or individual recyclers. They then repair or recondition the pallets and sell them back to the market. Pallets that cannot be repaired are recycled almost entirely (at least by API); the wood becomes mulch and the nails are recycled. What is fascinating to me is that this entire system functions in a decentralized way (unlike the CHEP closed pool) with each community having a depot for pallets that ensure their repair and recirculation. 

Of course such a decentralized system can only function if there are significant pressures present to ensure the maintenance of standards. Pallets have to fit inside trucks, on airplanes, into rail cars.  They have to be close to the same strength so that they can be stacked with goods and treated in a similar way. Even allowing for some significant variation, wood pallets are standardized, despite being produced on a small scale around the world, through the combined pressures of regularized shipping practices and a trade association (note for example how many pallet companies have the similar “Pallets 101” page on their websites). This standardization, of course, came about in part because of the needs of the US military to supply troops deployed globally.

This got me thinking about the manufacturing of standardized amphora shapes, like Late Roman 1 amphoras. By all accounts, the production of these amphoras occurred at various sites on Cyprus and Cilicia. Their standard shape and sized functioned to facilitate the movement of supplies through a particular region. The organization of these producers and suppliers was decentralized and the only pressure to standardize came through the practices associated with moving goods. This is not a novel observation, but I suspect that Andrew Bevan would have found this parallel useful in his recent article on containerization.

One last observation, I did some quick web searching and noticed that Williston does not seem to have a center for the recycling, repair, and redistribution of pallets. There may be one in Minot and Dickinson, and there certainly is one in Bismarck. As with so many things in North Dakota, these core services and infrastructure tend to be clustered in the Red River Valley (for now) and particularly in places like West Fargo which serves as a region redistribution hub for much of the area. 

I think a field trip over to API Pallets is in order soon in support of the Pallet Project. Until then, more pallets, more pallets!

Containers and Connectivity

If you haven’t read Andrew Bevan’s recent article in Current Archaeology, you should drop everything and read it now. It’s titled “Mediterranean Containerization” and presents a concise history of containers for trade in the Mediterranean basin from prehistory to modern times. His article begins with amphora and moves to barrels, crates, modern shipping containers, and, of course, wood pallets. His main focus is on liquid products, olive oil and wine, and his argument centers on the “precocious” character of these containers in a Mediterranean context. I won’t even attempt to summarize his intricate arguments on this blog post, but I want to highlight a few things from it.

1. Mediterranean connectivity (or liquidity in Bevan’s terms, a clever play on the liquid in Mediterranean containers and the liquid state of the sea through which these containers travelled). Bevan makes the point that the connection between various Mediterranean regions created an environment susceptible for certain parallel strategies to mediate interregional contact. While Bevan is careful to avoid any kind of environmental determinism, he does note that the need to communicate through the network of Mediterranean places (and here we can clearly see the shadow of both Horden and Purcell’s and Cyprian Broodbank’s works)  required certain technological solutions. The development of the ceramic amphora and certain changes of these vessel shapes, capacity, and distribution demonstrate the shifting contingencies of the political, economic, and social life in the Mediterranean basin. 

2. Reuse. For Bevan, the significance of containers extends well beyond their primary use as transport vessels. Storage vessels designed for large scale transport of goods around the Mediterranean basin often enjoyed long lives as local storage containers, burial pots, and even houses. The ubiquitous character of these transport amphora and other containers created a kind of utilitarian koine built around the adaptive reuse of these objects. In modern times, the reuse of shipping containers and (yes!) wooden shipping pallets, provides a good example about how the containerization of transport creates a medium for other expressions of culture. My pallet project and studies of the famous “blue tarp” follow certain lines by showing how these ubiquitous aspects of global transport culture have created distinct modes of expression characteristic of our contemporary culture.

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3. Amphoras and Other Transport. One thing that Bevan notes is that amphora were not the only way in which commodities were moved around the Mediterranean landscape. I can’t recommend enough my buddy Scott Gallimore’s recent article in the most recent ZPE on some ostraka from Chersonesos on Crete. Scott argues that these ostraka (as well as some from near Carthage in North Africa) were chits used to record the transfer of wine from skins used in overland transport to amphora for overseas exports from Crete. The use of wine or oil skins to transport goods from small producers overland is something often overlooked by scholars who have tended to see amphoras almost exclusively as the marker of trade contacts. 

This has particular significance for my site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus where we have a superabundance of Late Roman 1 amphora. It may be that these locally produced amphora (although not at our site) received olive oil from the region around Koutsopetria and it was transferred to amphora for export at our site, and this accounts for the massive quantity of amphora sherds at our site.

4. Responses and a Reply. I really liked the format of the article which included several responses which almost read like peer reviews of the article. The editors let Bevan reply to the critiques and he clarified some of the more controversial or opaque statements. The conversational aspect of the article expanded how I read his work. In particular, some of the respondents showed interest in thinking about how these containers manifested a Latourian sense of agency. Bevan does not talk in any great detail about this but the first respondents clearly thought that this was a productive route for further inquiry transforming the meaning of the article through their research interests.

The wealth of this article is almost impossible to summarize. It is among the most stimulating articles I’ve read for quite some time. As with most of Bevan’s stuff, his work is grounded in empirical research, and while there are a few little issues that our hardcore ceramicists (Mark Lawall’s comments demonstrate this) will pick up on and dispute, it is more important to appreciate the larger concepts involved his efforts. And even if you disagree with all of his conclusions, you have to admire his willingness to present in an article a synthetic overview of something as profoundly significant as containerization in a Mediterranean. His work will at very least be a point of departure.

Pallets and Scavenging

Archaeologists are scavengers. We collect objects that have been cast aside and reuse them as sources for reconstructing the past.

As a result archaeologists are pretty good at finding inventive ways to reuse whatever is at hand to serve their purposes. As part of my Pallet Project, my buddy Chris Cloke sent along some pallet pictures from Alex Knodell’s new Mazi Project in Attica, Greece. To pinch some pennies, the project acquired shipping pallets which after some cleaning and basic maintenance became project beds.

 

 

 

 

Pallet Project Update

The Pallet Project continues apace. I have developed an ad hoc sampling strategy which involves taking photos of pallets when I see them with my iPhone 5 camera. For a brief description of the Pallet Project, go here.

To be honest, I don’t really have a plan right now, but I suppose, being a bit of a compulsive archaeologist, I expect that once I get a substantial collection of randomly collected pallet photographs, I’ll build a typology.

So far, I can say that in Greece, pallets are set aside and stored, despite their seeming ubiquity. Sometimes they are set aside in designated areas, such as this growing stack of pallets behind a sports field in the village of Myloi:

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And other times, they are left about in plain view. These are on a busy side street near the municipal market in Argos:

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In a backstreet in Nafplio:

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Pallets appear regularly as walkways and steps:

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Pallets also serve as impromptu fences to keep goats from a little  garden high on the side of Mt. Braimi in the Argolid:

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These uses resonate, of course, with the use of pallets the world over.