Pallets and Epoiesen

When I get overwhelmed with things to do or get stuck with a project that seems insurmountable, I start to think up new projects. In fact, over sabbatical, I got stuck and ended up writing a 35,000+ word little book. 

I’ve been pretty unproductive since I’ve been home and that’s pushed my mind to drift off to new projects that (like all projects on their first days) have more potential to produce something tangible (rather than the endless editing of an article or introduction that is almost ready for primetime, but can also endure constant tweaking as we search for the elusive edge!). So I decided to spend a few hours this morning working on a draft of an article to submit to Shawn Graham’s brilliant new project Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement and Archaeology. It has a ton of interesting features including a open comment and review through, open access licensing options, submissions in mark-up, an open and adventurous scope, and a great editorial board.

I have this idea that I want to publish a short (i.e. <5000 word) article in Epoiesen on my stalled “pallet project.” This spring I spent the better part of several NASCAR races coding photographs from my trips to the Bakken oil patch. I literally coded hundreds of pallets. Last summer, I did a research trip to a pallet reconditioning and redistribution center, collected some bibliography on pallets, the whitewood industry, and containerization, and took notes and photographs on the use of pallets in the Greek countryside.

What I’d like to do is offer pallets as a kind of physical analogue for a number of larger trends in the global economy. On the one hand, the ad hoc use of pallets (and their place in adhocism) evokes certain elements of the “sharing economy” (broadly construed) from the flow of pallets between individuals for a wide array of improvisation to the use of redistribution centers where used pallets  (also known as cores) are repaired and made available once again to manufactures and shippers. Pallets travel with bulk goods of various kinds from distribution or manufacturing centers and then build up at highly distributed locations where pallet recyclers collect them, repair them (if necessary), and re-sell them back to manufacturing or distribution centers. The system for the recirculation of pallets is highly decentralized and this has the occasional side effect of pallets ending up rural areas where there is little demand (and little infrastructure for them to re-enter the market), and the effort to privatize pallet pools by three large companies has strained the circulation of traditional whitewood pallets in different ways. The competition between closed pool pallet companies (who own their pallets, control their circulation, and look to stabilize supply) and the open pool whitewood pallet circulation provides an interesting analogy for the tensions between open and closed pools in almost any economic or cultural system (and manifests some of the same tensions that exist within the sharing economy).

The pooling of pallets in places in like the Bakken present the intersection of opportunity and circumstance. Temporary housing in the Bakken during the height of the oil boom constantly looked to improvise in low-cost ways; at the same time, whitewood pallets were ubiquitous in the region owing to the absence of a pallet recycling center in Williston or Minot contributed to the collecting of pallets in the Bakken. This coincidence of need and opportunity produced innovation in temporary Bakken housing and speaks – in some ways – to the productive potential of open pool systems as well as the adhocism present in Bakken building practices.

In a sense, my submission to Epoiesen will have an essayistic edge, but fully embrace the meaning of the term and the maker culture in which this new journal project will embrace. Now I just have to become more familiar with markup (and complete that Hesperia article, the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, my little corner of the final report for WARP, the article on the Atari excavations, and various other shining objects that come my way). 

Shipping Containers

If I had all the time in the world, I would write an article on shipping pallets or vernacular architecture in science fiction novels or global adhocism or something.

Mostly, I do far more mundane things like tend to databases or find pot sherds in crowded storerooms. On Saturday, I found myself working as an assistant to a second year M.A. student. Good times!

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Recently, my old punk archaeology, North Dakota Man Camp project, and blogging buddy, Kostis Kourelis has suggested that we investigate the use of storage containers in a spontaneous, but structured way. What we really need is a simple application that allows a user to take a photo of a shipping container with a georeference and a small field for a description. We don’t have that yet, but we’d be open to someone developing that for us. (In fact, to make the application completely awesome, we’d have a very simple option for “shipping container,” “pallet,” or “blue tarp” representing the holy trinity of ad hoc construction material). Our users, to glom on to Kostis’s idea, would shoot photos and then another group of more committed users would use an online crowd-sourced tagging and filtering program to refine our database and to provide a foundation upon which our vernacular analysis could develop.

Since we don’t have an application or a crowd sourcing platform or even a group of committed (and insane) colleagues from around the world, I’ll just post a few photos of shipping containers used as housing from the beach below the site of Kourion. They seem to serve to house guest workers at the seaside taverna.

Here’s my contribution:

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Shipping Containers

As a member of the Kostis Kourelis and Richard Rothaus reading collective, I was told to read Craig Martin’s little book titled Shipping Container in the Ian Bogost’s and Craig Schaberg’s Object Lesson’s series from Bloomsbury Academic. It was really good.

The book considered three things in relation to the container – their ubiquity, their standardization, and their impact on labor – as a way of using the container to unpack the hidden elements of consumer capitalism and globalization.

1. Ubiquity. By far, the most compelling aspect of Martin’s book how he presents shipping containers as a key part of the ubiquitous networks of modern capitalism. Moving constantly from factory to ship to truck to store, shipping containers are like Michel Serres’s angels, coursing the globe delivering goods. They are permanently ready, stacked in ports or atop container ships, to discharge their responsibilities and to support to global flow of capital (and here, he evokes David Harvey’s various works and, of course, Allan Sekula’s Fish Story). 

Of course, they’re also ubiquitous in re-use as offices, storage units, and modular housing. These functions fall outside of their primary use, but, at the same time, hint at their ubiquity. They are so common that a few pulled from circulation whether through formal or informal means has no impact on the functioning of the system in general.

2. Standardization. The standardized size of shipping containers was key to their adoption by shipping companies and ports. Martin does a nice job discussing how the shipping container rose to prominence historically and replaced the improvised methods for stowing gear upon ships that had persistent for centuries. By offering a standardized sizes for loading, the container because the basic unit for moving goods both onboard ship and ultimately onto trucks or rail for distribution. For Martin, the packaging of goods upon a ship – traditionally the expertise of the longshoreman – gave way to the stacking of shipping containers by standardized equipment. The rise of the shipping container marked the the decline in the craft of stowage, but more importantly it marked the standardization of space.

The size and shape of the shipping container influenced the movement of goods, their shape, how they are packaged, their various states, and how they are sold. In other words, this largely invisible, if ubiquitous, form and its standardized measure shapes how we experience our larger material surroundings.

3. Labor. While it is increasingly common to read about objects as agents that exert a symmetrical force upon human actors. Martin was not particularly interested in such formulations and focused instead on the human costs of standardization. He examined the changing role of the longshoreman who went from expert in stowage to operator of a crane with a largely automated coupling device that attached to the shipping container. This is not to suggest that a certain amount of technical knowledge and experience goes into loading and unloading a containership (or, presumably, loading and unloading the containers themselves), but that this labor is substantively different from that of the traditional longshoremen’s role. Labor represents main lens through which Martin considers the size and function of containers ultimately shaping human actions.

4. Afterlife of Containers. One of the things that Martin does less with is the afterlife of shipping containers. On the one hand, he describes how their human scale makes them suitable for a range of terrestrial functions from storage to habitation. In fact, the book starts with Martin writing about containers in a shipping container turned into artist studio at some lakeside retreat. The conclusion returns to the various forms of adaptive reuse and adhocism involving shipping containers. 

At the same time, the book does little to explain how shipping containers actually function as angels in the distributed system capitalism. Once they deliver their message, where do they go? What happens then? How does a shipping container carrying South American mulch to Grand Forks, ND find its way back to a port or even a redistribution point to continue on its way? Who owns shipping containers? Who takes the loss when a container becomes an adhoc storage room at a construction site or falls from a ship in transit?

A few years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book on shipping pallets for the Object Lesson series. My proposal was rejected (maybe declined is a better term) because Martin’s book on shipping containers was already in the works. The difference between our books lies in their area of emphasis. My interest was in the afterlife of shipping pallets. Once they have served their primary function as a platform for goods, what happens to them and where do they go? How do individual pallets find their ways into suburban basements, into rural sheepfolds, and into improvised furniture? 

I think Martin’s emphasis on standardization has much to do with the utility of shipping pallets both in their primary function and in their afterlife. In fact, Martin suggests that shipping containers in some ways have made pallets obsolete, but I would contend that the relationship between the two objects has given pallets ongoing importance. After all, a shipping container of standard size is 8 ft wide and most standard pallet sizes fit within this size container with a minimum of wasted space. Their standardized dimensions then contribute to their utility as building materials forming neat walkways, 4 ft. high fences, and lining up neatly in garages, big box store aisles, and basements. 

If shipping containers provided the size, the forms of movement, and the efficiency to activate the seamless flow of global capital, then the byproduct of this efficiency is a kind of flourishing of adhocism structured around containers and pallets organized around their standard dimensions and sizes. 

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.”



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.


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. 


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.


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.



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.


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.