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

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

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

The Bakken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Archaeology of Oil Production: Part 1

Readers of this blog know that I have a long simmering interest in extractive landscapes that date to my work in the Bakken patch. As a result, I jumped at the chance to write a chapter on the archaeology of oil production for a volume on the archaeology of plastics. In fact, I’m irrationally excited about writing this up. 

Here are the first two sections of it. I’m pretty pleased with the sites and places of oil. Most of this section derives from grey papers produced by various groups nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places or the Historical American Engineering Record. These super granular reporting formulas do exactly what I hoped (and needed) they would do in that they show how most sites of oil production only make sense in a dense network of physical, institutional, infrastructural, and financial relationships. 

As per usual, if you have suggestions, opinions, or observations, I’d love to hear ‘em! 

Archaeology of Oil Production


Oil production is a central element in the modern world. It is the primary engine for economic growth. By offering a promise of continuous economic growth, the use of fossil fuels and oil in particular, powered not only the rise of industrial capitalism, but also the aspirations for equality at the heart of global democracy (Mitchell 2011; Morris 2015). Over the last 70 years, oil has shaped the global order and fueled decolonization, nationalism, military conflict, and post-national formations. In this context, the narratives and sites associated with oil discovery often represent the pride of communities and moments of optimism for a better future. Counter narratives abound, however, that regard oil production sites as places of broken promises, social dislocation, and environmental destruction (Sinclair 192x; Munif 1987). The growing concern about global climate change has intensified critiques associated both with the direct role that oil production and consumption plays in carbon emissions and the indirect role that oil plays in supporting global consumer culture and distributed production practices.

Despite the widespread awareness of the role that oil has played in the development of the contemporary world, the material culture of oil production are nearly as expansive as its consequences. As a result, archaeologists and heritage professionals interested in the contemporary world have struggled to adapt tools often designed to document and preserve spatially defined sites to the requirements of a phenomenon that operates on a much more expansive and often global scale. Moreover, the rate at which landscapes associated with oil production can change through the natural limits of the resource, shifting economic priorities, and military and political conflict has created a moving target for researchers. The ability of significant quantities of capital — workers, equipment, housing, and infrastructure — to appear in a region and then disappear parallels the liquidity of oil itself which represents its greatest asset as a source of energy. The liquidity of oil contrasts with the seeming permanence of the oil reserves themselves and the investment in the “downstream” infrastructure associated with oil refineries (Hein 2018). While these more permanent fixtures in the oil production process have occasionally received attention, they too present challenges for the archaeologist. As this brief contribution will discuss in more detail below, their location at the end of substantial transport networks, the dangers associated with the work, the presence of proprietary technology, and the long term toxic traces left behind from refining can make access difficult. These fixed sites represent nodes in global networks of political and financial actors, institutions, technologies, histories, and places. These networks, in turn, trace the wider impact of oil production which often exceeds the scales of conventional archaeological practices.

The following contribution will attempt to the existing archaeological and heritage work on individual sites associated with oil production with a bias toward those in the United States. This is largely a concession to my greater familiarity with North American examples documented under the auspices of the Nation Register of Historic Place and the Historic American Engineering Record. The second section will consider efforts to consider the materiality of oil production in an integrated, global context. While archaeologists have generally not contributed this kind of work, it nevertheless offers interpretative contexts for future single and multisite archaeological research. The final section will focus on a case study from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and demonstrate how archaeology might integrate global and local perspectives in the understanding of a specific productive landscape.

Sites and Places of Oil

Starting in the 1920s, the material legacy of oil production attracted the interest of archaeologists and heritage professionals. The establishment of the Allegheny National Forest in 1923 incorporated parts of the 19th century oil fields in western Pennsylvania which continued to produce at a small scale well into the 20th century. Photo documentation of these sites in the 1920s and 1930s anticipated more systematic documentation in the 1990s under standards established by the Historical American Engineer Record. Scholars often regard the recovery of commercially viable oil, at the Drake Well in 1859, near the town of Titusville in Western Pennsylvania as the founding moment in the modern oil industry. The subsequent oil boom in the region followed a similar trajectory to other resource booms with the arrival of workforce eager to reap the potential rewards offered by this new commodity. Over the next fifty years, the region’s various oil fields saw the construction of numerous drill rigs, wells, pumps, power stations, tank farms, pipelines, and rail connections as well as camps and towns designed to serve the oil industry. While most of the features that remain in the national forest and documented over the course of HAER assessments in the mid-1990s date to the turn of the 20th century, they nevertheless offer insights into the technologies used to facilitate oil production. Pennsylvania oil drillers adapted most of their drilling technology from the techniques used to drill for water in the region including cable tool drilling methods which relied on the impact of a bit dropped along a cable to shatter the rock at the bottom (Ross 1996, 13). Distinct from rotary drill bits employed in Texas and elsewhere in the West in the early 20th century, cable tool drilling was sufficient for relatively soft stone and shallow depths in Pennsylvania and by the 1870s drillers in the region had incorporated casing to prevent the collapse of wells during the drilling process. While the use of metal casing would become a standard feature of oil wells into the 21st century, the most distinctive and persistent characteristic of the Pennsylvania oil production was the use of central power stations to provide power to pumps which drew the oil out of non-flowing wells. Central powerhouses supported the development of wells located with the immediate vicinity of the power station and also removed the steam and later gasoline driven motors from proximity to the well themselves and their flammable resource. The maintenance of these circular powerhouses required regular attention, but also the radiating web of power rods driving the individual pumps demanded an understanding of the terrain and the larger landscape as well (Ross 1994, 76). Unlike contemporary oil fields where much of the infrastructure designed to connect wells to distribution networks, for example, exists underground, the rods emanating from central power stations make clear the interconnected nature of resources extraction on a literal and practical level.

Most efforts to document the heritage of oil production have focused on individual sites. For example, over a dozen individual oil wells from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and California are now listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. These well have generally marked the opening of various oil fields of varying degrees of regional and national significance. The documentation of the wells as frequently stressed their existing state as their integration within a wider network of relationships that facilitated commercially viable oil production. For example, Pico Canyon #4 Well in California dates to 1877 and this commercially viable well revived the oil industry in the state which had languished through the previous decade. The proximity of the Pico Canyon field to a refinery at Lyon’s Station encouraged its development, but the founding of the Pioneer Refinery in Newhall and its connection to Pico Canyon by a two-inch diameter gravity pipeline and access to the Southern Pacific Railroad line made this well particularly profitable. Of course, not all similar investments in infrastructure necessarily yielded similar results. The infamous Tea Pot Dome field in Wyoming saw massive investment from 1922-1927 before production ceased for nearly 50 years. A recent survey of the field as part of a Historic American Engineering Record documented the remains of not only oil wells, but storage tanks, pipelines, compression stations, bridges, and other features associated oil production. The Sinclair Consolidated Oil Company’s concession to develop of the Teapot Dome Field, thanks to significant bribes paid to President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall, also involved constructing several camps to house workers in this relatively remote location and provided some of them with electricity, heat, telephones, and sewage. In 2015, foundations, some bridges, capped wells, and some parts of the sewage system are all that remained in 2015.

The efforts to document sites associated with oil production in the US parallel those elsewhere in the world. For example, Canada has recognized the significance of the first commercial oil field in Oil Springs, Ontario with several wells, a central power station for pumping, and various tanks associated with oil production. Iran has designated as heritage sites associated with the discover and commercialization of oil in Khuzestan Province where a museum dedicated to petroleum history exists amid historic sites associated with the early-20th century origins of the Masjed Soleyman oil field (Amirkhani et al. 2021). The archaeology and heritage of oil foregrounds the understanding that individual sites—whether these are wells, refineries, or powerhouses—only have meaning within wider networks of related installations necessary for the transportation, refining, and distribution of oil as well as the attraction and maintenance of a worker, securing financing for the undertaking, and negotiating governmental and diplomatic regulations and obstacles. As a result, the archaeology of oil production encourages research that follows the viscous flow oil and capital as it traces relationship between various sites, institutions, technologies, and places.

The Archaeology of Oil Production

I have three projects on my schedule for the next six months. First, I’m writing a piece on teaching archaeology of the contemporary world. In the spring, I’m working on a piece with David Pettegrew on Corinth and its neighborhood in Late Antiquity. 

In between those two pieces, I’m writing a small piece on the archaeology of oil production for the Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Plastic. My chapter will play around a bit with the local and global and how the archaeology of the contemporary world’s particular ability to focus on capital and energy as objects of study. In this sense, I’m being influenced by Scott W. Schwartz’s new books, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022). Hopefully, I’ll post a bit more on that book next week and more on this paper as it develops.

Here’s my abstract: 

The Archaeology of Oil Production

Modern oil production is fraught with contradictions. It is associated with national security and sovereignty, but orchestrated on a global scale. The need for oil is central to our daily lives, but its production and processing relies upon marginalized workers laboring in peripheral landscapes. The triumphalist tone of many histories of oil exploration obscures the tragedy of exploited workers, devastated environments, warfare, and climate change. Despite the crucial role that oil production has played in the establishment of the modern world, there is relatively little archaeological research devoted to its practice and legacy.

My contribution to The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Plastics will focus on the archaeology of Bakken oil field in western North Dakota, and show how a site-based approach to the extractive landscape, workforce housing, and the flows of capital, oil, and people, can shed light on oil production as a global phenomenon.


Informal Urbanism in the Post-COVID World

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve thought a bit here and there about urbanism. Some of this was motivated by my time thinking about and working in the boom towns of Western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. More recently, however, doing some research on the mid-century development of Grand Forks has likewise stimulated my interest in contemporary urbanism.

These interests prompted me to submit an application to serve on our town planning and zoning committee. We’ll see if my application is accepted.

It also got me thinking a bi about how the post-COVID world will shape urbanism. It seems to me that most of mid-century (and even earlier) urbanism sought to encourage clear delineations between spaces of work and domestic space with the post-war suburb representing a set of values that equated middle class lives with clear division between family life and work life. This distinguished the post-war company man from the kind of labor regimes defined by the company town, the farm, or the apartment above the shop.

The middle class suburban fantasy, of course, has broken down in multiple ways. In some cases, the dream of owning a home in a leafy suburbs is simply not economically possible for middle class Americans who have found themselves priced out of major housing markets. 

At the same time, the notion of discrete places for work and domestic life has become complicated by the rise of the gig economy. The workers we met and talked to in the Bakken, for example, often earned middle class incomes for their work, but their need to work long shifts, often on or near the work site, broke down the tidy divisions between domestic and work spaces. Moreover, their participation in an increasing national or even global version of the gig economy required a mobile life style that disrupted the notion of the fixed suburban abode.

The gig economy also blurs the work home divide even for individuals who live in conventional suburbs. The home office is now a standard feature in the suburban home and it often represents a good bit more than the “den” where household finances, for example, were managed or the occasional work project completed away from the office. The COVID pandemic will likely accelerate the trend toward working at home and make the home office all the more important part of domestic architecture. 

Of course, working at home especially in the gig economy has parallels with long standing practices associated with informal urbanism. In our town, there are a couple perpetual yard sales and I suspect, if one knew where to look, more than a few businesses run out of homes. Food trucks offer another example of informal urban practices that create more fluid urban environments. Parking lots at rapidly declining shopping centers have become spaces for occasional festivals and seasonal sales of produce and Christmas trees, and manifestations of latent potential for parking, but also for forms of reuse.   

If the future of work dissolves some of the fundamental expectations that created the post-war suburb, it is interesting to think about what forms of urbanism will replace it. To my mind, informal urbanism opens a grey area between the well-ordered expectation of the post-war years and the future urban forms that embrace changing economic and social realities of 21st labor. I can’t help imagine the leafy suburb developing into a more dynamic patchwork of business, home offices, housing, and gathering places that defy post-war standards. The question is how do we support these changes in a way that encourage more dynamic spaces throughout our communities while at the same time recognizing that these are not viable solutions to systemic problems in our economy that render more and more people reliant on ad hoc approaches to maintain a vestige of post-war middle class life.

Sneak Peek: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

It’s incredibly exciting to offer a sneak peek of the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

This book is exciting for many reasons. 

First, it’s due to appear later this month (and a soon to appear book is the most exciting kind of book I know!)

It is also the only book length volume that considers the phenomenon of deserted and abandoned villages in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Medieval to Modern periods. Anyone familiar with Eastern Mediterranean knows that abandoned settlements are ubiquitous in the countryside, but despite being so common, they’re rarely the same and have only sporadically received detailed attention.

Most significantly, however, is that the contributions in this book are a uniform high quality. These are not lightly revised conference papers, but full articles often with archaeological evidence, sustained, critical arguments, and polished figures, images, and maps. The volume was incisively peer reviewed by top scholars in the field and every article under went thorough revision.  

Finally, this volume grew out of a pair of panels organized by Deb Brown Stewart and Kostis Kourelis at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America meetings and sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Group of the AIA. As folks familiar with The Digital Press know, Kostis was a co-editor of the very first volume published by the press, Punk Archaeology, and Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Seifried have been strong open access advocates and supporters of the press from its early days. In other words, this book embodies the community that scholar-led publishing can establish as well as its ability to produce high-quality, open-access books.

DV book cover

Here’s the abstract for the book: 

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is a collection of case studies examining the abandonment of rural settlements over the past millennium and a half, focusing on modern-day Greece with contributions from Turkey and the United States. Unlike other parts of the world, where deserted villages have benefited from decades of meticulous archaeological research, in the eastern Mediterranean better-known ancient sites have often overshadowed the nearby remains of more recently abandoned settlements. Yet as the papers in this volume show, the tide is finally turning toward a more engaged, multidisciplinary, and anthropologically informed archaeology of medieval and post-medieval rural landscapes.

The inspiration for this volume was a two-part colloquium organized for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. The sessions were sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group, a rag-tag team of archaeologists who set out in 2005 with the dual goals of promoting the study of later material cultural heritage and opening publication venues to the fruits of this research. The introduction to the volume reviews the state of the field and contextualizes the archaeological understanding of abandonment and post-abandonment as ongoing processes. The nine, peer reviewed chapters, which have been substantially revised and expanded since the colloquium, offer unparalleled glimpses into how this process has played out in different places and locations. In the first half, the studies focus on long-abandoned sites that have now entered the archaeological record. In the second half, the studies incorporate archival analysis and ethnographic interviews—alongside the archaeologists’ hyper-attention to material culture—to examine the processes of abandonment and post-abandonment in real time.

Edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

With contributions from Ioanna Antoniadou, Todd Brenningmeyer, William R. Caraher, Marica Cassis, Timothy E. Gregory, Miltiadis Katsaros, Kostis Kourelis, Anthony Lauricella, Dimitri Nakassis, David K. Pettegrew, Richard Rothaus, Guy D. R. Sanders, Isabel Sanders, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Olga Vassi, Bret Weber, and Miyon Yoo.

Rebecca M. Seifried is the Geospatial Information Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Deborah E. Brown Stewart is Head of the Penn Museum Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

To get a preview of Deserted Villages, click here.

The Bakken Outside the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bakken, Ontology, and Climate Change

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

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

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

IMG 5814

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

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

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

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

Labor, The Environment, and Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domesticity and Precarity in the Bakken

As readers of this blog know, I’m slogging my way through the final chapter of a book manuscript that’s technically due at the end of January. The book is on the archaeology of the contemporary experience and is book-ended by a chapter on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation which has been drafted but needs attention and a chapter on my work in the Bakken with the North Dakota Man Cam project.

You can get a sense for what the book looks like so far here.

I posted two sections of this chapter already here and here.

Domesticity and Precarity

The 21st-century Bakken oil boom gained momentum at the same time as the United States began to emerge from the “Great Recession” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing revealed the potential of the Bakken oil patch beginning with the work in the Parshall oil field in Montrail county starting in 2006. The deployment of these technologies at scale across the Bakken and Three Forks formations in North Dakota and Montana opened the region to large scale oil development in subsequent years. The demands of drilling, infrastructural development, and to a less extent fracking drew thousands of workers to the region at the very time when the US economy was struggling to emerge from a period of economic stagnation and contraction. In many cases, that the sub-prime mortgage crisis played in the Great Recession and a steep rise in the number of foreclosures drew renewed attention to housing as an investment. While many of workers recognized that employment in the Bakken was likely to be temporary, they nevertheless saw it as a way to regain financial standing undermined by the loss of jobs elsewhere, foreclosures, and general economic hardships brought on my the contraction of the economy and early years of a jobless recovery. Thus, the emergence of workers with precarious financial standing, employment, and housing (sometimes referred to as the “precariat”) and the “financialization of housing” formed salient backdrop against which we understood workforce housing in the Bakken.

The large scale, standardized housing facilities that we called “Type 1” were almost always funded by outside investors. Many served to house workers from larger companies who arrived in the region on regular shifts. These man camps typically consisted of a series of prefabricated housing units divided into a number of either individual or double room with private bathrooms. The housing was typically arranged around a larger public space for communal dining and recreation. The interior spaces were typically austere which reflected their basic functionalism. The rooms, hallways, and public spaces were largely devoid of anything remotely associated with traditional domestic space or anything connecting these facilities to their location in western North Dakota. The operators of the camps kept the outsides of the buildings clean and uncluttered and this space functioned as a liminal zone between the place of work and the place of rest. Fences, security posts, and lists of rules which typically included bans on alcohol, drugs, and weapons, further reinforced the perimeter of the camps. The entrances to public spaces frequently included boot scrapers; one of the largest camps in the region included a changing room designed to provide space for workers to get out of their coveralls, heavy coats, and boots. These buffer areas not only have practical purposes, but also served to mark out the camp as a space of rest and distinguish it from the place of work. Thus even the most austere camps represent a kind of deracinated domesticity whose main function is to provide workers a place to eat, sleep, and recover for more work. Since many, if not most of these workers, had homes elsewhere, the surrogate home provided by workforce housing in the Bakken provided an functional replacement for short term residents of the oil patch.

Our Type 2 camps, which were predominantly RV parks, offered an alternative model. Like Type 1 camps, investors from outside the region financed these RV parks and at the height of the boom rent and hook-ups (utilities) were often over $1000 per month making them comparable to apartment rents in my mid-sized American cities. The facilities themselves While many of these workers also saw their time in the Bakken as temporary, they lived in RV and mobile homes during their time in North Dakota. Many of these worker were not employees of a company who arranged housing in larger Type 1 style sites. Others found the living arrangements in Type 1 camps to be too restrictive as they typically did not allow family members, banned alcohol, and had noise restrictions. Some found that the short term accommodations of Type 1 camps inconvenient because employers expected residents to return home elsewhere when they were not engaged in work in the Bakken. In some cases, foreclosures and struggling regional economies made it more convenient or necessary to relocate to the Bakken.

The resident of Type 2 camps took advantage of a less restrictive environment to individualize their living spaces. In contrast to the austere functionalism of Type 1 camps, the individual units in Type 2 camps often featured a wide range of practical, recreational, and decorative embellishments. The most prominent addition to a unit in a Type 2 camp was a mudroom. These structures consisted of a lean-to with three walls and a single pitched roof set against side of the RV around the door. Most simply, the mudroom served the same function it would in a modern home: it provided a space for a resident to remove muddy or dirty work clothes before entering living space. In Type 2 camps, however, particularly early in the boom before municipalities pass more restrictive guidelines, mudrooms allowed residents to exercise their creativity in expanding their living space. Large mudrooms were sometimes nearly half the size of the RV and offered storage and living space as well as their traditional function as a social and physical barrier between the outside and interior of the RV.

The mudrooms also fit into a number of strategies that allowed residents of Type 2 camps to develop a more complex sense of domestic space. For example, the mudrooms transformed the RV into an l-shaped building that created a sense of place on the lot. Residents often used the space defined by the RV, the mudroom, and frequently the neighboring unit for outdoor activities, gardens, and storage. Neatly arranged furniture, improved gardens, exercise equipment, and sometimes unsecured storage demonstrated that residents recognized this space as private. The most elaborate examples included fences, dog runs, and in one case a tree planted in the arid soil of the North Dakota prairie. The appearance of well-appointed outdoor spaces in Type 2 camps belies the nearly constant turn over of residents in these camps. Its suggests, however, that unlike Type 1 camps, which offer bleak, but functional accommodation for a temporary workforce, Type 2 camps suggest that some workers continue to conform to models of domesticity grounded in suburban practices and attitudes.

Our work in the Bakken has argued that architectural elaboration associated with Type 2 camps demonstrates a tension between the increasingly precarious state of workers and their effort to preserve some aspects of suburban life with its exaggerated commitment to permanence. The workforce needs of extractive industries and their penchant for booms and busts highlights larger changes in the global economy that privileges just-in-time manufacturing and gig labor where the availability of a mobile labor pool on short notice remains a key to economic flexibility and low costs. The use of dormitory labor in Asia, for example, and guest workers for construction positions in the Persian Gulf offer just two examples of the key role that workforce housing plays in supporting short-term and precarious employment on a global scale.

Starting the Final Chapter

This month, I’m starting the final chapter of my short book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. I’ve blogged a ton about this book and you can read what I’ve written so far here.

The final chapter is a pendant to my first chapter. Just as the first chapter introduced the Alamogordo Atari Expedition of 2014 and anchored my book in the “garbology” of Bill Rathje, the final chapter will use my work in the Bakken oil patch to situate the archaeology of the contemporary world in global questions of precarity and climate change. 

The first few paragraphs follow my usual formula for each chapter as I try to evoke some cultural history to offer a broader context for the archaeology of the contemporary.

So here’s the start to chapter 8, which I’ve tentative titled Extractive Industry, Housing, and Climate Change: 

The first chapter of this book began in 2014 with me standing in a New Mexico landfill documenting the excavation of a deposit of Atari games. The final chapter will begin in 2012 with me standing in an RV park housing workers who have come to western North Dakota during the Bakken Oil Boom. The North Dakota Man Camp Project conducted its inaugural season of fieldwork starting at a dusty camp on the outskirt of Tioga, North Dakota. The town of Tioga calls itself the “Oil Capital of North Dakota” from its perch atop the Nesson Anticline which has produced oil at a commercial scale since 1951 when the Iverson Well #1 came in. Booms in the 1950s and the 1980s brought thousands of workers not only to Tioga, but to the sparsely populated counties of western North Dakota. Invariably, local housing stock proved inadequate to accommodate the influx of workers who resorted to a wide range of temporary, mobile, and ad hoc solutions. The North Dakota Man Camp Project team visited the Bakken over a dozen times to document the various ways forms of boom-time workforce house. Our team combined archaeologists with an architectural historian, a historian and social worker with a specialization in housing, and artists, students, and colleagues committed to the documentation and study of 21st century Bakken oil boom.

The early 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom grabbed international media headlines and introduced the term “man camp” to American vocabulary (Caraher et al. 2016). Alec Soth’s famous photo of an oil smeared worker sitting atop an overturned oil drum on the North Dakota prairie evoked the desolation of the place and the rugged, masculine labor associated with extractive industries. The photo appeared on the cover of the widely circulated New York Times Magazine in 2013 and similar coverage appeared in The Atlantic, Harpers, National Geographic, and the Washington Post at around the same time (Becker 2016). The journalists drawn to the Bakken produced a series of thoughtful books that situated the Bakken in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis and the “Great Recession” and amid the improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technologies, a renewed push to national energy independence and the longstanding hope of getting rich (e.g. Gold 2014; Rao 2018; Briody 2017; McLean 2018). Artists and writers have also looked to the Bakken for inspiration and critique (e.g. Dunham 2016; Brorby et al. 2016; Brorby 2017; Anderson 2017; Sayles 2020). Commercial paperbacks (e.g. Martin 2017) and television series followed playing on the reputation of the oil patch as a kind of new “Wild West” where the potential of the frontier and freedom of lawlessness intersect to produce the ideal backdrop for transgressive tales of violence, capitalism, and wealth.

Needless to say, we encountered very little of the Wild West in our work in the Bakken. Instead, we documented a wide range of efforts to adapt often temporary housing conditions to the North Dakota weather, to expectations developed over the last half-century of suburbia, and to preserve flexibility in the face of the growing precarity of the “gig economy.”

Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on my paper for the 2020 ASOR annual meeting. The paper is officially titled “North Dakota and the Middle East: The Bakken Oil Patch in a Global Perspective,” but if I could, I’d change that to “Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken.” The paper will appear in a routable called “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East” convened by Ömür Harmanşah. Since, the roundtable will primarily focus on a conversation among participants, our paper are to be kept short (<10 minutes). Mine is  perhaps slightly long, but I figure I’ll tighten it up a bit before it’s read to go live.

I feel like this paper is the first tentative step toward understanding our work in the Bakken in a new way. If you want to get some broader context on my thinking, I posted a four part series last week that sort of sketched some approaches:

Approach 1: assemblages
Approach 2: flows
Approach 3: fieldwork
Approach 4: history

As always feedback, comments, or complaints are always welcome.

“Extractive Industries, Climate Change, and Capitalism in the Bakken”

The archaeology of contemporary climate change has a necessarily global scope, but as Charles Orser famously quipped, archaeologists are generally inclined to “think globally, dig locally” (1996). Since 2012, I’ve worked with a team of archaeologists to document workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. While our work has considered workforce housing through the lens of domesticity, colonialism, migration, and the landscapes of work, this will be our first focused effort to think about our project as the archaeology of contemporary climate change. The goal of my very short introduction to our work to consider the relationship between extractive industries, climate change, and capitalism in the Bakken…

At first blush, the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota appears to have little connection to the Middle East. In fact, the oil booms of the early 1950s, 1980s, and in the 21st century correlate closely with political situations in Middle East, from the first post-colonial moves to nationalize oil production in Iran (1951) and share profits in Iraq (1952), to the nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980 in the aftermath of the 1970s US oil crisis, and the long messy legacy of the Second Gulf War in the 21st century. It is largely a coincidence that two North Dakotans, Thomas Barger and Frank Jungers led ARAMCO in the 1960 and 1970s, but less coincidental that companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger were active in both the Bakken and Middle East, as was Target Logistics, who at one point accommodated 1% of the state of North Dakota’s population in their various workforce housing sites. Of course, the various Bakken oil booms also align with changes in the post-war American economy and society as well, from the rapid expansion of consumer culture, suburbanization, and automobiles in the 1950s to the rise of the gig economy in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” in the 21st century.

The 21st century Bakken boom describes the massive influx of workers into the predominantly rural counties of western North Dakota. The need for workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere in the overheating regional economy exceeded housing capacity and this led to a range of ad hoc and provisional response from both workers and the overwhelmed municipalities.

The stories of workers camping out in the Williston Walmart parking lot and local parks made national headlines. In response to this situation, Williston, the largest city in the Bakken region, approved “man camps” within their expanded jurisdiction to accommodate the influx of workers. National and global logistics companies constructed and managed these facilities to serve the needs of other large companies who sought lodging for shifts of workers arriving in western North Dakota to drill for oil, to build pipelines, or to improve local infrastructure. Additionally, Williams, Mountrail, and McLean counties provided provisional zoning for outside investors seeking to build RV parks for temporary workers without connections to major companies or who were looking for work. The result was a patchwork of over 100 workforce housing sites across the region that provided shelter for workers in a wide range of conditions.

The most elaborate housing sites, such as those erected by Target Logistics, provided clean housing, decent food, and limited amenities to thousands of workers. The single or sometimes double rooms were standardized and workers who came to the region for four or six week shifts had limited opportunities to personalize their space. The public spaces of these camps were plain, but functional, enlivened only by the occasional print of generic patriotic or natural scenes.

The situation in RV parks was more varied and attracted more of our attention. In general, residents owned their RVs and at the height of the boom, RV parks showed a remarkable range of efforts to customize these spaces and adapt them to the challenges of the North Dakota winter. The most elaborate RVs featured not only insulated skirting around the sides, but also fenced yards, gardens, raised walkways, cooking, eating and socializing areas, and storage sheds. Elaborate mudrooms are perhaps the quintessential feature of these units. In their simplest form they constituted a lean-to aligned with the door of the RV where residents could extract themselves from their work and winter gear. Not infrequently they also provided space for storage, additional living space, and transformed the rectangular RV into a L-shaped building that also offered more privacy for their outdoor space.

When we first visited the Bakken we couldn’t escape admiring these innovative efforts to expand and adapt RVs into full time, if temporary residential structures. These architectural adaptations almost led us to overlook the fragility of water and sewage infrastructure in many of these camps, the dust and mud that were constant parts of daily life in the spring, fall, and summer, and the desperate attempts to fortify the RV from the biting North Dakota cold wind. Moreover, by 2015, counties had begun to pass new ordinances restricting how residents could adapt their RVs. They banned skirting that rendered the RV immobile and mudrooms, for example. As the intensity of the boom declined owing to lower oil prices and improved technology in drilling, the number of residents in RV camps declined as well and many camps took on a rougher, more forlorn appearance. Abandoned camps have left their scars on the prairie landscape as gravel pads, buried pipes, and discarded polystyrene, treated wood, wiring, metal, and other detritus complicates returning these sites in agricultural production.

Efforts by temporary workers in the Bakken to personalized their living spaces demonstrated an effort to re-create some of the pleasures of an American suburb even as foreclosures displaced many of the same workers from their suburban homes. Hostile municipalities, the risks associated with work in the oil industry, the volatility of global markets, and the challenges associated with substandard housing, reflected the kind of “structural violence” inherent in capitalism that Michael Roller has associated with life in late 19th century coal towns of western Pennsylvania. In North Dakota, it is notable that restrictions on workforce housing did not accompany efforts to improve workers safety or environmental protection. Throughout the second decade of the 21st century, the Bakken maintained one of the worst records of worker safety in the US and has experienced major spills of both oil and waste water. Alongside these problems, writers have long recognized the violence of hydraulic fracturing, the dominant form of technology used to extract oil from the tight shale of the middle Bakken formation.

Over the last decade, the Bakken has been a center for recent efforts to highlight the relationship between extractive industries and climate change. The protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which links the Bakken to the Pakota Oil Terminal in Illinois, offered an explosive reminder of the strong ties between colonialism, extractive industries, and the state violence in maintaining our uninterrupted access to petroleum. Our work in the Bakken, at the start of the pipeline, sought to make visible a more subtle indication of these same violence in the housing of the temporary workforce who makes our persistent dependence on fossil fuels possible.

Few can deny that the contemporary climate crisis represents a moment of existential violence for many communities around the world.