Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

The Bakken Buzz: Settler Colonialism, Uncertainty, and Dominion

Last week, I mentioned a growing buzz about the Bakken in academic works. Perhaps this is the lag between the Bakken boom and scholarly output. 

This weekend, I read Nestor L. Silva’s very recent Stanford dissertation, “Bakken Ecology: The Culture and Space of Fracked Farmland in North Dakota” (2022). It’s good and thought provoking as any dissertation should be.

He argues that settler colonialism created and relies upon the belief that the uncertainty of living in the Bakken (or western North Dakota more broadly) is manageable by controlling human and material variables. Thus Silva located “dominion” associated with settler conquests as the by-product of efforts to manage the uncertain landscape by controlling independent population, adapting to new ecologies, and ultimately balancing between local knowledge (and control) and non-local sources of authority and power. Silva’s dissertation draws on interviews and his personal experiences in Bakken and offers deep perspectives on how companies, local residents, and visiting researchers encountered the boom-time landscape.

There are five things that caught my attention.  

1. Soil. One of the most interesting chapters of the dissertation deals with the Pedersen family whose farm near Tioga was the site of one of the largest terrestrial oil spills in US history when a Tesoro pipeline dumped millions of gallons of oil on the land. Tesoro funded a massive clean up that involved literally cleaning the topsoil of the farm and redepositing it. The Pedersen family recognized that it would be difficult to discern the outcome of this process until long after the cleanup was complete. That said, they have confidence that the productivity of their fields would be restored either through technology or through some kind of financial settlement.

Silva does a great job of locating dominion not in some kind of abstract conceptual space of territories or law, but in the actual soil itself.  

2. Pipelines. Silva’s discussion of the role of soil as the location for settler dominion in the Bakken extends beyond spill sites. He was particularly sensitive to the role that pipelines play in creating networks of dominion through the Bakken. He notes the tension between the claims that oil companies make the use of pipelines is a “greener” alternative to using trucks and even rail to transport Bakken crude. Silva didn’t overstate and lovely irony of this claim, nor did he overstate the role that pipelines play in making the vagaries of rail traffic more certain for oil producers.

He does note that the construction of pipelines requires the careful removal and replacement of soil. In the semi-arid climate of western North Dakota where soil chemistry is a fragile and inexact science. Even the removal and return of the same soil can cause dramatic decreases in productivity for these areas. This uncertainty requires constant attention on the part of the pipeline builders and farmers. It is not, however, seen as a liability of pipeline building, but as a technical problem that can be solved to ensure that movement of oil and the continued productivity of the soil. 

3. Management and Safety. The third chapter of Silva’s dissertation dealt with the way in which companies operating in the Bakken sought to manage the risk and uncertainty present on job sites. He examines his own experiences with OSHA training and his visit to an “active” (although paused for their visit) fracking site with students and faculty from UND.

He examines how OSHA training transferred the responsibility for on-site safety from OSHA or even the company, to the individual who was responsible for not only keeping themself safe but also making sure that the work site remained in compliance with safety standards. Silva might have even gone a step further in understanding that unlike earlier forms of extractive industries, such as mining, where organized labor sought to manage uncertainty for workers (and potentially companies alike), oil companies shunned unions and instead managed the uncertainty associated with potential litigation or even legal penalties associated with accidents by creating an almost impossibly obscure network of subcontractors which isolated the oil companies themselves from the workplace.

At the same time, Silva notes that by making the individual responsible for their own safety, they recognize that individuals introduce unmanageable levels of uncertainty into the system. The response of oil companies to this uncertainty is to isolate responsibility within the worker and then insulating the worker within complex layers of bureaucratized authority.   

4. Uncertainty and Bakktimism. When Bret Weber and I were talking to folks in the Bakken, we coined a phrase called Bakktimism which represents the unwavering optimism that we encountered across the Bakken even when the boom itself started to falter. We never, as far as I remember, connected this to settler colonialism. Silva’s dissertation proposed that a belief in the ability of settler society to manage uncertainty was at the heart of this Bakktimism. In other words, Bakktimism isn’t the confidence that things would improve, but rather that economic, demographic, and social paroxysm that characterized a boom-time environment would somehow be normalized.

If we ever get to thinking more about Bakktimism, it would be great to look at our interviews through the lens that Silva established. My feeling is that we’ll find plenty of material to support Silva’s view of settler dominion.    

5. Ecologies, Environments, and Ontologies. As an archaeologist, I tend to get preoccupied with the so-called “ontological turn” and efforts to obviate the historical boundaries between human and the material, the social and the natural, and the environmental and political (among many others). Silva’s dissertation dispensed with this academic parlor game by simply assuming that humans, the soil, territory, oil, and institutions exist within the same space. More than that, settler colonialism relied and relies on the continuous negotiation and hybridization of these blurry concepts in the name of managing uncertainty.

 

One last thing about this dissertation, it has a CC-By-NC license which hopefully means that it finds its ways into the hands of scholars and communities who appreciate it critique with as little friction as possible!

Three Things Thursday: Punk is Next, Buzz about the Bakken, and Hanging Out!

There’s a lot of stuff going on these days and I suppose it is better than getting bored, but it sometimes results in me feeling a bit scattered. Today’s “Three Things Thursday” is a reflection of my scattered feeling. I’m know some of this stuff means something to me and hopefully you’ll find it at least vaguely interesting.

Thing the First

Aaron Barth posted something on social media about distributing posters for our conferences on punk archaeology in January 2013. I figured this was a memory of a memory or something, but sure enough, punk archaeology is ten years old this year.  

For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember. Punk archaeology was this alternative conference, event, concert, gathering in Fargo, North Dakota. It produced a book and for a brief moment on one very cold and still night, an intense feeling of community. 

I’m not sure that it produced anything else. Maybe that’s all it was meant to do. Or maybe it could have produced something more tangible and substantial. It seems like ten years out is a good time to reflect on it.

Thing the Second

Resource booms are, by definition, abrupt and short lived. They strike communities that are unprepared and often dissipate before they’re completely understood. In fact, part of what makes booms so damaging and confusing is their unpredictability. Unfortunately, scholars often struggle to research unpredictable, abrupt, and short-lived events. Academic research agendas are like big ships or trains which take a long time to gain momentum, stop, or turn.

There’s been a bit of lag between the peak of the Bakken oil boom and scholarship designed to interrogate, unpack, and even understand it. I’m very much looking forward to Kyle Conway’s forthcoming book on Bakken hospitality. I’m also eager to read Mary E. Thomas’s and Bruce Braun’s edited collection Settling the Boom: The Sites and Subjects of Bakken Oil which should appear in coming weeks (paperback apparently in April)!   

I was very excited to be told about the completion of Nestor L. Silva’s Stanford dissertation, “Bakken Ecology: the Culture and Space of Fracked Farmland in North Dakota” (2022). Unfortunately, it is embargoed for two years, but I am dying (well, not literally) to get my hands on a copy of it.

If you have a contact at Stanford who can help me get a copy, I’d be very grateful!   

Thing the Third

Finally, I’m pretty excited for my friend Sheila Liming’s book to come out next week. The book is called Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time and she agreed to chat about it a bit over at the NDQ blog.

Check it out here.

Bakken Babylon: Complete Draft

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a more casual paper for a special section in an issue of Near Eastern Archaeology on the relationship between the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and Babylon in Mesopotamia. 

I now have a completed draft of this paper. 

At the risk of jinxing everything, I suspect that this paper is essentially unpublishable in its current state, but it is also one of the most fun papers that I’ve ever invest the time to write.

I’ve included a number of almost random photos that rank among my favorite from my years of work in the Bakken. 

Check out the paper and, if you can’t make sense of it, stay for the photos at the end.

As per usual, any and all feedback is appreciated! 

Thomas Barger and the Archaeology of Oil

This past week, I was doing some light research at UND Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections and for various, almost random reasons, was scrolling through the finding aid for John Barger’s papers.

In those papers, I noticed an entry for Box 1, Folder 31: “Greek Inscriptions Deciphered” by Thomas Barger. I knew Thomas Barger, John’s brother, from my Bakken Babylon paper. Thomas Barger was the North Dakota born and educated CEO of Aramco (Arab-American Oil Company). I knew something about from Wallace Stegner’s book Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil where he appears as one of the first American “petro-nomads” who helped discover the massive Ghawar oil field in the 1950s. By the 1960s he had become the CEO of Aramco and helped the company develop into one of the largest oil companies in the world. 

He was well-known in the industry as a hands-on leader who understood the discovery, extraction, and processing of oil and the men, women, and families who did this work. He was recognized both for his possibly misguided efforts to encourage home ownership among his Saudi employees as well as his ability to speak Arabic and respect for Arabian history and culture. I was not, however, aware of his interest in archaeology.

The publication that appeared in John Barger’s papers was a short update about finds from the Nabatean outpost of Meda’in Salih in northwestern Saudi Arabia which appeared in 1969 in Archaeology magazine. Barger had published an earlier report on this site in Archaeology in 1966. The 1969 article revealed the decipherment of a Greek inscription by Glen Bowersock associated with the Third Cyrenaican Legion traditionally stationed at Bosra, but in this case standing guard over the trade routes at the very edges of the Roman world. This inscription found its way into Thomas Barger’s personal collection and which in 1969, he turned over to the Harvard Semitic Museum which, in turn, transferred it to the T.C. Barger Collection at the National Museum in Riyadh in 2001. The inscription’s nomadic route from Meda’in Salih to Boston and back to the Arabian peninsula reversed the route of Barger’s own travels to the Arabian desert.

This is a nice example of how contemporary petronomadism, a term coined, I think, by Reza Negarstani in his Cyclonopedia (or perhaps Gilles Chatelet in his To Think and Live Like Pigs [1998]) traces both the economic landscape of the Middle East and the archaeological. This is similar to an observation offered by Rachel Havrelock in her “The Ancient Past that Oil Built” in the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline in the 1930s. 

On a more local level, one imagines that the work done to support extractive industries here in North Dakota has contributed to the discovery of similarly interesting archaeological landscapes. In that sense, the work of Barger in Saudi Arabia has parallels in his home state of North Dakota where pipelines, roads, rail projects, and refineries have created a contemporary window into both a modern present and historical past.

Writing Wednesday: Some Fragments

I’m juggling a few projects lately and that always keeps me on my toes and excited to get to work in the morning.

Right now, I’m working with Rachael Kiddey to edit the inaugural volume in the CHAT book series. It’s a collection of papers from festivalCHAT which was an online conference held in 2020. I’m also finishing a book review that’s probably due October 1, and most importantly, I’m finishing revisions on a paper that I wrote about the “Bakken Babylon” for a special section to appear next year in Near Eastern Archaeology on the archaeology of climate change.

One of the critiques of this paper was that it was a bit hard to understand what I was trying to do. While I saw this as a feature, the editors of the special section suggested that it might be understood as a “bug” by the audience of NEA who might not expect a contribution that blurs the line between fiction and criticism. This was a fair observation and I decided to add an introductory paragraph that sets up a bit more explicitly what I was trying to do.

Here’s the new introduction and this introduction is followed by a link to the paper as it now stands.

This article is an experiment. Its origins are in my decades of work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota and my nearly two decades of field work in the Near East, primarily Cyprus, although this work is more clearly influenced by the former than the latter. During our time writing and thinking about the Bakken, we recognized similarities between the materiality of extractive industries in North Dakota and in the contemporary Near East. In some cases, the same companies operated in both places, such as Haliburton and Schlumberger. In other cases, the same individuals worked in both places and recognized the similarities in modular force housing and daily routines. The similarities between extractive industries in both places paralleled the global reach of contemporary climate change. This understanding encouraged us to consider whether modern geographies that support the borders of nation states, our understanding of regional practices and the discipline of archaeology itself impaired our ability to imagine climate change on a global scale. Archaeologists have already contributed to multi-site approaches designed to trace the impact of climate change in different regional contexts. While comparative and multi-site approaches to provide windows into the history and impact of climate change, they often remained linked to regional narratives and economic and demographic networks informed by traditional political geographies.

This paper will explore the potential for more “planetary” approaches to understanding climate change which complicate and obscure modern geography. In fact, this article will embrace certain aspects of the fictional universe imagined in Reza Negarestani’s philosophical novel, Cyclonopedia, which follow the trail of an Iranian archaeologist, Dr. Hamid Parsani, who located oil at the center of a radical cosmology with roots in Near Eastern antiquity. This wildly speculative and painfully obscure text provides a kind of sandbox to where I combine some of my experience in the Bakken with a planetary view of Babylon informed as much by Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty view of planet approaches to climate change as the recent fictional works in speculative realism. The goal of this article is less a clear method or even a roughly defined approach and more of an inducement to more radical ways of thinking necessary to understand the industrial landscapes of the contemporary Bakken and Near East within the planetary history and consequences of the looming climate catastrophe.

Here’s a link to Bakken Babylon, part 1 and Bakken Babylon, part 2.

Bakken Babylon, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first part of an article that I have written about the Bakken as Babylon. It’s for a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology dedicated to the archaeology of climate change and edited by Omur Harmansah and Katie Kearns. In my post yesterday I’ve included links to earlier drafts of this piece. 

As is so often the case with academic writing, this piece is less finished than it is done, but I do hope that it is somewhere in the grey region between thought provoking and entertaining… 

Bakken Babylon (part 2)

Dustism

There was ample motivation to take even more unconventional approaches to understanding the contemporary Bakken oil patch in relation to contemporary climate change. Human created climate change is transforming our world. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and faltering seasonal patterns are already producing droughts, flooding, and massively destructive storms that capture headlines for their economic and human costs. Less visible, but every bit as significant, is the slow violence inflicted on the other living things on the plant as we accelerate toward an inevitable series of mass extinction events (Nixon 2011). With the existential consequences to anthropogenic climate change well known, it is more than appropriate for archaeology to shift toward understanding planetary networks of agents and situations that created increasingly violent climatic conditions. Thinking about the wide range of agents acting on a planetary level provides us with some insight into how geography and cartography can appear increasingly fluid against the backdrop of planetary crisis.

A brief digression on dustism, a term introduced in Negarstani’s Cyclonopedia, provides a chance to understand how Parsani’s view of material and agency create the affordances required to make the Bakken and Babylon interchangeable. Parsani understood “dustism” as “the earth’s clandestine autonomy” which converts and subverts solar energy, or solar capitalism, into swirling, eddying, and irresistible clouds of matter that resist human control. Parsani argued, perhaps spuriously, that dust in Middle Eastern religions is pure and immaculate and its only when it begins to coalesce and clump that it becomes “an abomination.” This abomination in Parsani’s convoluted cosmology merges the autonomy of the earth with the fluidity of material to produce a mess. This mess — mud, oil, foaming muck — fertilizes the world and supports production, growth, and creation even as the sun continuously seeks to dry it out and return it to inert purity of dust. In this formulation dustism provides a framework that Bradley Fest understands to support a system of hyperobjects including dust and oil which exist beyond the temporal and spatial scale of human existence (Fest 2016). In Parsani’s narrative, the viscosity of oil allows it to become the narrator as it binds the disparate power of dust which seeks to continuously revert to its primordial and timeless form.

This is obviously obscure, but dustism is useful for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Boscagli 2014) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. Dustism and dust itself, like oil, lubricates the narratives that connects North Dakota’s Bakken to Babylon. The ubiquity of dust in the Bakken has, of course, attracted scientific research. One the one hand, the Bakken and Three Forks deposits of shale oil likely represent organic material trapped beneath thin layers of sand deposited by Quaternary dust storms. In contemporary North Dakota, truck traffic creates billowing dust clouds that mark the path of the region’s straight section line roads. Research during the height of the oil boom documented the impact of dust associated with oil development on vegetation, including crops, near roads as well as working conditions in a region long characterized as having three season: snow, mud, and dust.

Dust does not just operate at the scale of geological time and the contemporary in North Dakota. Dust serves as a historical link between the Bakken and the Middle East. For example, Frank Jungers, the North Dakota born Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company) executive started his memoir which tells the story of his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career, on his family’s Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling storms of the 1930s dust bowl (Jungers 2014). He compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts and framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust.

A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), which opens in North Dakota. Stegner spent part of his childhood in North Dakota on the edges of the future Bakken oil patch. The novel’s main character, Elsa, described the main street of the town of Hardanger as “a river of fine powder.” Dust punctuates the early pages of the novel and defines the forlorn town, the hard ground of the North Dakota prairie, and the footsteps of Elsa’s future husband, Bo Mason, at the baseball diamond. Whether Stegner deliberately anticipated Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Stegner seems to understand dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic after a stranger offering to pay for his drink in gold dust inspires Bo Mason to embark on his nomadic journey throughout the American West in search of wealth and status. Dust is more than a metaphor in Stegner’s fictional town or in Junger’s life, and is as ubiquitous a feature in the Bakken oil patch as in Parsani’s Babylon.

For Jungers and Parsani and as we will see, Stegner, the combination of dust and oil contribute to the formation of self-organizing assemblages. These assemblages are global in scale and draw both human and non-human actors into their orbits. They also accelerate a kind of persistent nomadism that both reflects the geopolitical instability created by global climate change and relies on the mobility of populations that coalesce around the tension between dust and oil. Parsani recognizes the petro-nomads who travel from oil well to oil well drawn by oil. To their number, we might add another North Dakotan and Aramco executive, Thomas Barger whose journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost likewise followed the lure of oil (Barger 2000). In the 20th and 21st century Bakken the petro-nomads likewise coalesced around the sources of oil and sought to navigate the dust from rural byways, agricultural harvests, and droughts that seems constantly to escape control. It is worth noting that there has been an outpouring of recent scholarship on dust in the Bakken that seems to appear as if to resist or even challenge the flow of oil and the arrival of the petro-nomads.

Petro-Nomadism

Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of Bo Mason’s nomadic search for prosperity and the American dream and offers a framework for his account of the discover of oil in Saudi Arabia: Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. (Salameh 2019; Vitalis 2007) The American oil company Aramco funded Stegner’s work in 1956 as an effort to promote an image of the company as a force for development in the Middle East and as a harbinger of new forms of hegemony that relied less on old models of military or diplomatic imperialism and more on the promotion the mutual, if asymmetrical, benefits of capitalism. By the mid-1950s, Stegner had established himself as a sensitive interpreter of the arid landscapes of the American West, and in 1954 had published his classic account of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. These credentials appealed to Aramco executives who enticed Stegner to write a literary history of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. 

Among the characters featured in Discovery! was Thomas Barger. Barger grew up in Linton, North Dakota and studied geology at the University of North Dakota. After graduation, he set out to Saudi Arabia in 1938 where he worked for Standard Oil and Aramco as a geologist. During this time, his team embraced life as petro-nomads and he traded the dust of small town Linton for the dust of the Arabian desert. The results of his nomadism was a version of the proverbial Big Rock Candy Mountain of Stegner’s great American novel: the massive Ghawar oil field which has accounted for nearly 50% of Aramco’s oil production. Barger goes on to become the CEO of Aramco in the 1960s and paved the way for another North Dakotan, Frank Jungers, whose dusty childhood in North Dakota led him to serve as president and CEO of the company from 1971 to 1978. The connection between North Dakota and the world’s largest oil company may well be coincidental, but the development of the Bakken oil patch certainly presented a shadowy parallel to the situation in the Middle East. While the 1970s boom in North Dakota almost certainly represented a response to the 1970s OPEC embargo which sought to penalize countries who supported Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The 1950s North Dakota boom was likely stimulated by nationalization of the Iranian and Iraqi oil industries in the early 1950s and growing demands by the Saudi government to share profits and control over Aramco profits. 

A peripatetic, petro-nomad, Thomas Barger anticipates the recursive arrival of the contemporary Bakken nomad who came to Western North Dakota in the second decade of the 21st century to develop its oil fields. Parsani’s Middle Eastern petro-nomads point to the rise in late-20th-century nomadism on a global scale critiqued in the US as “nomadland” and globally marked by the proliferation of camps and detention centers. A critical engagement with Parsani’s dustism and petro-nomadism, historical connections, and the capacity of oil to create viscous new geographies sustains the conflation of North Dakota with the Middle East and perhaps more specifically Babylon. The planetary distribution of oil and dust supports the entanglement of North Dakota’s oil industry with the oil industry in the Middle East. Oil and dust bind the arid landscape of the Northern Plains to the oil rich formations of the Persian Gulf. Oil lubricates the movement of dust-covered petro-nomads and the narratives the we tell about them.

Conclusion

Dr. Hamid Parsani’s talk proposed new forms of geography that leveraged new forms of narrative lubricated by the oil, traced by petro-nomads, and saturated with dust. These new ways of thinking about the relationship between oil and space reflects the planetary scale of contemporary petroculture and informs how we approach history and archaeology. These new narratives break down the modern geographies that structure archaeology and define regions such as the Near East. In its place have are emerging new geographies where once distinct places disappear, shift, and superimpose themselves amid a contemporary cartography of climatic crisis. To confront this condition, archaeology as a discipline has to continue to embrace its global remit and work itself out of the regional silos that support conventional narratives. As climate change in the past and in the present represents a matter of existential concern, it seems apparent that archaeology must investigate more thoroughly the kind of spatial transpositions proposed by Dr. Parsani’s unconventional talk. If the Bakken was Babylon, even for a brief period at the height of its oil boom, then it provides an unexpected window in the viscous reality of contemporary planetary change.

Bakken Babylon, Part 1

I know that I’m late today, but I’m working on a deadline that has already passed. The deadline is a for a short paper that I started to put together in the spring and like so many projects of mine lingered in the queue until slightly after the last minute.

The good news is that the paper is mostly done and, in my humble assessment, fun. It is called “Bakken Babylon” (or something like that). You can read my false starts and stumbles here and here.

But below is the first part of the draft that I’ve settled upon. Part two will drop tomorrow!

Bakken Babylon

Introduction

At a conference convened in Fargo, North Dakota at l’Institut pour l’étude du Dakota du Nord several years ago, the controversial Iranian academic Dr. Hamid Parsani presented a provocative paper titled “What if the Bakken is Babylon?” In it, he opined that global climate change confirmed an obscure theory that his research had pointed toward many years before: the Bakken oil patch in Western North Dakota and Babylon shared more than the same first and last letters of their names. Dr. Parsani indicated that a careful reading of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) revealed that oil itself had the capacity to lubricate modern narratives including those constructed in contemporary cartography: “The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrates the dynamics of planetary events. Oil is the undercurrent of all narrations, not only the political but also that of the ethics of life on earth.” This echoed the growing recognition that modern human culture is a form of petroculture, and this suffuses our geography, history, and imaginations. Our dependence on fossil fuels and their connection with contemporary climate change provokes new ways of thinking about the past, the present, and the future.

This article is an effort to explore the capacity of oil to fuel, pun intended, ”petropunk” interpretations of the Bakken informed by the geographical theories proposed by radical cartographers such as Renee Gladman (2017) and China Mieville (2009). Their works have concerned themselves with certain cartographic irregularities where two or more places exist simultaneously in the same space or, alternately, places themselves have become completely unmoored from their spatial coordinates. In some cases, populations have simply adapted to these situations such as the situation in Beszel/Ul Quoma where the residents of two cities superimposed on one another have simply learned to “unsee” one another during their everyday lives and the state otherwise maintains the spatial boundaries that persist between places associated with one or the other city. In the case of Ravicka, the occasional tendency of places to become dislodged from their spatial coordinates entirely has led to the development of state entities tasked with documenting these situations. Dr. Parsani’s work proposed that the proliferation of oil over the last century has introduced new geographic possibilities lubricated by the viscous globalism of fossil fuels which simultaneously reinforced certain political, cultural, and topographic boundaries while dissolving them. In this situation Babylon and the Bakken despite the differences between their locations in the historical narratives that support conventional political geographies have become so thoroughly elided to be indistinguishable in many ways.

This has significant consequences, of course, for our understanding of global warming, climate change, and archaeological interventions designed to understand the past, present, and future of these processes. Parsani’s paper began with the familiar refrain that the place of Babylon had become unmoored by antiquity and this unmooring became all the more visible during the events of the two Iraq wars. As Erin Runions has shown these wars combined figurative and literal concepts of Babylon to inspire messianic and popular support for the US invasion (2014). The opulence and immorality associated with Hebrew Bible’s description of the Neo-Assyrian city of Babylon on the Euphrates River in central Iraq which was the site of the Babylonian Exile, had become secondary to the imposing figure of the Whore of Babylon whose appearance in the Book of Revelation indicated that the place of Babylon has already broken free from its spatial confines and occupied Rome and Jerusalem. The appearance of a beast with ten horns and seven heads at the end of days would destroy the whore of Babylon and reduce its city.

By the 21st century, Babylon had taken on many guises. It had become the handmaiden of modernity, capitalism, and political violence, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a kind of messianic metaphor for the force of evil in the world. Thus, in the Iraq War, the moralizing and messianic message found a home in the stories of the abuses of Saddam Hussain’s Bathist government in Iraq and this further wrenched the place of Babylon free from its Mesopotamian origins. That Babylon would end up in Western North Dakota, in the Bakken oil patch of all places, is neither completely unexpected nor entirely implausible.

Bablyon

There is only one explicit reference to Babylon in the Bakken: Williston is called the Babylon of the Bakken in Gary Sernovitz’s book on the “shale revolution” (2016). The connection between Babylon and the Bakken evokes a larger discourse of Babylon that is global in scope. The coincidence between the excavations at Babylon and elsewhere in the Near East and the emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century produced what Nick Mirzoeff has called “Babylonian Modernity” (2005). For Mirzoeff, Babylonian Modernity represents the decadence, alienation, and complexity that exists at the heart of the modern experience. As early as the 19th century Babylon became a metaphor for rapidly expanding, industrial, urban metropolises such as London or New York City. It also stood in Black Christianity and Caribbean Rastafarianism as the place of exile and separation from Zion. The global displacement and alienation experienced by Black communities in the Americas made possible the development of the modern, globalized economy. In this context, Babylon embodied forces of colonialism, capitalism, and the state which sought to preserve economic and racial inequality in the name of political stability. Thus, Babylon could represent, on the one hand, the oppressive forces of the state and capital which sought to control the labor of displaced Afro-Caribbean and Black workers and the unfettered and dystopian results of unfettered modernity on the other. Critics like Mirzoeff and Runions who have traced the significance of Babylon in contemporary political discourse, however, recognize that despite Babylon’s modern guise, it is not entirely free from its ancient past. The First and Second Gulf Wars and US occupation of Iraq brought the literal site Babylon to our living rooms with stories of the looting of antiquities set against regular reports of human violence and skyrocketing price of oil.

In the context of a global Babylon, Parsani’s paper may seem unnecessarily specific in its effort to connect a spatially displaced Babylon specifically to the Bakken. That said, it is hard to deny that Bakken oil boom certainly evoked images of an American Babylon in the media. Media attention focused on the sudden wealth acquired by oil workers as well as the risks that they undertook doing the dangerous work of drilling, fracking, and transporting oil. The regular media attention to strip clubs, drug use and abuse, Ponzi schemes, and environmental abuses of the Bakken contributed to a view of the region as a zone of unchecked capitalism and immorality (Caraher and Weber 2014). The viscous fluidity of oil carried Babylon to the Bakken and hint at the origins of new cartographies and familiar moral narratives. It encouraged us to drill deeper into the narratives, cartographies, geographies, and chronologies that connect Babylon in its many forms to the modern Bakken. Parsani’s paper seemed to induce us to see these displaced places as key objects of study to understand the planetary consequences and history of contemporary climate change.

Three Things Thursday: Early Christian Greece, Mineral Rites, and Jimmy Carter

I’m taking a real, honest to goodness vacation over the weekend. In fact, I’m going to vacation so hard that I’m not even taking a laptop! I reckon the last time that I vacationed without a laptop was in 2000 or 2001 when I was living in Athens.

To celebrate this unlikely situation, I’m going to offer a very short Three Things Thursday:

Thing the First

It’s pretty rare that I get genuinely excited about a new archaeological discovery and even less frequently that I get really excited about a discovery in the Late Antique Peloponnesus, but I was genuinely thrilled after reading Nikos Tsivikis’s recent article in the Journal of Epigraphical Studies 4 (2022), 175-197, titled “Christian inscriptions from a third and fourth-century house church at Messene (Peloponnese).” You can download it here.

This article provides some pretty solid evidence for a late-third century house church that continued in use into the fourth century. Tsiviki’s argument is grounded in both epigraphy and excavation evidence although the levels are primarily dated on the basis of numismatic evidence. The building is a modified urban villa in the city of Messenia and the inscriptions record the presence of a reader and then a bishop who provided a mosaic for the modified room.

Of course, textual evidence tells us that there were Christian communities in Greece from the first century AD, but archaeological evidence for pre-Constantinean Christianity in Greece has been pretty thin on the ground and comprised mostly of wishful thinking. In fact, there’s precious little indisputable material evidence for fourth century Christianity in Greece. This building will change that and provide the first archaeologically secure (at least to my knowledge) evidence for third (perhaps optimistically) or early fourth century (almost certainly) Christianity in southern Greece. This is exciting.

Thing the Second

I’ve been enjoying Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Baltimore 2019). I’m not finished the book, but I appreciate his efforts to trace the significance of the fossil economy from the oil fields to the hot yoga studio. His efforts to demonstrate the deep entanglement of fossil fuels and our modern world is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but Johnson offers very readable and highly “textured” (to use a word from the book’s blurb) descriptions of how fossil fuels shape our daily lives. Johnson weaves fossil fuels into the story of the Titanic, various efforts to understand the human equivalency of fossil fuel energy, and a brilliant comparative chapter that considers the difference between Lewis and Clark’s journey and our modern road system. I’m still working my way through his study of the reality TV series Coal and the modern novel.    

Years ago, my buddy and collaborator Bret Weber suggested that we write a paper or an essay that tracked a drop of oil from the well to the atmosphere. Because I’m kind of a jerk, I rolled my eyes and said something jerk-ish about that idea. Years later and after giving it more and more thought, I think it’s really brilliant. In fact, I think Johnson’s book provides an appealing model for how the life of that “drop” of oil could be traced through our system and how much “life” it provides.

Thing the Third

There are a couple cool things from North Dakota Quarterly this week. First, I’ve posted over on the NDQ a poem by David Starkey which will appear in a forthcoming collection from the author. It’s a pretty nice little poem that features a cigarette as a prop. As I say in my post, I like poems that feature things.

There’s also this blog post about the time that NDQ published some of Jimmy Carter’s poetry. For some reason the pages of this issue were scanned or processed out of order so you have to scroll back from the first page, but do check out Lane Chasek’s post here and follow his link to NDQ 60.1 where we feature four of Carter’s poems. Then scroll backward from the first poem to read the three others.

Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.