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.

The Archaeology of Oil Production

I took advantage of the snow day to finish up a chapter that I’m preparing for some kind of volume on the Archaeology of Plastics. My paper was on the archaeology of oil production and it was a nice chance to pull together a bunch of things that I had noticed while doing field work in the Bakken and writing up some of that work.

Without sounding too satisfied, I think this is one of the better things that I have written over the last few years on oil. It’s mostly just a summary, but I feel like it brings together some diverse threads and sets a course of what the archaeology of oil could be in the future.  

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This chapter surveys broadly the archaeology of oil production with particular emphasis on work in the United States. The first section of the chapter explores efforts to designate sites associated with the discovery, transport, and refining of oil and their related workforce heritage status in the US and elsewhere. The second section considers how the distinctly liquid character of oil produces diverse and dynamic “petroleumscapes” that integrate the various phases of oil production and consumption. The notion of the petroleumscape and other similar ways of understanding human and archaeological landscapes associated with oil production is then applied to the Bakken patch of Western North Dakota in the final section. This area experienced a number of oil booms starting in the 1950s and culmination in the early 21st century boom at which time a team of archaeologists with the North Dakota Man Camp Project documented both workforce housing in the Bakken and the industrialization of the rural landscape.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Dustism, Petro-Nomads, and Oil

This week, I’m shifting a bit of my attention to a paper that I hope to submit to a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology. It paper is tentatively titled “The Bakken and Babylon” or something like that. I’ve posted two other fragments of this article here and here.

Today’s fragment considers the concept of “Dustism” in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) and juxtaposes it with a few case studies from the Bakken that I developed in the previous section of this paper. I’m slowly coming to terms with this paper and looking to make it a bit more interesting than my usual dreck, but we’ll see. The dreck is strong in me… 


For Parsani, “dustism” represented “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 notes 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 activism 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 strikes me as crucial for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Doherty 2014, 376) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. The theory of dustism resonates in North Dakota and the Bakken. For Frank Junger, the North Dakota born Aramco executive, his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career begins when his family departs his Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling dust storms of the 1930s dust storm. In his memoirs, he compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts that framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust. A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s early novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which opens in North Dakota. 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 sought to anticipate Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel when emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic when in contact with liquid also shatters the stranger who paid for his drink in gold dust inspired 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 Negarestani’s Babylon.

For Parsani and Negarestani, 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. Thomas Barger’s journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost drawn forward by oil. 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.

Three Things Thursday: Dining, Dancing, and Data

It’s been a pretty long week. I managed to teach my two classes via Zoom on Tuesday and made it through my night class face-to-face on Wednesday. Today, I’m bracing for the full slate of teaching and hoping (as much as anything) that the after shocks of my brush with The Omicron remain mild. 

With this as background, I figure my readers likely understand that a Three Things Thursday represents a path of least resistance as I get back up to speed.

Thing the First

Yesterday, I read Yannis Hamilakis’s recent piece in World Archaeology: “Food as affirmative biopolitics at the border: liminality, eating practices, and migration in the Mediterranean.” He argues that food represents a key element in the political discourse of displacement. Food provided to individuals detained on the island of Lesvos served to define their status within the complex network of cultural and social identities present in the Moria camp. Overcooked rice, for example, made some residents understand their status to be as sick patients. Undercooked rice demonstrated a lack of concern by the state, NGOs, and caterers tasked with preparing food. 

As a result, many camp residents took to preparing their own food. They removed the meat from the pre-packaged meals and combined it with spices and other ingredients. They constructed cooking fires and ovens, used their meager cash allowance to buy cooking supplies and spices, and in some cases planted gardens.

This latter practice gave me pause. We were struck by the construction of gardens at work force housing sites in the Bakken oil patch especially during the height of the boom. Recent work on the role of gardens at Japanese internment camps has shown how they served to produce a sense of community in the austerely functional carceral landscape of the camp itself (see for example Bonnie Clark’s book, Finding Solace in the Soil: An Archaeology of Garden and Gardeners at Amache (2020) or Connie Y. Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese Incarceration (2018) which I blogged about here.) Ann Elena Stinchfield Danis’s 2020 dissertation from the University of California, Berkeley, “Landscapes of Inequality: Creative Approaches to Engaged Research” notes the gardens built my residents of the Albany Bulb on the San Francisco Bay (more here). 

If I were to wring a bit more from our research in the Bakken, I would write something about the gardens we observed there and the way in which gardens and outdoor cooking spaces contributed to the creation of domesticity, community, and place making at temporary workforce housing sites.

Thing the Second

I’ve been reading Hanif Abdurraqib latest book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021). The book is good and combines Abdurraquib’s poetic grasp of language with chapters that could easily stand by themselves as independent essays. I particularly enjoy passages where phrases spill out on top of each other connected only by the “&” and conveying the immediacy of his experience without introducing urgency. 

One of the best chapters in the book is titled “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of the Limbs” and it explores the place of dancing or being able to dance on Black identity. Abdurraquib spills the beans when he tells us that Whitney Houston could not dance and then unpacks her rise as a black woman to pop super star status and how that shaped views of her Blackness. I won’t spoil the chapter or the book for anyone who has yet to read it, but this chapter alone makes it worth the purchase. It’s one of the best things that I’ve read over the past year. 

Thing the Third

 There’s been a good bit of buzz surrounding Piraye Hacıgüzeller, James Stuart Taylor and Sara Perry’s recent article in Open Archaeology: “On the Emerging Supremacy of Structured Digital Data in Archaeology: A Preliminary Assessment of Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Left Behind.” In the article, the authors take some of the narrative notes from the Çatalhöyük Research Project and convert them into structured data using the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model. 

The fit is predictably awkward and demonstrates for anyone who remains unconvinced that various structured data schemes always leave some information and even “wisdom” behind. I really like this article because it takes something that’s on the verge of being common sensical – i.e. narrative descriptions contain nuance that most ontologies and data capture models can’t reproduce – and makes it plainly visible. It also fits into a larger critique of “big data” or of just “data” driven analyses both in archaeology, narrowly, and also in contemporary society. I wonder, a bit, whether the COVID pandemic and the constant drone of data driven guidelines lurks in the back of these author’s thinking. There’s something about the limits of data as the basis for the analysis of COVID fatalities, spread, and efforts to mitigate COVID. 

An article like this serves as an interesting reminder that data driven analysis (and decision making) depends on methods of inclusion and exclusion and these decisions prefigured the kind of interpretation possible. Of course, this is known situation and hardly profound, but this article sets it out in the context of archaeology in a particularly elegant way.

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.