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.

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… 

Dustism

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

Introduction

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.