Words, words, words

I’ve spent three days making maps for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken (brace yourself for a two-for-Tuesday blog post), so I work up this morning with my head filled with words.

Over the past two months, I’ve avoided working on a book project to which I’m a pretty minor contributor, but thanks to a late evening email, I started thinking about it again. I’m fascinated with the idea of the American West as this kind of national hinterland filled with all sorts of fascinating stuff begging for me to juxtapose it in random ways.

I was thinking of the Atari Excavations and the concept of “fake archaeology” once again, and my mind drifted to sites like the Manitou Cliff Dwelling museum near Colorado Springs were a cliff dwelling from the Four Corners area was reassembled in the early-20th century. While I don’t mean to suggest that a similar method of presentation could not be used “back East” (and, indeed, sites like The Cloisters in New York repurposed the European ecclesiastical architecture to create a space for the Rockefeller art collection), a degree of dissimulation was possible at the Manitou site because of the remoteness of western cliff dwelling sites and the basic lack of familiarity with the archaeology of the region. No one likely believed that The Cloisters was an “authentic” site. It was possible to situate the excavation of Atari games from the Alamogordo landfill as “authentic” because it took place in the “hinterland.” In fact, media reports were reluctant to accept accounts from local residents, there was an absence of basic historical research (for example, we really don’t know whether the dumping of Atari games left a paper trail), and quick transformation of the event from a curiosity to an urban legend. 

The issue of authenticity and the American West intersects with some of the conversation about tourism and how it keys on the desire to experience the “frontier” or to experience “nature” or whatever. Again, this is not a distinctly or exclusively “Western” phenomenon. Places like Colonial Williamsburg (once again a Rockefeller connection), offered authentic experiences “back East” at least as mediated through various reconstructions. Williamsburg may offer a colonial Deadwood or Medora, but it pales in comparison with Yosemite or Yellowstone which were set aside to preserve nature in its “primordial” state. The Atari excavation, then, depended on a suspension of disbelief and perhaps benefited from a view that the American West preserves a palpable authenticity long ago deemed improbable among the cynical cities of the “the east.” 

Finally, I got to thinking about excavation in the American West. I’m not sure how this will fit into something that I write up for this little book, but excavation in the American West is pretty broad topic. First, I thought about the excavation of mountain sites like Yucca Mountain or the WIPP in New Mexico for depositing radioactive waste. Of course these sites draw upon a long tradition of mining in the west, which both pocked the region with pits and tunnels, none more famous, perhaps than the Berkeley Pit near Butte, Montana, but has also fueled a thriving cottage industry of mining archaeology. Finally, there are the massive craters of the Nevada Test Site where detonations of nuclear and conventional bombs excavated tons of earth. 

Sedan Plowshare Crater

Somehow I want to weave these themes together in a short chapter on excavating contemporary trash in the West with a focus on the Atari excavations. 

Man Camps and the American West

One of the more entertaining challenges that I face as I work on material from the North Dakota Man Camp Project is putting the Bakken Oil Boom in a local and regional context. As readers of this blog know, I was not trained as a historian of the American West or the Northern Plains. In fact, I’m not even able to play one (convincingly) on TV.

(To make this clear, I had an article reject at North Dakota History once, well I think is was rejected in a charmingly North Dakota way. They corresponded with me for about 5 years about this article and then just faded away without ever sending it out for peer review.)

Anyway, below is my first stab at thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the history of the American West and North Dakota. Feedback, as always, is welcome:

While traditional depictions of the American West present rugged, independent prospectors who set out to conquer the wilds in the hope of untold riches, scholars have increasingly viewed the American West as space for male wage labor and the westward movement of industrial capitalism and its attendant social expectations. In this new construction, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier” (pdf) became less of an untamed wilderness for Americans to draw their dreams and more of an extension of longstanding eastern interests committed to deploying capital, workforce, and infrastructure in their search for profit. This “wage-earner” frontier, as described by Carlos Schwantes, ensures that we understand the historical development of the west as part of a larger trajectory of American and, indeed, global capital. Thus, inscribing the American West with mining camps, timber camps, and oil camps, contributed to expansion of a set of domestic values, hierarchies, and class relations nurtured in the East and then pushed out with the expansion of industry.

That the Bakken formation is geographically part of the American West (as typically defined ) and subjected to a kind of extractive economy most closely associated with historical processes taking place in the American West is a coincidence and should not necessarily impose a geographic limitation on how we understand this phenomenon. At the same time, the historical study of North Dakota has long recognized certain themes fundamental to the development of communities in the state. Elwyn Robinson famously articulated 6 themes: remoteness, dependence, radicalism, economic disadvantage, the “too-much mistake”, and the climate of a sub-humid grassland. While the application of these themes to all historical problems in the history of the state is perhaps ill-advised, the influence of these ideas on how North Dakotans imagine themselves and understand their history is important. For example, the challenges of adapting existing infrastructure to the growing workforce in the Bakken counties could easily be articulated in the context of the “too-much mistake” which described the overly-ambitious investment in infrastructure at the foundation of the state. Moreover, Robinson’s understanding of the remoteness, dependence, and economic disadvantage of the sparsely populated North Dakota prairie fit well within later understandings of periphery favored by world systems theorists and others committed to core-periphery models.

Articulating workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the American West likewise frames how we understood settlement in the area from an archaeological and architectural perspective. Historically, scholars have used archaeology to document temporary settlements associated with extractive industries and construction in the West. As William Cronon reminds us in his remarkable study of the town and mine at Kennecott, Alaska, the remains of these sites serve as physical reminders of the increasingly integrated global economy of the early 20th century which made it possible to extract copper from veins deep within the earth, transport a workforce, supplies and ore via rail, and sustain these activities at a remote location in central Alaska. Likewise workforce housing camps associated with the Bakken oil boom, particularly the Type 1 variety, represents a century old tradition realized in distinctly 21st century materials, infrastructure, and plans.

John Bickerstaff Jackson, another great 20th century student of the American West, recognized in the mobile homes of the four-corners region the direct predecessors of our Type 2 camps. He described the momentary appearance of trailer courts with their solitary cinderblock common room designated for laundry. These settlements appear across the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona often to house a pipeline or construction crew and last only as long as the project. For Jackson, these mobile homes represented part of long tradition of housing in the New World that began with the temporary wooden houses of the first European settlers on the East Coast and continued through the balloon frame homes of the 19th century to the box houses and mobile homes of the 20th century. The latter forms moved west with the surging populations and soon became a defining feature of the Western landscape. While many of Jackson’s essays do not reward too much scrutiny, he nevertheless recognized the importance of mobile housing for the requirements of wartime production, post war shifts in settlement, and the baby boom in the American West.

Just as RVs came to symbolize the leisure time pursuits of the mobile, post-war, middle class, the mobile home and RV emerged as alternate housing solutions for an increasingly mobile workforce who came to work in the American West, including the Bakken, when opportunity called. Low population density, uneven access to utilities and other infrastructure, the presence of large-scale construction projects and extractive industries, and a temporary workforce that is accustomed to mobility contributed a distinctly Western character of the Bakken.


Theory and Medieval Archaeology

I spent some time over spring break reading John Moreland’s Archaeology, Theory, and the Middle Ages (London 2010).  My book and music guru Kostis Kourelis tipped me off to it at the very moment when I was looking for a way to distract myself from more pressing research and grading concerns.

The book is a collection of some of his important articles that situated Medieval archaeology amidst recent theoretical developments in the field of archaeology more broadly.  Like many of these kinds of works, Moreland did not mean the book to be an encyclopedic treatment of all possible theoretical approaches, but instead a practical guide to some of the concerns that have influenced his own work.

The book lacks a single unifying thread, but does return to one idea frequently enough to make it stand out as an important conceptual foundation for many of the author’s arguments.  Moreland contrasted perspective that conceptualized the Early Middle Ages as the same or as different (anOther in some places in his text) to our world today.  While this might seem like a fairly simple conceptual problem to resolve (after all, all societies share elements with our society today and at the same time show marked differences), Moreland suggests that the struggle to deal with the sameness or difference in how we read the archaeological and textual evidence from the Early Medieval has both shaped the kinds of questions that we ask, but also the models that we have used to understand these societies.

Rather than review the book, I’ll offer some fragmentary observations on some of the major themes that Moreland addresses and return, when possible, to how these themes intersect with his idea of same/other

1. The Economy.  Moreland’s most interesting contributions appear in his discussion of the economy. Here he is able to isolate arguments rooted in idea that artifacts were once commodities and juxtapose them to scholars who have viewed Medieval artifacts as gifts and evidence for the gift economy.  The view of artifacts as commodities assumes on some basic level that the ancient economy was the same as ours; views of the Medieval economy rooted in gift exchange practices (following the work of M. Mauss) tends to understand the Medieval economy as functioning with fundamentally different assumptions to our own.

While it is clear that Moreland favors an approach that takes into account the potential for a kind of gift economy, he makes the important observation that the gift economy might account for practices of exchange, but does not necessary inform how we understand production in the Middle Ages. It is possible for us, of course, to imagine production practices that undermine the value of goods as commodities (for example, monastic production regimens that separate the value of work from product… or, for example, my blog), but scholars have not necessarily explored the place or even existence of this way of viewing and organizing production.

I’ll offer very small observation here from my recent trip to Italy.  While in Aquileia and Grado on the Adriatic coast, I was able to check out first hand mosaic inscriptions on the floors of churches which noted the precise size of the mosaic panel given by an individual donor.  These inscriptions depended on a clear understanding of the cost of production by the audience as well as the economic position of the donor as panels that commemorate large gifts (sometimes over 100 square Roman feet) sat next to more modest gifts.  In the most simple way, these mosaic donations were gifts and represented parts of the Christian spiritual economy; on the other hand, they drew their meaning and significance, in part, from the audience’s understanding of the realities of the household economy and production.

2. Religion. Much of Moreland’s creative study of the Medieval economy – both in Northern Europe and in Italy – develops from his interest in religion in the archaeological record. Again, the notion of same and other emerge as central to how scholars have conceptualized the sacred landscapes. A tendency to isolate religious institutions from the mainstream of economic and social life belies the influence of modern ideas of the sacred. Moreland recommends that we not only attempt to understand religion as an important economic and social engine in the Early Middle Ages, but also as central to the biography of objects that constitute our evidentiary base. For example, Moreland suggests that churches and church land played a key role in the shift in settlement patterns in the Italian countryside of the 6th-8th century A.D. (p. 116-158).  I really liked his efforts to understand the large scale economic impact of churches across the Italian countryside and it will almost certainly inform my own recent speculations on the place of churches in the transformations of Greek landscape at around the same time. Elsewhere he shows how the history of objects like the numerous 8th century “Saxon” crosses set up across England can only be understood in the context of the English Reformation when so many of them were destroyed (p. 255-275).

3. Ethnicity. The emphasis on connections between religion, the settlement, and the economy is refreshing in a book on the Early Medieval West.  Chapters on ethnicity are not. While I understand why any archaeologist of the Medieval West (or the Medieval East, for that matter) has to delve into the issues of ethnicity and identity, I find that this debate has become fairly stagnant in recent years. Most scholars, it would seem to me, understand ethnicity as something that was performed, not intrinsic in an individual’s cultural DNA. Moreland makes these points well with good evidence. The real issue remains, of course, whether people in the ancient and Medieval worlds viewed their ethnicity in such an ironic way.  (My jaundiced view of discussions of ethnicity is undoubtedly the product of recent debates in my community…). Its a useful first step to recognize identity and ethnicity as performed, but this does not render ethnicity as any less an authentic force in pre-modern social relations.  Again, the notions of same and other are vital here.  In our irony-filled modern world, performance can too easily become a watchword for displays of social power laid bare by the critical eye of the subversive scholar.  The functioning of performative actions in pre-modern times, however, lack this etic count-point to frame their authenticity and legitimize their authority.  So, how did it work?

4. Continuity or Change. The elephant in any room where scholars come to discuss the Early Medieval and Late Ancient world. Moreland points out that these issues develop from long-standing periodization practices that exert a massive and relentless influence on the types of questions that we ask of our material. As Moreland points out, the emergence of the discipline of Late Antiquity, despite its name, has helped to challenge our need to reflect on continuity and change in the past.  At the same time, the need to identify the origins of our own society has pressed us to reflect on the historical limits of sameness and otherness.

Moreland’s book is a pretty nice point of departure for a consideration of theory and archaeology in the Early Middle Ages.  While many of the articles are a bit dated, his massive updating of the notes on the articles allows them both to remain important historical artifacts and contribute to more recent iterations of the same debates.