Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch

Last month, my colleagues and I wrote a short paper for a Journal of Contemporary Archaeology forum on the archaeologies of forced and undocumented migration. Our paper focused on our work on the North Dakota Man Camp Project.

Here’s the abstract

This article summarizes the recent work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project to understand the largely undocumented migrants arriving in the Bakken Oil Patch for work. It argues that efforts to document short-term labor in the Bakken exposes particular challenges facing the archaeology of the modern world ranging from the ephemerality of short-term settlements to the hyper-abundance of modern objects. The use of photography, video, interviews, and descriptions produced an abundant archive of archaeological ephemeral that in some ways parallels the modern character of temporary workforce housing.  The final section of the article offers some perspectives on how work in the Bakken oil patch can inform policy, our understanding of material culture in the modern world, and the role of the discipline in forming a shared narrative.


And here’s the paper:

Thinking about Teaching by Proposing an Untextbook

I’m finally back at home after a long summer of fieldwork and getting re-settled into a work routine. I’m particular interested in sorting out my History 101: Western Civilization I course which I teach in UND’s fancy Scale-Up classroom. I’ve blogged extensively about it here.

As part of my effort to continue to refine this class, I’ve decided to write a textbook proposal in an effort to sort out my ideas in a more formal and structured way. 

Here’s the first part of that proposal and look for more of it over the coming weeks:

Since the 19th century, history has embraced the seminar as the primary approach for teaching students a systematic approach to the past. Grounded in the scrutiny of primary source documents and access to specialized libraries in secondary sources, aspiring and professional historians developed honed their craft by forging analysis from historical evidence and presenting it to their peers. Over the course of the 20th century, the changing needs of higher education and the role of history in the undergraduate curriculum shifted the focus from the seminar to the lecture as the primary space for demonstrating and developing the historians craft. The lecture allowed for economies of scale and reinforced the position of the historian as a professional practitioner with a unique – and sometimes obscure – set of skills largely out of reach to an undergraduate audience who may only take one or two history courses over their academic career. At the same time, the goals of history instruction – particularly at the introductory level – shifted from methods to content. This is not entirely the result of the growing popularity of the lecture course, but is more or less contemporary.

In the past decade, faculty from across the 21st-century university have started to explore new approaches to teaching introductory level courses. Hybridizing the economies of scale achieved through the lecture with the traditional practices of the seminar and the laboratory has led to the emergence of the “flipped classroom.” The ubiquity of information and digital tools on campus has provided a way for large groups of students to share information both within and outside of the classroom. For historians, the web offers access to a significant number of primary and second sources ranging from vast repositories of open access sources such as the Ancient History Sourcebook and the Library of Congress to the massive compilation of basic historical data in Wikipedia. Moreover, digital tools also allow for new forms of collaboration both between students and between instructors and groups which allow us to simulate some aspects of the seminar experience at a large scale. While the abundance of good and bad historical material on the web requires vigilance on the part of instructors, the vast quantity of material serves as a suitable foundation for introductory level course work. Even Wikipedia, which has been received with significant ambivalence by many university faculty, contains a massive quantity of geographic, chronological, and visual information useful for the college classroom.

Access to information on the web complements changing classroom technologies which support collaborative, problem-based learning that is often at the core of the flipped classroom. For example, the 21st-century has seen a growing number of active-learning or “Scale-Up” classrooms that provide a physical space for groups of students to collaborate, to access digital content, and to work under the supervision of faculty. Online learning management systems likewise offer digital spaces for collaborative learning ranging from wiki-based collaborative writing environments to threaded discussions, live chat applications, and even collaborative reading tools. It is now possible to develop a courses that leverage these old and new digital assets in a critical and dynamic ways to teach the basic skills of historical interpretation and analysis even to the largest classrooms. In the 21st-century flipped classrooms, digital technologies allow faculty members to engage individual students, groups, and the entire class at varying scales suitable to various learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, textbooks have remains conspicuously behind the curve in offering support for these new approaches to university learning. In the discipline of history, textbooks continue to privilege narrative and “facts” at the expense of skill-based, problem-based, or method-driven approaches to the past even as access to basic historical information and sources has exploded across the web. The formal structures of traditional history textbooks limit the opportunities for students or faculty to adapt the content and approaches to particular classroom environments. Finally, the expense of textbooks led many critics to see them as part of growing cost of higher education. The well-known limits to existing textbooks has given rise to the calls for open educational resources that are both less expensive and more adaptable to the changing needs of the 21st-century classroom. 

This proposal offers an alternative to standard textbooks that is adapted to use in the changing classrooms of the 21st-century university. Keeping with the tradition of the “flipped classroom,” this book will be an untextbook which offers a flexible guide to students and faculty suitable for introductory-level, active-learning classes in both standard classrooms or online. 

The book will emphasize basic skills associated with historical research and knowledge with the overarching learning goal being the ability to produce formal arguments grounded in historical evidence. On the way to this goal, students will address basic challenges facing all scholars of the past that include the ability to read sources critically, to marshal diverse types of historical information, to understand chronological and geographical contexts, and to recognize and critically appraise disputes between historians both in the past and the present. 

The untextbook will be built around a series of 15 modules. Five of the modules address basic challenges common to most historical research: chronology, geography, sources, historical narratives, and historiography. The ten remaining modules will draw upon these first five modules to offer approaches to particular historical periods and problems. As my expertise is in pre-modern history, this book (unbook?) will focus on the premodern European history.

The goal of this untextbook is to produce a template for students to write a textbook of their own.

Some Bits and Bobs from my Summer of Fieldwork

Survey archaeology offers plenty of good opportunities to  walk around thinking about stuff, but the hectic pace of the survey season makes it hard to articulate anything in a complex way. Instead, I have lots of fragments of ideas that have floated through my mind over the last 7 weeks on the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Here are a few random thoughts.

1. Aqueducts. One of the known features in our survey area is a Roman period aqueduct. This isn’t a new discovery, but it has been cool to examine the route of the aqueduct through our survey area in some detail. While the construction of the aqueduct is interesting in and of itself, what’s more fun to think about is how this Roman period structure shaped the ancient landscape of the Western Argolid. The aqueduct brought water from springs to the northwest of our survey area down the Inachos valley to Argos itself.

The aqueduct entered our survey area about half way down the Inachos valley and it runs more or less parallel with the river. As a result settlements settlements down stream from where the aqueduct entered the river valley could have tapped the aqueduct for water (whether they did or not is an open question), whereas settlements further up the Ianochus valley, before the joining of the aqueduct would not. 

The visual impact of the aqueduct through the landscape would have connected communities along the lower reach of the Inachos more visibly with Argos than those further up the valley. This would not have been a simple matter of proximity, as we might expect communities along the aqueduct’s route outside (our survey area and) the Inachos valley would have also recognized this feature as a clear connection between their community and the Argos as a major regional center in antiquity.

Water was not the only thing moving along the aqueduct, of course. It would have likely required regular maintenance, for example, which would have been probably coordinated at Argos. Moreover, the aqueduct would have probably required a certain amount of policing as well to prevent water from being siphoned off as it wended its way through the valleys and passes to the city. The aqueduct stood as both a visual and practical link of the countryside to the city in the Roman period.   

2. Data, Writing, and Work. As I wandered the countryside looking at the ground with the Western Argolid Regional Project, many of my colleagues were working hard on revising their contributions to a book that my press is publishing based on the Mobilizing the Past conference held in 2015. These papers got me thinking, once again, about how we do archaeological work and produce archaeological knowledge.

It was pretty easy for me to think about our work this summer as a kind of data collecting. We focused on documenting the landscape and gathering data on the basis of a more or less rigorous method (actually quite rigorous, but we also knew when to adjust it to different circumstances). At some point toward the end of the season we began to talk about the various publications that we envisioned from this project, and used that to help us prioritize our field work. 

It got me thinking about whether archaeological projects struggle to publish, in part, because we think so much of field work as “data collection” rather than part of the writing process. In fact, it’s really difficult to find time to write arguments and narratives during the field season which is driven more by the need to do things best accomplished when we are “in the field” than thinking about what we’re going to do when we leave the field. I wonder how much our priorities get blurred by being in the field. In other words, I wonder how much our being in a place make it hard for us to think about the ultimate outcome of our work. Is the simple act of being in the field and immersed in the moment and the place inimical to our ability to think about our work as words on the page?

3. The Bakken. I’ve started to put together a little website for my little book that is slated to come out his fall in the NDSU Press Heritage Guide Series. I haven’t added much content, but I’m thinking of using the site as a place to write marginalia on my book, update sections, and even develop more thoroughly arguments and observations that I’ve had a chance to think about more carefully since I’ve submitted the final manuscript. 

My publisher is pretty adamant that I not put too much of my work online, but hopefully I can find ways to talk around the book without giving too much away. I have this idea that I can develop the website to build out in a more expansive and academic way from my initial body of observations. We’ll see.

4. Puppies. For years I’ve rolled my eyes at students bringing ratty, dirty street animals home from Greece, but somehow this year, I’ve found myself attached to a puppy who left – probably to die or be saved – outside our apartments this year. A few trips to the vet, some vaccinations, paperwork, and about eight phone calls to my airline, and he’s going to be on his way to a new home on the northern plains. He’s already pretty attached to his neon-green bag and to me (I think). Hopefully the flights are smooth and he’s patient with our travel.

His name is Argie, which is short for Argos, and he already wants to do what he’s told to do and party like it’s 2016.  

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Three Years of WARP

As the last field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) winds down this week, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned working with a remarkable group of graduate students and friends. While it’s impossible to compare archaeological projects, I can honestly say that this one provided me with an advance course on archaeological work. I was largely free from thinking about logistics, budgets, or even meals, and could think about 90% of my time about archaeology.

I got to see some remarkable sites, think expansively about our 30 sq km survey area, take in some amazing views, and play with an impressive dataset. We have years of work ahead of us to understand our field work. 

At the same time, I think I’ve learned some things about archaeological projects over the past three years. Most of these observations are personal (and not entirely professional), and speak to my interest in the personal mechanics and procedures at the core of archaeological work more than formal methods.  


1. People Power. On both of my major archaeological field projects, we had great team leaders and trench supervisors. Over the course of three or four field seasons, these graduate students became increasingly autonomous in the field. During the most recent season on WARP, our team leaders more or less ran the day-to-day field program. The directors would provide big picture ideas of how to approach various goals and the team leaders would then organize the teams and take them to various areas and offer quick reports at the end of the field day. They’ve increasingly taken ownership of the data that they collect and their approach to our larger field program and with any luck this ownership will extend through the analysis, writing, and publication process.

The other thing I learned on WARP is that nothing makes up for people power. On WARP we had 6 field teams with 5 teams in the field at once and this allowed us to churn out about .3 sq km per day. No improvements in efficiency – using technology or other Taylorist methods – makes up for simply using more people in the field. More people allows us to do more work. Archaeological work is still a matter of person power and the more survey teams in the field, the more gets done.

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2. Communication.  One thing that I know I need to improve is my ability to communicate consistently and clearly with our team leaders, my colleagues, and our students. On the one hand, we tried hard to communicate the big picture to our students and team leaders. We did a series of lectures at the start of the season and interaction in the field. The problem, as always, is that the big picture is always changing and as parts of the landscape start to “make sense,” we end up reformulating hypotheses and shifting our priorities appropriately. Communicating this on the fly is a challenge and even more challenging to communicate across six field teams and their field walkers.

It was also challenging to keep lines of communication open between the folks working in the apotheke and in the field. While this year, they managed (remarkably) to more or less keep pace with the field teams so we had a pretty decent idea what we were finding and where. But there was always a bit of lag between weekly plans and daily discoveries so that teams often found themselves just a bit out of sync.

Finally, there is a balance between overwhelming team leaders with daily meetings (and impinging on their already limited free time) and having meaningful conversations on a regular basis as to the plans and logistics of a project. At the same time, we had to balance conflicting levels of commitment to the project, different research interests, and daily personnel changes.

3. Structuring my Days. I am a creature of routine and my routine helps me to anticipate how long things will take and how much energy things will require. In other words, structure dictates my productivity in a very straight forward way. I got up around 5 am to do email and blog, and then fieldwork runs from 6:30 AM to around 12:30 or 1 pm. After lunch and a short nap, I spend some time on data management, my notes, and planning the next field day. 

Structuring my day became all the more important because for the first time in my archaeological career, however, I had to divide my attention between long-term academic (writing, publishing, thinking) projects and my daily fieldwork regimen. Fortunately, my colleagues here on WARP made it easy for me to structure my afternoons out of the sun so I could focus on my myriad little projects and responsibilities that do not vanish when I get into the field. My daily schedule is the key.

4. Pacing and Patience. I’m impatient. I want all the data, all the knowledge, all the field work, and all the features, sherds, and places at once. Of course, archaeology doesn’t work like that. Archaeologists must be patient, stay focused on a method, and record diligently, and for the most part I do that. But it takes a massive effort on my part to reinforce our methods in the field, to stick to a plan, and to communicate this plan effectively to our students and team leaders. Archaeology takes time.

Pacing then becomes a really important part of field work, because it ensures that our patience can keep up with our work. We’ve been fortunate the last two seasons to have a running start. We tend to work long days in the first two or three weeks of the season and then let our foot off the gas in the last two weeks or so. For example, we leave the field a bit earlier and I tend to take a day off per week to recover and process data. This means that as the project develops and as we have more data from the field, we have more time to process, organized, and analyze the data coming out of the field. 

This isn’t to say that we’re not exhausted at the end of the season, but that our pace has ensured that our patience was exhausted at the same point the we accomplished our research plan for the field season. 

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5. The Archaeological Body. I’ve blogged a bit about how archaeological work – especially intensive pedestrian survey – punishes the body. Archaeology does more than simply exhaust the body, but the entire process of archaeological work exerts a tremendous force upon our person. Our schedules become dictated by the demands of archaeological work on our bodies. Physical fatigue influences our patience, frustration levels, attention to detail, and our ability to concentrate, and this, in turn, shapes how we document the landscape.

In a more productive way, our body in the landscape becomes a way of understand scale and movement through space. Gentle slopes on maps become steep climbs in the field. Densely vegetated hill slopes give way to easy paths. Points on the map maybe closer than they appear or much further apart depending upon the ease of movement through the landscape.

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Archaeogaming and Public Archaeology

I’ve been pretty excited to follow Andrew Reinhard’s ongoing exploration of archaeogaming, which he defines broadly as the archaeology of and in and with video games. I stands firmly at the intersection of media archaeology and the archaeology of media (and probably the larger archaeology of knowledge project explore by Michel Foucault). It’s a provocative and expansive place to situation oneself as video games are becoming an important – perhaps the important – form of 21st century popular culture and speak to larger trends in the media (not just digital media) toward convergence, interactivity, and participatory culture (to draw upon ideas formulated by, among others, Henry Jenkins). In other words, archaeogaming is significant because we are not merely consuming culture, but – to some appearances, at least – we are co-producing it. Check out his new article, “Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeologists in Video Games,” with Kathryn Meyers Emery in Public Archaeology to get a sense for what he’s been up to.

Reinhard’s recent effort to conduct an intensive pedestrian (style) survey within the world of No Man’s Sky, a procedurally developed gaming universe. If I understand correctly, the survey itself is not designed to discover anything – after all the worlds of No Man’s Sky are procedurally developed and the procedures are already known to developers, coders, engineers, and creative folks who produced the game – but to engage the game through the lens of archaeology. In other words, Andrew seeks to demonstrate that archaeological methods are as valid a way to engage a procedural universe as, say, the methods of warfare, diplomacy, building, or competitiveness, that tend to shape our engagement with such open-ended computer universes. All games require us to suspend disbelief and co-create a world with the game developers by embracing certain conceptual frameworks imported to the game. A first person shooter game, for example, expects the player to view warfare and killing as a valid way to solve a problem and to “win” the game. Likewise an educational game – say the venerable Oregon Trail – expects the player to want to reach Oregon and not long to settle down to an early death in Montana or wherever. The expectations that a participant brings to the game playing experience co-creates the game play with the plot, narrative, graphics, and “rules” created by the game designers. When such rules are incompatible with players expectations, hilarity can ensue (see the popular Breaking Madden series), but much more frequently, game players become frustrated and fail to engage game play. Andrew hopes to introduce archaeology as a valid method for engaging and co-creating the experience of gaming. The No Man’s Sky survey project is the first step in that direction.

This is interesting for archaeologists because it follows a larger trend toward thinking about archaeology as a way to organize our engagement with the modern world. If archaeology is a lens through which to grasp “culture” (however broadly construed), then archaeogaming is nothing more than a particular focused way to excavate technological, social, and conceptual affordances prevalent among game developers and their audiences.

Players interact with games through various kinds of controllers, for example, that offers only a limited range of haptic, visual, and aural feedback. The sound of a trowel against the soil, the thump and feel of a pick as it moves through strata, and the subtle variations in texture and color dictate stratigraphic changes and these things are not yet simulated by video games.

At the same time, there are certain kinds of social expectations. Game play is typically fast paced and challenging escapism. Archaeology is tedious, detailed, routine stuff. The daily grind of field walking, excavating, ceramic analysis, or even data management that is the core of archaeological field work hardly lends itself to engaging game play. Moreover, archaeology is bound by so many rules ranging from methodological concerns to basic ethical concepts. Of course, one could argue that the hours of training to become an elite basketball or football player is boring and translates poorly to game play, but in a football or basketball games, the video game can simulate the excitement of playing the game itself. Likewise, first-person-shooter style war games rarely depict the years of training needed to become a weapons expert or trained at hand-to-hand combat. The heat of battle, however, provides a compelling and exciting trope for game play. Even crime provides opportunities for game playing excitement. Like war games, sports games, and even quest games, there is an obvious opponent, enemy, or goal that makes game play compelling. Archaeology, historically, lacks such compelling moments. Our goal is writing and, ultimately publication. Our opponent is time and the limits of our imagination. And in this way, archaeology is not unique. From my experiences, there have been few compelling games based around, say, literary criticism, archival research, or bench science. This isn’t to say that these kinds of games are impossible – obviously game designers increasingly recognize that open-ended, multiplayer games can be engaging and attract audiences of millions (for example, Minecraft) – but they do not neatly conform to certain expectations for how video games should work.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the most appealing mass market video games featuring archaeology fit into certain, rather predictable and sensational, models. For example, the openly transgressive Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider characters of both traditional and digital media represent a kind of anti-hero that appears throughout the cannon of world literature. These figures defy expectation and break the very systems established to reinforce the mundane, productive, predictable existence of archaeological work and our everyday lives. On this, albeit very basic, level, they aren’t archaeological at all any more than Allen Iverson was distinct to basketball, Dale Earnhardt was distinct to NASCAR, Robin Hood was distinct the Sherwood forest, or any number of anti-heroes represented in a meaningful way a particular time and place. The thing that makes Indiana Jones or Laura Croft compelling is their rollicking, renegade, and largely amoral way of living in the world. The routine, mundane work that constitutes the bulk of archaeology is the opposite of what makes these anti-heroes compelling, and rarely does it culminate in some grand conflict or moment of euphoria, but instead produces more routine work (writing, analyzing, interpretation, publishing). Daily life is rarely the stuff of legend or video games. 

Despite the rather banal character of archaeological research, the concept of archaeogaming remains intriguing, and it’s exciting to see Andrew’s deepening engagement with the idea. I think it blends nicely with the growing interest in the idea of archaeology of the contemporary world and every day life. If we can conduct archaeology by simply observing the world around us in a systematic way, then I think the archaeology of a video games is not only possible, but probably inevitable.

The Last Days in the Field in Western Argolid

Earlier in the week, I posted on these final days with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) and the thought that these might the final field days of my career as a survey archaeologist working with big project teams. We had a couple days of especially rugged terrain, and some remarkable finds. Alyssa Friedman, one of our exceptional group of team leaders, took some fun photos of me in the field. 

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We took a great team of students up into a densely vegetated hill slope and did some rather extreme intensive survey.

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Of course, these two days of surveying reinforced my general idea that I’m too old for this kind of work. In fact, I needed a little rest in a tangle of thorny vines.

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It feels like this is a fitting final image:

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An Archaeology of Care at the Society for Historical Archaeology

Richard Rothaus and I have been bandied about the idea of an “archaeology of care” for a couple years now. Richard’s contribution to our 2014 Punk Archaeology volume probably prompted this discussion, and it developed more fully in a blog post, our podcast, and an article for the North Dakota Humanities Council’s On Second Thought magazine (read it here). 

The paper will appear in a panel titled: “The Archaeology of Care: Rethinking Priorities in Archaeological Engagement.” And our buddy Kostis Kourelis has submitted an abstract for a paper titled: “The Archaeology of Refugee Crises in Greece: Diachronic Cultural Landscapes.” Read his abstract here.

An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)
Richard Rothaus, William Caraher, Bret Weber

The University of North Dakota Man Camp project has used archaeology to engage seriously the issues of workforce housing and industrial landscapes in the Bakken. Our work proceeds with a focus not on the ebullience (or catastrophe) of the Bakken, but rather on the material culture of housing in a dynamic extractive landscape. We do not advocate, nor do we analyze or make policy recommendations. Our work in the field epitomizes, however, an archaeology of care for the communities in which we work. Our conversations in the field, attention to detail, and willingness to take seriously the everyday life of individuals and communities creates a connection between the wider world (which we represent, oddly enough) and their very personal experience. Our recognition of, and interest in, the agency of individuals buffered by incomprehensibly large forces has value for the academic and non-academic communities.

A Career in Landscapes

We have about one more week of field work on the Western Argolid Regional Project. The project has been at full strength for the last three and a half weeks and the field teams have been remarkably efficient, averaging about .3 sq km per day.

I’m tired. My body aches, and fieldwork has increasingly become an exercise in pacing, energy management, and hydration as teams wrap up surveying difficult units or work on special documentation projects across our survey area.

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It dawned on me that this could be my final field season on a major project in my career. I’m in my mid-40s and by the time this project is published and my other projects are done, I’ll be pushing 50.

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Whatever type of fieldwork I do as a 50 year old won’t be the same – or probably even similar to what I’m doing now. Last week, I went on one more hike just to check if a web of goat tracks could have been a route between two areas of our survey zone.

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It was obviously a way, but clearly not a route (much less a path or road). These long walks were my archaeological calling card for years, particularly in the Eastern Corinthia, but after this week’s hike, I’m pretty sure my boots will be reserved for the more mundane and low impact tasks like keeping my socks clean.

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The biggest thing I’ll miss (other than, you know, finding stuff and the bizarre conversations one has while stomping through dense maquis in the Greek countryside) are the unexpected vistas that appear as one rounds craggy hills or looks back on ones path.

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They seem to scale endlessly across ever shifting foregrounds and backgrounds. Hills become ridges, ridges become plateaus, plateaus become fields. The landscape goes from olive trees and plough marks to fields and the countryside. Paths so obvious from maps or photographs disappear into vegetation.

I’m sad that I’ll likely never again hike around with the same sense purpose as I did last week and on-and-off over the previous 20 years.

Houses and Landscapes in the Western Argolid

This week we had a chance to check out some nice early-20th-century seasonal houses in the Western Argolid. 

I got a little bit of artificial tilt-shiftiness in the image probably because of the haziness of the ridges in the background and my playing a bit with aperture settings.  



A nice example of a heavy layer of mud-mortar used along the top of the wall.


And a really nice example of the layering of tiles, mud, and reeds to form a water tight seal for the roof:


A Balkan-style long house where half of the house is set aside for animals (and in this case milking and cheese making) and other half for living space. 





A well-built, mud-brick dividing wall between the living quarters and the area for animals: 


And some mappers, team leaders, and field walkers in the landscape: