Monthly Archives: October 2012

Archaeological Disturbances in Western North Dakota

I came across this October 29, 2012 article, “Land eyed for oil well may be on burial site,” through a colleague and friend, Richard Rothaus.  With the Bakken oil boom going full tilt, this article concerns oil drilling development near and around the Killdeer Mountains in Dunn County, western North Dakota. The part within the article that is incredible is from Lynn Helms, the director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division. Mr. Helms said, as paraphrased by the Forum, that “he had no doubts the proposed drilling area has no artifacts.” Once again, this was a paraphrase, but it caused in me the following thoughts: I don’t know whether Mr. Helms physically visited the lithic scatter and possible burial, nor do I know if an archaeologist explained it to him. In the event that he did not physically visit the site, there are quite a few of us that would be happy to explain to him the processes, and why they are necessary. But his lack of doubt is  disturbing. This is why.

The very nature of science and our legal system necessitates constructive and deconstructive doubt. Without this doubt, a case cannot be made one way or another. And without this kind of doubt, and without verifying one’s assertions, a statement is simply a statement sans substance (this is often captured in the saying, “You have no case here.”) Further inquiry into Killdeer is indeed necessary. Numerous archaeologists are concerned with these high profile sites, as they should be, and we are quite interested in showing Mr. Helms why and how. Education is powerful that way. That’s all. Back to it on this end.

Brewing in Bismarck: Updates from Laughing Sun Brewery

On the afternoon of October 25, 2012, I dropped in to the construction site that is Laughing Sun Brewery in downtown Bismarck, North Dakota. Laughing Sun Brewery is co-owned by two friends, Todd Sattler and Mike Frohlich (certainly pillars of northern Great Plains culture and society). When Sattler isn’t practicing law and when Frohlich isn’t practicing the digital humanities, they are thinking incessantly about how to make better beer and beer making better, and how to bring a public tavern to fruition. The first video is Todd expanding on the brewing vats from 10/25/2012. That video is here:

I continued pressing Todd for more information (the people want beer! and they want to know the processes of getting beer!) after he got down off the ladder, and he showed me some rough hewn slabs of cottonwood recently milled and donated by the Suchy family. Last year the Missouri River bottoms flooded (every where between Fort Peck, Montana and St. Louis, Missouri), and this in turn caused massive erosion and property loss, in addition to felling large cottonwood trees that typically grow in the river bottoms of the northern and central Great Plains. Todd and Mike are considering how to make this lumber work for table tops, and this will be a bit tricky. Todd expands on the cottonwood logs here:

The trick with building with cottonwood is that it is soft and fibrous. This means that when these boards

Rough milled cottonwood boards donated by the Suchy family to Laughing Sun Brewery in downtown Bismarck, North Dakota.

dry, they will certainly bend. Todd said he is looking for ways to deal with controlling some of the bending, and they may just end up fixing, latching and securing the large slabs down to a horizontal surface while they dry and — as the punk-DIY ethos goes — see what happens. There may be a way to slice up the rough hewn boards after they dry, and re-fix them with epoxy into shapes that are more conducive to holding level large mugs of tasty beer.


Changes in the Flat-Scape: Cedar Shelves and Plants in the Winter

One of the opening quotes in William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983 & 2003) is from George Perkins MarshMan and Nature (1864), and it says,

…As we have seen, man has reacted upon organized and inorganic nature, and thereby modified, if not determined, the material structure of his earthly home.

Thank you Mr. Marsh.

Earlier this evening I thought about Cronon’s book when I decided to organize and

A new cedar shelf to elevate plants and allow them to capture the low-hanging sunlight during a northern Great Plains winter.

determine the organic and material structure of my earthly flat.  From Home Depot I picked up a couple cedar 2″x6″ and 5/4″x6″ pieces of lumber, and set to building some free-standing shelves to help plants capture the sun in the vertical, south-facing windows. This is preparation, I figure, for the eventual onslaught of a northern Great Plains winter. The thing with enjoying winters when one is not too far south of the Yukon is to simply keep busy, and keep moving.

Since it was drizzling rain outside on this cool October evening, and since water is an excellent conduit for electricity, I decided to bring the back patio wood shop into the kitchen. While Jack and Meg White belted out Seven Nation Army on the iPod and logic desktop speakers, I imagined what my very polite apartment neighbors may have thought every time the saw screeched to life at around 7:15PM — I had a back up plan, though, ready to invite them in for a cola or beer to show off my new cedar shelf idea should they come knocking. I could even offer to build them one if necessary: it’s important to be neighborly, and important for many reasons.

This indoor DIY wood shop also doubles as a kitchen.

Without making this too tedious of a blog entry, I simply cut the cedar into proper lengths to fit the bathroom window. I secured the legs to the walls with those little plastic anchors and simple screws, and capped the legs with horizontal 2x6s. It now smells like a cedar-lined sauna in there with hints of earthiness from the terra-cotta potters. The basil plants will be able to capture the sun all winter long. The tentative plan is to get rosemary in there as well.

McGovern Archaeology

Today (10/21/2012), Sunday, George McGovern died in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at 90 years of age. He had been hospitalized for a time, slipping into a coma within the last couple days. During that time I started thinking about McGovern at the local level, at least in South and North Dakota. McGovern hailed from the small town farming

George McGovern buttons from a private collection. Photo taken on October 21, 2012.

community of Avon in southeastern South Dakota. He joined up with the Airforce at 19, and flew B-24 bomber missions against Nazi Europe. After the war McGovern returned to South Dakota, and with his GI Bill he worked toward a graduate degree in history and lectured at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. He eventually got into politics, and the state of South Dakota elected him for 3 terms to the United States Senate. In thinking about all of this, it seemed like a good idea to upload some George McGovern archaeology, at least a photo of his presidential buttons from his 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon. McGovern lost. Big time. He carried no more than one state in the election — apparently it’s a really good idea to find out a lot about your vice presidential running mate before you ask them to be your vice presidential running mate. But that was how things played out external to the Democratic Party. Internally, McGovern ushered in numerous progressive reforms. Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, has pointed out that McGovern helped revolutionize the internal workings of the Democratic Party, driving out the old guard and absorbing the times that were a changing — thank you Bob. The buttons reflect those changing times and reforms. The buttons have a variety of iconography, including a rainbow, the sign for women with parallel horizontal lines

The McGovern Library at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. McGovern lectured history at this campus.

that signifies equality, the dove (certainly a sign of peace and love), and the geopolitical outline of North Dakota that emphasizes the state’s Peace Garden slogan. These photos came from the private collection of Molly McLain. No doubt there are more of these buttons tucked away in the attics, storage lockers and basements of a variety of homes across the country.

Another photo is of the McGovern Library at Dakota Wesleyan University. If I remember correctly, the building (not the McGovern Library) where McGovern lectured history at DWU still stands. To a large degree these buildings help connect our discombobulated present with the past, providing a kind of stability that is both real and imagined. McGovern lectured history in Mitchell, and he was from Avon, South Dakota. If looking at McGovern, it seems that you can do anything in this country if you put your heart and mind to it. It just so happened that McGovern also had a genuine soul (not every politician or individual has this). Here’s to George McGovern, and his well played life. …well played indeed.

A Google Earth image of Avon, South Dakota, the home town of George McGovern.

Kite Photography in Western North Dakota

On the weekend of October 6-7, 2012, we (meaning archaeologist Richard Rothaus, artist Molly McLain, and myself) piled into the Trefoil field vehicle and cruised out to western North Dakota for a session of low altitude, aerial photography (“low altitude, aerial photography” is the phrase you use in fancy proposals; in lay terms it is kite photography, a do-it-yourself technique historians and archaeologists grapple with from time to time, in Omanwestern North Dakota and the eastern Mediterranean). A fortune cookie has read that you cannot control the wind, but you can adjust the sails. This is true, and when it comes to time-sensitive kite photography on super still days on the northern Great Plains, you can also expend vocal hot air, curse the gods, embrace the absurdity of said still day, and record your comrade at his finest. So while at Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site on Saturday evening (with less than 4MPH of wind), sometimes you can catch Rothaus opining on the situation:

To be sure that you caught the audio, Rothaus made an initial objective statement that gave way to the rhetorical question, and then the camera panned over to the impotent aesthetics of a pile of kite on a gravel road. BULLY!

Rothaus from the above video:

I need four miles an hour worth of wind. How can there not be four miles an hour worth of wind in North Dakota?

That is an excellent question, Richard. The gods eventually smiled on us, though, at least for a couple moments, and the wind took the kite in the air allowing the digital camera to capture the evening panoramic of the Elkhorn Ranch:

Elkhorn Ranch photo by Richard Rothaus/Trefoil Cultural, October 2012.

There are green evergreens (which is why they call them ever-green) to the right and leafless deciduous trees to the left, the Little Missouri River looking more like a creek as it should in autumn.

Another one of the problems of kite photography is figuring out what minor or major adjustments the camera needs to capture enough horizon to give the viewer a sense of direction. If you want to make an adjustment, you have to repeatedly send the kite up and down with each camera tweak (bring snacks and a cooler).

Digital cameras attached to low flying kites will not capture everything, and this is why cross-disciplinary teams are a great idea for any type of field research, foreign or domestic. For example, approximately 10 steps to the south of the Elkhorn Ranch visitor signatory signage, an oil derrick can be viewed to the east-southeast across the river. While Rothaus is putting together the kite photography apparatus, you can also capture photos of a book Bill Sewall wrote about his time at the Elkhorn. Bill and his comrade Wilmot Dow did the majority of the hard work out at

Bill Sewall returns to the Elkhorn Ranch, 2012.

the Elkhorn. In thinking about this, I suppose a cynic might say that Theodore brought Bill and Wilmot on board so he could have the time to write about how hard he was working in western North Dakota — if the technology was available, Roosevelt probably would have blogged about kite photography while his comrades were doing the actual hard work of kite photography, too (one has to be a bit philosophical about this).

Anyhow, that evening we refortified with elk burgers and steaks in Medora, and the following day set out to capture some portions of badlands undisturbed yet by precious energy development. We were made aware of these portions of lands through stories in the Dickinson Press, and through one of the missions carried out by the Badlands Conservation Alliance. So on a Sunday we drove down to the area. The wind was really blowing. It was blowing so much that I once again decided not to do any hard work, but do the all important work of capturing the hard work. Notice similarities between Richard Rothaus reeling in this kite and someone reeling in a marlin while deep-water fishing:

It almost smacks of a passage from Fear and Loathing, where kites were swooping down on Richard like huge manta rays coming from all directions out of the sky. Another peril of low altitude, aerial photography is in the photo below. You’ll eventually come across landscape shots like this. If everyone remains silent enough in the field truck, though, you can all pretend like you didn’t just see it. That you just didn’t see this here. Everyone just has to look straight ahead and talk about the weather or something. Don’t draw attention to the following…

Oil Pumps and National Grasslands signage in western North Dakota, October 2012.


Punk Archaeology Inspiration

Studying and thinking deep about material culture is an interesting business. It is interesting because there is both the objective object, or the thing in front of you, and then there are the ideas that we as flesh-and-blood human beings attach to that object. And the word “attach” does not mean to suggest that an idea is somehow unreal, or fake. Ideas, after all, come

A piece by Michael Strand.

from the mind, and since the mind is real, so is the abstraction that is the idea. One doesn’t have to act on the idea, but nonetheless, the idea remains real.

In the last month and a half, North Dakota State University’s Michael Strand has had at least one conversation with me about this, well, idea. One evening he explained how he worked on creating an artisan bowl for food (and Michael often asks that his artwork be physically used for family style meals, especially if they are bowls and cups, as his Ted Talk video expands on below), and he used this serving bowl at a dinner with an ethnic Kurdish family in Washington state. He is poised to take this bowl to another Kurdish dinner, this one in northern Iraq. I believe that dinner is pending, but no doubt the bowl and the individuals around it (from Washington state to northern Iraq) will serve to connect ethnicity and individuals. In the business, we often call this community.

In a separate but similar vein, on September 14, 2012, Michael expanded on some of his art at a collaborative exhibit with his colleague Amy Smith. He encouraged me to photograph and share this art, and then I asked if I could put a digital camera in his face while I questioned and he provided answers to his latest works. He said it was no trouble at all. So I will do that here:

And then contrast it with his TedX Fargo Talk that colleague Angela Smith forwarded to me here…

…Michael was and is speaking in large part to how objects, or material culture, carries with them archaeological and historical — aka, humanized — provenance, at least if we, as humans, stop to consider it. This material culture can be both 2-dimensional in form (or what historians often refer to as “primary sources”) or it can be 3-dimensional (what everyone often calls “stuff”). The notion that objects carry ideas with them can loosely be referred to as Romanticism (which is a word with a LOT of baggage, none of which I will go into here), but it can also be referred to as an archaeological school of thought known as post-processualism. In another archaeological way this is what Ian Hodder asked readers to consider in an article I am furiously searching for throughout my shelves… ah, here it is. In his 1991 piece, “Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role” in American Antiquity (Vol. 56, No. 1, page 9) Hodder said,

…new theories and the new ways of writing them often serve to make archaeological texts more obscure and difficult for anyone but the highly trained theorist to decipher. How can alternative groups have access to a past that is locked up both intellectually and institutionally? Subordinate groups who wish to be involved in archaeological interpretation need to be provided with the means and mechanisms for interacting with the archaeological past in different ways. This is not a matter of popularizing the past but of transforming the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures.

The more I think about all of this, the interplay of ideas with material objects, the more necessary and impending it is to have a Punk Archaeology conference on the evening of February 2, 2013, in downtown Fargo, North Dakota (insert “Grow Buzz of Punk Archaeology Conference” here)…

Pyramids on the Northern Great Plains

In the last day or so a story about the proposed construction of a pyramid (bigger than the Luxor, Las Vegas) in Williston, North Dakota by a Georgia firm (Camp and Associates) has gained increased attention (The Fargo Forum reports on it here). I hope everything works out a-okay on this project, and it appears local city planners and officials in Williston are generating questions for Camp and Associates. It’s important to be plugged in.

The proposed commercial pyramid for Williston, North Dakota.

The proposed pyramid in Williston got me thinking about another pyramid on the northern Great Plains, this built during some understandably paranoid Cold War times in world history. That pyramid, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex just north of Nekoma, North Dakota (or not too far south of Langdon, ND), stands as an artifact of the great struggle between the USSR and the US, or as we used to more broadly say, The West.

In Nekoma, I remember a local tavern that with the name, “The Pain Reliever,” or the equivalent, and it reflects a social-psyche from a period in world history when one had to learn how to not only live with but also love the bomb — embracing what one cannot control, or the absurd, is crucial to that.

Below are a couple photos of the safeguard complex from early spring 2012. Today wind turbines surround the SRM Safeguard Complex. When walking around the SRM Safeguard Complex pyramid (at least when I did some years back for an archaeological investigation and inventory), a thought that ran through my brain was the juxtaposition of architecture: the potential for 20th century global nuclear holocaust symbolized by the SRM Safeguard Complex, this in contrast to the green and renewable energy wind turbines of the 21st century. Pyramids aren’t just for Ancient Aztec and Egyptian civilizations…

A 20th century archaeological relic from the Cold War with 21st century Green energy turbines at the right.

MRS signage to the SRM ICBM Cold War relic in North Dakota.

Pedestrian Polemic

I like to walk. Seriously. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time (often while walking). So this evening I typed “pedestrian” into the Oxford American Dictionary search engine, and it returned with the following noun: “a person walking along a road or in a developed area.” These thoughts in turn have induced a kind of cursory search around the flat for works of fiction or non-fiction that reflect The Walk. At least one Russian and one Greenwich Village author have gone on at length on what it feels like to be a pedestrian, this being Leo Tolstoy and Anatole Broyard. This is what was produced.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and with EuRussiAsia in disorder, Leo Tolstoy set down the pedestrian imagination of Pierre Buzehov, a captured aristocrat from a generation prior — W&P is Tolstoy’s ode to his Greatest Generation — who acted way more attentively and sensibly than the later House of Romanov could ever have imagined (perhaps Tolstoy is

A photo taken of Autumn 2012 colors in Fargo while walking.

suggesting that before a leader becomes a leader, they ought to actually endure some protracted struggle?… perhaps). After barely escaping a Napoleonic execution, the Russian Buzehov found himself in a bare-footed forced march and encampment, and this is how Tolstoy (through the Constance Garnett translation) laid out Pierre’s experience:

…Of all that he did himself afterwards call sufferings, though at the time he hardly felt them so, the chief was the state of his bare, blistered, sore feet. The horse-flesh was savoury and nourishing, the saltpetre flavour given it by the gunpowder they used instead of salt was positively agreeable; there was no great degree of cold, it was always warm in the daytime on the march, and at night there were the camp-fires, and the lice that devoured him helped to keep him warm. One thing was painful in the earlier days — that was his feet.

On the second day of the march, as he examined his blisters by the camp-fire, Pierre thought he could not possibly walk on them; but when they [the Russian prisoners] all got up, he set off limping, and later on, when he got warm, he walked without pain, though his feet looked even more terrible that evening. But he did not look at them, and thought of something else.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Constance Garnett translation, (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), page 1,207.

And this is all true. When the feet are sore in the morning from the previous day’s overland trek, all that is required is to get up and out of bed, jam the feet into the boots, and get them up and moving. This will limber them up for sure.

Pedestrian archaeology. Redwing Boot collection that extends back to 2005 to present (October 2012).

For at least 150,000-to-200,000 years, Homo sapiens (which, in Latin, means “Wise man” — it often feels like I’m letting that Latin definition down) have embraced her and his biped origins. One could make the argument that our brains are still hard-wired to be in a walking way, at least in our ability to process everything that is coming at us. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy to fall into a trance when whipping along the Eisenhower Interstate System at no less than 70 MPH. Our brains are incapable of processing everything, so we’re forced to either suck down coffee or pull over and nap.

Before this blog entry gets too long, I better lay out a couple quotes from Broyard, at least what he said in his essay, “A Most Unpedestrian Walker” (in Aroused by Books, 1971). Broyard reminds us that mendicant friars, beggars, pilgrims, bards and traveling artisans have been walking for ages. And that walking is shunned in our post-Industrial world:

…we have found ourselves more and more often in transit instead of simply in, more talented in getting somewhere than in being somewhere. We have developed the surface habits of the hurried as against the earned experiences and destinations of those who do their traveling on their own power.

At least in the late- ’60s, Broyard thought it good to critique the walkers, and the trance-induced hipsters (note: Broyard understood that it was hip to critique hipsters, himself among others, which is why he wrote a Portrait of the Hipster in June 1948). Here is one of Broyard’s critiques:

People who live in the country are used to the sight of teenagers at the peak of their physical powers hitching a ride rather than walk a quarter of a mile.

This is true, and it caused me to think about how only after we lose the power of our legs (resigned to a wheelchair at worst, or a walker at best) will we longingly think of how nice it would be to take a walk under our own power. Anyhow, it seemed necessary to set these ideas about walking out. Fellow comrades understandably offer me automobile rides when they see me walking, or catch that I will be walking. Other comrades insist that I get a bicycle. Automobilists miss so much more than bicyclists, and bicyclists miss so much more than pedestrians.

With that said, the Oxford American Dictionary noun of pedestrian is a person walking along a road or in a developed area. The adjective definition of a pedestrian is “lacking inspiration or excitement; dull.” For some reason this definition induces laughter. Broyard understood, as did Tolstoy. So does Dr. Caraher today at U of North Dakota today. Here’s to the walking-scape. If you see me during a northern Great Plains blizzard, please ignore the above tangent and offer me a ride.