Modern Archaeology of Grilling

The sun is just starting to set and I’m sitting in the back yard of a residence in Valley City, North Dakota, and thinking that it is worthwhile to both upload a pic of and put some thoughts down on the material culture in front of me. I was thinking this because archaeologists often come across assemblages that have either no voice, or they consciously or unconsciously ascribe a voice to the assemblage through the construction of typologies and interpretations. Archaeologists will find themselves thinking, “I seriously would like to have a conversation with the individual who created this Mandan-Hidatsa pot sherd,” or “If I could only chat with the person who made this Scythian arrowhead…” To counter that, at least in the here and now, I’m going to quickly expand on the domestic assemblage that goes hand in hand with a Saturday evening grill on the northern steppe of North America in the first week of July, 2013.

A contemporary archaeological domestic assemblage from the evening of July 6, 2013, Valley City, North Dakota.

A contemporary archaeological domestic assemblage from the evening of July 6, 2013, Valley City, North Dakota.

Big Picture: This residence is, today, on that proverbial edge of town, a kind of gateway between the rustic countryside and the city or village. To borrow from Raymond Williams, the countryside has been characterized as representing purity and a re-engagement with the wilderness and also backwardness and idiocy (from Virgil, Thoreau and Muir to the Industrial and Post-Industrial H.L. Mencken and beyond). The city as well has been represented as cosmopolitan, where citizens of the world unite to exchange ideas and culture and conversation. Cities also are known to be bastions of corruption and vice. This is the kind of intellectual borderlands where I sit at tonight.

Immediate: with what archaeologists call a “domestic assemblage,” to my right is an aim-and-flame; a can of Miller High Life (the new hipster beer that my friend Troy Reisenauer said may be poised to usurp the hipster Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, if not already); a small bowl of apple wood chips soaking in water; a large coffee cup with a small amount of shucked peas from the Valley City farmer’s market; an iPhone and MacBook Pro, presumably made somewhere in a factory in East Asia by a team of workers who have un-imaginable hours to work; a crumpled up paper bag; and tongs to work the coals on the fire. Music playing is Bruce Springstean, “Mansion on a Hill” from the Nebraska album (appropriate for the Great Plains for sure).

Background: center-right is a make-shift grill (one of those portable backyard firepits, this also made in some East Asian factory by workers with un-imaginable hours); a slender grate; and a bag of Our Family hardwood lump charcoal. I don’t have a proper charcoal grill here (at my girlfriend’s sister’s place), so I just started using the firepit. It has worked quite well.

Far background: behind that (even more blurred) is a pre-WWII home shrouded in modern siding and asphalt shingle with aluminum downspouts, a lawnmower, a plastic gas can (a petroleum product that contains petroleum), a quasi-rusted stool and chair, an A/C unit (which is humming), and toward the back of the house is the beginning of the sparse tree line that separates the country from the city (as mentioned at the outset of this blog).

I better get after putting the steaks on the grill, as these coals are primed and ready. In any case, note how much stuff in this assemblage is industry, factory-made, and whether or not it originates from East Asia or North America (or beyond). The only thing that is produced locally (that I can think of) are the peas I’m shucking, the steaks from Valley Meats I’m readying to put on the grill, and this blog entry. The center of the globe’s gravity continues moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific World, this whether we know it or not. Happy evening to you all. Here is that Springsteen song:


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