Tag Archives: Archaeology

Grand Father’s Day Memories

Mooringstone Pond view to the north-northwest, just west of Fort Ransom State Historic Site, Sheyenne River Valley, North Dakota.

Mooringstone Pond view to the north-northwest, just west of Fort Ransom State Historic Site, Sheyenne River Valley, North Dakota.

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m on the northern Great Plains and my dad is visiting his grandchildren in the desert southwest that is Las Vegas, Nevada. I will schedule a make-up grilling session with my dad when we’re within range of another soon enough. I called him earlier today to give him props. He has worked at the locally-owned automotive parts store for longer (over 40 years) than my folks have been married (something like 42 or more years), and his dad (or my Grandpa Barth, along with his brother) worked at Hedahl’s as well. It’s one of those family operations, as Dick Hedahl’s dad hired my grandpa back in the day (or something along those lines: it may have been Dick Hedahl’s grandpa that hired my grandpa. You get the idea, though).

I thought I’d post this photo I took this afternoon, an overview of a project area I was working in just west of Fort Ransom State Historic Site in the Sheyenne River Valley, North Dakota. Note the greenery (like I need to tell folks): this is the result of about two or more weeks of pretty sustained rain followed by about 5 or 7 days of intermittent sunshine. I snapped this photo overview of the project area (among others), downloaded it, and took a look this evening (I’m in Jamestown at Molly’s right now). Snapping photos is a peculiar business: when I looked at this photo, my trusty S-10 is visible. That pick up is 20 years old, first purchased by my late Grandpa Barth at a rural dealership (either Linton or Hazen). I remember he rationalized this purchase by saying, “Now I’ll be able to transport 8-foot boards and 4’x8′ sheets of plywood from Menards to my shop.” That seemed reasonable to me.

An archaeological dry screen, built on June 15, 2013.

An archaeological dry screen, built on June 15, 2013.

That pick up in the photo has transferred hands from my grandpa to my dad and mom, and they eventually passed it along to me. It is starting to show rust, this emerging up out of the paint, and the A/C has long since been shot. I love it. My cousin (Josh Christy) and I replaced the spark plugs, distributor cap and plug wires over a year ago. And a couple weeks ago I had a shade tree mechanic replace the waterpump, alternator, cab mounts, belts, and 2 or 3 pulleys. I like working with my hands. I tend to think that I got this ethos from my Grandpa Barth and Dad. The pick up runs very well. In the summer, I deploy what is known as the 2-by-75 A/C: two windows down at 75mph. Eventually I’ll need to purchase another vehicle, but this 20-year-old pick up still gives memories of driving to and from Menards with my grandpa. I posted another photo of an archaeological dry screen I built this weekend as well: my Grandpa Barth was the first one to show me the ways of woodworking. One day we drove from his place to the Woodhouse in Bismarck, and my grandpa confessed to me that he was so glad he survived his 1975 heart attack because, in his words, “I got to see you grandkids born and grow up.” He passed away on November 23, 2003. That’s what I’ve been thinking about on Father’s Day. I’m gonna call my other Papa now, Grandpa Christy.


One Longue Durée of Mosaic History

Molly is finalizing the mosaic grouting process on a reused terra-cotta potter.

Molly is finalizing the mosaic grouting process on a reused terra-cotta potter salvaged from someone’s trash pile.

It is the weekend and projects are happening: plans have been set in motion to slow-smoke some baby back ribs, and Molly is out front of her sister’s Valley City home, toiling away at a mosaic project. I’ve busied myself with reading James Belich, The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict: The Maori, The British, and the New Zealand Wars (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986 & 1989), but have set it down to do a bit of immediate chores.

So while taking the trash out from the kitchen to the dumpster, I passed by Molly’s ongoing mosaic project. Then I started thinking about how Molly’s mosaic project today reminded me of the Late Roman mosaics I saw a year ago in the historic archaeological village of Kourion, Cyprus. Then I started thinking about how historians and archaeologists — depending on what cultural settings they were born into, and depending on what previous experiences they have had — bring individual and disparate meanings to the stuff they come across. (This may be getting a bit too self-absorbed, so if you’ve noticed it, and it offends you, please stop reading here if you already haven’t. I will not take offense. But it is a line of thinking with universal application.)

So without slamming out any more dialog (we are packing up and readying to go, which is timely to end this short entry), I will upload a couple pictures I snapped a year ago in Kourion, and a couple pictures from today in Valley City. Taking massive leaps through space and time, this is what I call a global and local longue durée of mosaic history, from Kourion, the Roman Empire, to Valley City, North Dakota.

Close-up mosaic detail from Kourion, Cyprus.

Close-up mosaic detail from Kourion, Cyprus.

A mosaic from a Roman gladiator's home in Kourion, Cyprus. Mosaics are not for cowards.

A mosaic from a Roman gladiator’s home in Kourion, Cyprus. Mosaics are not for cowards.


Some Archaeology of Food

Pheasant and BarthSome years ago I decided to take up bird hunting for this main reason: if I was going to purchase saran-wrapped chicken legs, thighs and breasts in the refrigerator section of the grocery store, I thought it was more respectful to at least experience what it was like to kill wildlife — in this case pheasant, doves and grouse — for the purpose of feeding family, friends and myself. This decision required me to purchase a bird gun (in my case, I bought a double-barrel, side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun), shotgun shells, and the necessary hunting permits. Since then I have hunted with at least four friends, including Rod Austin (accompanied by Grizzly, his beagle), Tayo Basquiat, Ed Stine, and Bob Shannon.

After identifying suitable areas to hunt (in ND, PLOTs land provides excellent public hunting grounds), walking several miles, spooking pheasant from the brush, identifying the roosters from the hens, and then downing a rooster, one of the first impressions I had (and I’m presuming I’m not the only one here) in picking up a recently-killed pheasant rooster was the warmth. This stands in contrast to the cold feel of a saran-wrapped chicken breast in the grocery store, or the increasingly ubiquitous appetizer called “bone-in” and “boneless” chicken wings (culturally, we shovel these into our mouths, kind of on autopilot, as we watch the 37 flat-screen televisions broadcast UFC fights and sporting events, and as additional juke box and video game machines drown out any kind of conversation that could have been had in our drinking warehouses throughout America).

A local plate of food. Slices of bison (medium-rare) from south-central North Dakota, this topped with a sauté of locally-harvested morel mushrooms. The origin of the salmon is unknown, but comes from Valley Meats in Valley City, North Dakota. The remaining vegetables were organic, or from what I call historic farming practices.

A local plate of food. Slices of bison (medium-rare) from south-central North Dakota, this topped with a sauté of locally-harvested morel mushrooms. The origin of the salmon is unknown, but comes from Valley Meats in Valley City, North Dakota. The remaining vegetables were organic, or from what I call historic farming practices.

No doubt, authors such as Michael Pollan have tapped into a growing social structure that concerns itself with the technics of how and philosophies of why food is produced. As an observer of this growing movement, international and local journals have also turned attention to reporting on these stories. Or at least the stories that involve individuals who want to know where their food comes from. These groups are bringing attention to multi-national corporations, and the stories have been picked up by The New York Times, CNN and, locally, WDAY News in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota.

In this latter story, the reporter focused on something North Dakotans are very aware of: heritage. This heritage is in turn used to consider how our grandparents and great grandparents produced food on family farms in contrast to how the Agricultural Industrial Complex produces food today. I remember when I was 10 or 11 years old (or thereabouts) in the kitchen of my late Grandma Barth. She had just sliced up a tomato, and in putting it on the table in front of me she said, “Here is a tomato, although they probably gassed it just a couple days ago.” My grandmother was communicating something to me that has been lost (and what I’m trying to recover by hunting): a connection with the land, and the landscape, and the food we eat that comes from that land. Although she didn’t say it directly, she was also concerned with what a gassed tomato (which is how the Agricultural Industrial Complex turns a green tomato into a red-colored tomato to simulate ripeness) might do to physiological early childhood development of her grandchildren.

The main point of this, though, is that individual consumers continue to consider and ask questions about where the food is coming from. (I’m a bit amazed by this point, too: if Monsanto made this great bio-tech seed that is going to feed the world, why aren’t they proud about labeling it so you and I can easily identify it when in the grocery store?)

Another note: North Dakota legislators recently said it was okay for individuals to purchase unpasteurized or raw milk, so long as they owned a share in the cow. Below is the local WDAY story, and also the CNN story too.

The CNN story:

The WDAY story, which won’t imbed for some reason, so you have to just click on this link here.


The Archaeology of Gardening

Pottery SherdsThis evening, while bracing for full throttle summer and the planting that goes with it, I prepped one huge planter (it took on three of those huge bags of dirt) adjacent to the patio. Before dumping in the dirt, and for reasons that will never be made clear to me, the word “drainage” bounced through my brain. So instead of just dumping in the dirt (and dooming a plant to drown), I looked about and gathered up some small cobbles (way larger than what in the archaeology business we call a Size Grade 1). I dumped what small rocks I could find into the planter, but it was a smattering and did not seem enough. So I looked around, and found a — or, if you prefer, an — historic archaeological solution: smash up the already busted up pottery, some terra-cotta, and put the sherds into the huge planter as foundation for drainage. Last week, Molly and I salvaged these sherds while trolling up and down the streets, eyeing the curbsides during the annual, city-wide dispose-of-anything-and-everything day. As I was situating the sherds in the bottom of the huge pot, I also thought about excavating northern Great Plains, North American midden mounds and Hellenistic garbage piles in the eastern Mediterranean Levant.

BackfillAncient and prehistoric pottery is everywhere, and more often than not, ceramics and pottery uncovered by archaeologists today has, throughout the course of its own life, undergone a series of adaptive reuses: the artifacts we uncover today have been recycled for a long time, by disparate cultures and for different reasons. In using my archaeological imagination, I also couldn’t help but thinking how Ancient Romans and Hellenistic Cypriots, and Ancient Mandan-Hidatsa, would have used busted pottery for a variety of purposes, either as backfill, drainage for planters, and so on.

An aside: there is something soothing about the noise of used terra-cotta bases smashing against a brick wall. To the right is a photo of an excavation unit from the PKAP archaeological dig of May-June 2012 on Cyprus. At the bottom of the deepest strata, you can see the terra-cotta back fill emerging from a 3rd-century BC Hellenistic site.


Revisiting Dee Taylor’s Archaeology of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

Some years ago, perhaps around 2008, friend and colleague Lou Hafermehl asked me to join up with him in research and a study that sought to look at the landscape history in and around Theodore Roosevelt’s 1883 Elkhorn Ranch in southwestern North Dakota. For a variety of reasons, our project came to a halt (the decision above our pay grade, as most if not all are), but prior to that, I had come across perhaps the best modern archaeological investigation of a “man camp” in western North Dakota: the Dee Taylor’s study of the Elkhorn Ranch. Arguments can be made back and forth as to whether the cattle ranching industry in the late-19th century was in fact an industry with man camp associations. I would argue yes, since it involved a clear boom-bust cycle, over-crowded and over-grazed grasslands, punishing winters, heavy speculation, and industrial railroads that attempted to bring the cattle to markets in Chicago and beyond. Actual cowboy open range cattle ranching was a short-lived event in American history, and perhaps this is why it is so heavily romanticized: it came and went like a flash in the pan (barb-wire fencing ultimately brought an end to those pesky open grazers).

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, "Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site" (1959), 49.

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, “Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site” (1959), 49.

The 1959 archaeological investigation at the Elkhorn was conducted by Dee C. Taylor (Montana State University), and it is titled, Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Without going over the 146-page report in detail (at least not here), I thought I’d mention at least one of the pieces of material culture that the archaeological crew recovered from the Elkhorn Ranch house. In reading through the domestic assemblage, my eyes focused on the label of one of the tins recovered that said, “OYSTERS.” The three individuals out at the Elkhorn (Theodore, but more so Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow) were from or around New England (Sewall and Dow served as hunting guides for Roosevelt in Maine). One can imagine that they would get a bit lonesome for some culinary semblance of home, and tins of oysters might have filled that void. Or they could have simply been hungry for food, and a tin of oysters was what they had to eat.

In today’s man camps of western North Dakota, at least the multi-national corporate Type I camps, the kitchens openly advertise southern style cooking, likely to draw the attention of any number of oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico region. So in thinking about this in a comparative studies kind of way, one can say that in the 1880s New England ranchers devoured oysters at the Elkhorn Ranch site along the Little Missouri River, and in 2013 oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico area are now on the northern Great Plains, inhaling canteen-style southern cooking around Tioga, Alexander and beyond. This is archaeological food for thought before I head to Denver to present my paper at the Western Social Science Association on the modern archaeology of man camps in western North Dakota.

Note: in his introduction, Dee Taylor noted that he took two anthropology grad students along on his excavation crew, William G. Buckles and John J. Hoffman, and other crew members included Arvid Scott, Rodney Myers, and Vernon Goldsberry. Be very suspicious of any historian or archaeologist who does not mention anyone but themselves as researchers, writers, and idea-generators.


Paleo Grilling in the Winter

Michael Pollan has been focusing our attention to what is on our table for some time now (the body of his work is listed here). It is probably a good idea: whether we verbalize it or not, when those huge anhydrous ammonia trucks pass us on the interstate, the thought that rattles through the mind has a kind of duality to it: “There goes the fertilizer truck with the death labels on it… should we be eating food that is juiced up with this stuff?… should we be feeding tomorrow’s generation with this stuff? It’s probably okay, right? I mean, they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t okay… right?” We live on an industrial planet — or, more accurately, a planet industrialized by humanity (that’s us). But it wasn’t always this way.

A glorious flank steak.

A glorious flank steak.

This last weekend I thought about that as I prepped a flank steak (from a cow grazed on grass, the way cows have done throughout the forests of the Mediterranean region for ages). After letting the chunk of meat sit in a bath of spices, beer and lemon juice for a couple days, I decided to cook the flank steak paleo style, placing the chunk of meat directly on the hot coals. This in turn got me thinking about any number of archaeological digs where just a bit of charcoal surfaces, and is oh-so deliberately collected (usually it is placed in aluminum foil for storage). On a dig, the charcoal is saved. But this technical description often stops there, and that is where the mind really picks up and is left to wonder. That charcoal, buried under one stratigraphic layer after another, possibly provided a source of heat and fire for a small or large family thousands of years ago. Perhaps they grilled a chunk of bison or elk on this fire, placing it directly on the coals? Seems like one possible and reasonable idea. Here is some audio-video from that winter night of grilling:

Archaeologists should feel comfortable whipping up flank steaks directly on hot coals for any number of tasty reasons, and it also answers the call that Ian Hodder issued over 20 years ago in a post-processual statement (I blogged it here once, and below are his remarks in full, pulled from “Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role,” 1999, American Antiquity, Vol. 56, No. 1, page 9).

…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.

Alternative groups, such as flank-steak-charring cooks, should be brought into the broader archaeological discussion. There is the study of the past, but there is also the applied anthropology of trying to recreate some semblance of a paleo meal, but today.


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.