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Why ‘Punk Archeologists’ Are Heading to North Dakota

Researchers are studying the "man camps" that sprang up after the oil boom as if they're part of an ancient dig site.

by Kathleen Caulderwood
Nov 4 2015, 7:57pm

Photo: Kyle Cassidy/North Dakota Man Camp Project

Archaeologists often find themselves studying cultures from a long time ago, at dig sites far away. But in North Dakota, one team of "punk archaeologists," as they call themselves, is busy with something happening almost literally in their own backyard.

Williston, North Dakota is the epicenter of the "Bakken boom." Blue-collar workers have rushed there to make their fortune in the lucrative shale oil industry. And while the temporary housing settlements, or "man camps" have gained a reputation for crime and tough residents, these professors are more interested in what these people are building, how they're living and what they leave behind—which would otherwise go undocumented.

"When we go into these communities there's a shared sense of this being an historical moment," says William Caraher, an archaeologist at the University of North Dakota and one of the lead researchers on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. "What they've seen is important to them."

Photo: Kyle Cassidy/North Dakota Man Camp Project

It all started as a fun idea discussed among friends, but over the past three years the growing team of archaeologists, historians, social workers and photographers have regularly visited 50 sites along the highways that serve workers employed in the Bakken crude industry, taking endless notes and photographs. They wanted to learn whether people in "man camps" did the same things as their historical counterparts such as soldiers who built temporary military camps in ancient Greece or the miners who settled in parts of 18th century Montana. But soon the team discovered something unique.

"The thing that interested us most was the way in which people took RVs and worked to make them into all-season homes, and the amount of creativity that they showed in their manipulation," Caraher says.

The team loved learning how people used found materials like scrap metal or wood to build entire extra rooms onto small trailers, which kept cold air out and added extra storage space. Once they found a man who had installed a real wood stove inside his RV. Often they documented how people would add lawns, decks or even gardens to their small plots to help things feel almost suburban.

Photo: Kyle Cassidy/North Dakota Man Camp Project

It was refreshing for them to observe this kind of development in real time, for once, but their research came with a wrinkle they weren't used to: living subjects with a reputation for violence, drug abuse and other unsavory activities. But early on the team learned not to believe the hype.

"Large groups of men living far away from home are not inherently dangerous," says Bret Weber, a social work professor at the University of North Dakota who has been part of the team since the beginning, recording personal interviews with men in the camps.

In general, the people they met were just hard-working guys looking to make money, with many of them choosing to move to the Bakken because of limited opportunities back home. And it wasn't hard to get them talking. If anything, most of the people they met tended to be lonely and "exceedingly open to human conversation," he says.

Richard Rothaus, another archaeologist who works with the team shooting video footage of the camps, says it helps to explain their project to the men in terms of creating an accurate historical record. While the Bakken is the news constantly, the iconic images don't tell the full story.

Photo: Kyle Cassidy/North Dakota Man Camp

"The oil boom has been covered to death," Rothaus says, noting that most images associated with it follow a predictable pattern. "Here's an oil rig, and a hand who's covered with oil resting against something looking manly," he says. "But it's the normal boring folks like us who go to work, have a family and throw barbecues when they can." These stories are often left out of the news, but the mundane is an important part of history.

And even though the Bakken crude price continues to fall, which has sent many of their subjects scattering, the team's work has only just begun. Their ultimate plan is to create a massive open-source archive of documentation that would provide future historians the kind of evidence they would love to have from ancient times.

"We spend so much time on issues that wouldn't be a problem if someone had taken 15 minutes to write something down or draw a map," Rothaus says. "We're trying to do that deliberately—and being complete geeks about it."