Home > Mediterranean Archaeology in North Dakota > Abandoned Landscapes in North Dakota

Abandoned Landscapes in North Dakota

Jared Diamond’s recent best seller Collapse placed a spot light on the relationship between environmental resources and the persistence of complex societies.  Much of the evidence from his analysis comes from the archaeological remains of “collapsed” societies.  Evidence for abandonment — whether on the level of an entire settlement or a single building or site — plays a central role in construction of archeological narratives.  In particular, it has become an enduring trope in the study of Late Antiquity.  When Kostis Kourelis and I organized a panel at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on the concept of abandonment in Mediterranean Archaeology, fully half of the papers dealt with the period from A.D. 400-800. 

My wife and I drove from Bismarck, ND to Grand Forks, ND along Highway 2, which is the North Dakota stretch of the Hi-Line followed by the Burlington Northern – Santa Fe Railroad (formerly, if I understand correctly, the route followed by the Great Northern Railway), the abandoned  landscape was on full display.  From rural towns to isolated farmsteads the abandoned places of North Dakota dotted the countryside and presented an enticing tableaux of archaeological formation processes.  At the same time, however, there was evidence for persistent prosperity: there were numerous well-kept farms with new metal sheds standing alongside decaying wooden barns.  While this is unsurprising, North Dakota has, generally speaking, enjoyed the rise in prosperity common to the industrialized world over the past half century. It was for me, however, a useful mental check on the complex nature of the landscape throughout time and how uneven and unpredictable the phenomenon of abandonment can be.  The local media commonly refer to the depopulated and increasingly abandoned rural landscape of North Dakota and our drive across the state reinforced this in a general way.  An unsystematic and probably superficial scrutiny of landscape, however, suggests that rural North Dakota was not entirely abandoned but interspersed with evidence for the kind of continuous investment which may be far more difficult to identify in the future archaeological record.

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  1. Bret
    May 8, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    True intelligence is best illustrated by the ability to bring disparate ideas into a simple, clear dialogue that helps us to understand both the obvious and the apparently disengaged within a larger locus of connected meaning. Rome in the 4th century, North Dakota in the 21st, and Diamond’s global romp through environmental history, whew! The only thing more remarkable is that no one else has yet to post a comment. Best of luck this summer.

  2. Aaron Barth
    May 20, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    …and so now a Burleigh County Dakotan will attempt to remark and maybe nullify Bret’s remarkable — though astute — observation.
    Natural resources are important, as is the environment. Diamond, if I recall, might be a bit guilty in over-emphasizing the environment. Ascribing significance to the material or ecological world is still an idea, or so thought Hume (or the dynamic Chris Hitchens nowadays).
    Didn’t that late Geertz fellow say something about the importance of placing singularities within proximity of the broader whole? Nevermind.
    Note that the rise in monetary prosperity (how one might define that…) is relegated to the “larger” NoDak cities of Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, Williston, Bismarck, Dickinson, and Jamestown (certainly I’m leaving out many, but the idea is there). Equally important is how Dakota decides to use its natural resources, specifically the oil boom in the southwestern and western part of the state. A couple authors (Clay Jenkinson and Kathleen Norris) have remarked on how it’s necessary to live in a particular place for a period of time before being able to appreciate and respect that place. I’ll bet this idea transcends geopolitical borders –namely, how Cypriotes deal with the Tourist, and how they interpret (strengths and weaknesses) how their land is used. I digress. Back to it.

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