Artifact (n): a characteristic product of human activity
"What is the coolest artifact you have ever found?" Countless archaeologists have been asked this question, and when directed at me it has always posed a challenge. Was it a green obsidian spear point found in Northern California? A stamp mill battery in Alaska? A chert awl in Arizona?
While I never have a quick answer to this question, what I do notice is that whatever my answer, the artifact is always something tangible, always something obviously human, and always rooted in technological materialism. I've been taught that an artifact is something mobile and something that was produced to serve some sort of purpose. Yet that is the orthodoxy of archaeology and heritage. What happens when we begin to challenge this convention?
I was recently fortunate enough to visit some tremendous industrial heritage sites in Germany, the Landschaftspark in Duisburg, and Zeche Zollverein in Essen. At both of these sites it is easy to become overwhelmed by their sheer grandeur, one centered around an enormous blast furnace works, the other centered around a towering coal mine shaft house. While I thoroughly enjoy these megaliths of industrial prosperity, what resonated with me most was a collection of artifacts housed in the Zeche Zollverein museum exhibit - appropriately called, "Environmental Destruction and Protection".
In the spring of 2012, I wrote a book review for IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology on the edited volume of conference proceedings: Post-Mining Landscape: Conference Documentation. The book is a collection of reflections on managing, developing, and revitalizing massive industrial landscapes after the gears of industry cease to grind. The book is filled with impressive images of reimagined industrial landscapes - a swimming pool in the middle of former colliery coking plant, a cheese cellar in an underground copper mine, and the development of a greenbelt across slag heaps in Northern France. This truly innovative work resonated with me, and this past month I had the opportunity to visit a handful of sites in the North-Rhine Westphalia region of northern Germany. This post is a collection of photographs from one of the most impressive industrial sites I've visited - The Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord located just outside of Duisburg. While this post presents an overview of the in situ remains of the former iron smelting plant and blast furnaces, a future post will examine the transformation of the site from a post-industrial ruin into a vibrant cultural attraction - successfully melding history, nature, and industry into a model example of industrial reuse.
Free Access (Until 01/26/17) to Our Recent Publication in The Extractive Industries and Society here
Abstract: "For decades, the Lake Superior Iron District produced a significant majority of the world’s iron used in steel production. Chief among these was the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, a vast deposit of hematite and magnetic taconite ores stretching for over 100 miles in length. Iron ore mining in the Mesabi Range involved three major phases: direct shipping ores (1893–1970s), washable ores (1907–1980s), and taconite (1947–current). Each phase of iron mining used different technologies to extract and process ore. Producing all of this iron yielded a vast landscape of mine waste. This paper uses a historical GIS to illuminate the spatial extent of mining across the Lake Superior Iron District, to locate where low-grade ore processing took place, and to identify how and where waste was produced. Our analysis shows that the technological shift to low-grade ore mining placed new demands on the environment, primarily around processing plants. Direct shipping ore mines produced less mine waste than low-grade ore mines, and this waste was confined to the immediate vicinity of mines themselves. Low-grade ore processing, in contrast, created more dispersed waste landscapes as tailings mobilized from the mines themselves into waterbodies and human communities."
I recently had the opportunity to write a blog post for NiCHE, The Network in Canadian History and Environment, as part of their "Seeds: New Research in Environmental History" series. In this post I summarize the construction of an Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) to help reveal the producers and content of historic mine waste, research described in fuller detail in a recent publication through The Extractive Industries and Society.
If you have been following this blog, you will know that part of my research has involved tracking the facilities that processed low-grade iron ores and produced tailings in the Mesabi Range. These facilities were called beneficiation plants (ben-eh-fiss-ee-ay-tion plants), iron ore concentrators, or ghost plants if you are referring to this blog. Historically, 88 beneficiation plants stretched across the Mesabi Range. Today 13 of these plants remain standing - but 2 weeks ago, I would have told you that there were 14. Time flies when you are having fun.
Coming up with these figures was a convoluted process. Since processing plants are not tracked by any government agency, and because most mining heritage sites tend to focus their attention more on the mines than the processing plants, pinpointing were these facilities once existed required quite a bit of archival legwork. Identifying the locations of these 88 beneficiation plants required examining historical maps, historical aerial imagery, paging through old trade journals, and using web-based services like MNTOPO to analyze the current landscape.
I thought I would share a poster that I created for the 2016 American Society for Environmental History Conference. It was a challenging and fun experience putting my research into a 36'' x 43'' visual display.
If you would like a high resolution copy, feel free to email me or comment below.
Three of the largest human-caused environmental disasters in recent memory were the result of technological failures within mining systems: the Mount Polley disaster in British Columbia; the Gold King mine disaster in Colorado; and the Bento Rodrigues mine disaster in Brazil.
Mining systems are composed of three main elements: human, material and environmental. Within mining systems, human actors rely on knowledge, expertise, and material technologies to interact with ore bodies - and in order for mining systems to successfully function, the human and material elements need to be adaptable to environmental changes. In the three environmental disasters listed above the mining systems failed, due to a mixture of negligence, technological malfunction, and environmental change.
"A picture is worth a thousand words", or in the case of this image - thousands of trees.
It has been over a month since my last blog post - I've been busy working on my dissertation proposal, and recently returned from a really fruitful trip to a handful of archives in Minnesota. I'm still processing much of what I gathered at the archives - (and will be doing so for a number of months) - but I have been dwelling on the image above and what it says about the mining industry: What cultural and environmental impacts of past mining have we forgotten? and What other hidden impacts of mining might we begin to reconsider?
This morning I came across this great collection of historical sketches of some prominent Michigan individuals at the turn of the 20th century. There are roughly 60 illustrations of folks from the U.P., including this image of the John Longyear - a Michigan native who was influential in shaping the landscapes of the Lake Superior Iron District.
You can easily scan the images by clicking on the second link from the top of the page that I've linked above. Enjoy!
Does anyone know of anything similar for Minnesota or Wisconsin?
I just found this neat little documentary about the forced abandonment of old Hibbing to allow for the expansion of Oliver Iron Mining Co.'s Hull-Rust Mahoning open pit iron mine - circa 1920. I'm in the process of digging a little deeper into the region's past, and have just returned from the fantastic archives at the Minnesota Historical Society where I was able to locate many of the original affidavits.
John Baeten holds a PhD in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology from Michigan Technological University. His research aims to contextualize the environmental legacies of industrialization as meaningful cultural heritage.