The Archaeology of Burning Man

Burning Man, 2007

It’s the second talk I’ve blogged in a week, but Spring is busy with talks, so give me a break! Carolyn White came to present on her project at Burning Man, the large annual festival in Black Rock desert, Nevada that has become a huge cultural phenomenon.  I went in 2007, and mentioned it briefly here and here.  Carolyn White has been conducting a project out there since 2008 and discussed some of her initial impressions in front of a packed room here at the Archaeological Research Facility.  It was great to see so many “outside” people at an archaeology talk, but a little disheartening to see so few archaeology graduate students attending.

Carolyn made some interesting parallels with Lewis Binford’s ethnoarchaeology among the Nunamiut and with Jim Deetz’s historical archaeology, but I wish she would have gone into a bit more depth regarding spacial analysis, especially the structuration of space within the Burning Man camp.  When I was there I felt very confined–almost crushed by the weight of so many people who had absolutely no idea of how to interact with a desert.   She also made several mentions of a landscape “scrubbed clean” of all traces of humans, something that had the soil micromorphologist sitting next to me grumbling about.  People leave traces of themselves wherever they go, as minute as they may be.

I was also very interested in her transformation of Burning Man into an archaeological subject.  She took architectural photos with archaeological scales and artifact-like photographs of the legendary “moop” left behind each year by burners–how did this interaction with Burning Man as an academic subject change the way she saw the festival?

So, you can hear the talk yourself on Burning Man Radio. I’m not sure if they have an archive or how exactly it will be broadcast, but it was a really great talk by an archaeologist doing fun, innovative research out in the Black Rock desert.

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4 responses to “The Archaeology of Burning Man

  1. I’ve been interested in the “urbanization” aspects of Burning Man, specifically the ways in which the growth of Black Rock City over time required more formal organization for services and social control. I didn’t get very far with this, beyond finding some general statements about this by planners and organizers of the event. This interest comes out of a comparative project on urban neighborhoods, in which the nature of governance (top-down vs. bottom-up processes) is a theme. Why didn’t informal, self-organization processes work to keep things going? Is there a limit of settlement size that, when crossed, requires the imposition of top-down organization? Burning Man is a fascinating “urban” settlement that could stand more research from anthropologists.

  2. Hi! It was great to meet you yesterday during the reception portion. Hope you don’t mind me internet-stalking you, but I wanted to read more about what you were doing. I enjoyed our conversation, and I look forward to attending more ARF events in the future.

    Separately, as someone who’s been attending Burning Man for 6 years, it was fascinating to see a more scientific approach to the event. It’s such a treasure trove of condensed personal interaction and events and behaviors- everything there seems amplified. Perhaps because the city only exists once a year for a week, it almost feels like we pack as much as possible into that week. I wonder if ‘real life’ would be this intense if it were as condensed and ephemeral?

  3. Hi Brody!

    Great to meet you as well–I was hoping that I would be able to talk to you again. Jun’s talk on May 5th should be pretty good, then we’ll be winding down for the summer.

    I’m very interested in the progression of Carolyn’s research over the coming years, and in other contemporary archaeology projects. While archaeological excavations aren’t as intense as the week of Burning Man, I think for a lot of archaeologists they are the times when we feel most alive.

    Drop me a line if you feel like another chat over coffee or beers! My email is clmorgan@berkeley.edu.

  4. Pingback: Art, Decay, and Archaeology « The Berkeley Blog

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