I’ve spent three days making maps for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken (brace yourself for a two-for-Tuesday blog post), so I work up this morning with my head filled with words.
Over the past two months, I’ve avoided working on a book project to which I’m a pretty minor contributor, but thanks to a late evening email, I started thinking about it again. I’m fascinated with the idea of the American West as this kind of national hinterland filled with all sorts of fascinating stuff begging for me to juxtapose it in random ways.
I was thinking of the Atari Excavations and the concept of “fake archaeology” once again, and my mind drifted to sites like the Manitou Cliff Dwelling museum near Colorado Springs were a cliff dwelling from the Four Corners area was reassembled in the early-20th century. While I don’t mean to suggest that a similar method of presentation could not be used “back East” (and, indeed, sites like The Cloisters in New York repurposed the European ecclesiastical architecture to create a space for the Rockefeller art collection), a degree of dissimulation was possible at the Manitou site because of the remoteness of western cliff dwelling sites and the basic lack of familiarity with the archaeology of the region. No one likely believed that The Cloisters was an “authentic” site. It was possible to situate the excavation of Atari games from the Alamogordo landfill as “authentic” because it took place in the “hinterland.” In fact, media reports were reluctant to accept accounts from local residents, there was an absence of basic historical research (for example, we really don’t know whether the dumping of Atari games left a paper trail), and quick transformation of the event from a curiosity to an urban legend.
The issue of authenticity and the American West intersects with some of the conversation about tourism and how it keys on the desire to experience the “frontier” or to experience “nature” or whatever. Again, this is not a distinctly or exclusively “Western” phenomenon. Places like Colonial Williamsburg (once again a Rockefeller connection), offered authentic experiences “back East” at least as mediated through various reconstructions. Williamsburg may offer a colonial Deadwood or Medora, but it pales in comparison with Yosemite or Yellowstone which were set aside to preserve nature in its “primordial” state. The Atari excavation, then, depended on a suspension of disbelief and perhaps benefited from a view that the American West preserves a palpable authenticity long ago deemed improbable among the cynical cities of the “the east.”
Finally, I got to thinking about excavation in the American West. I’m not sure how this will fit into something that I write up for this little book, but excavation in the American West is pretty broad topic. First, I thought about the excavation of mountain sites like Yucca Mountain or the WIPP in New Mexico for depositing radioactive waste. Of course these sites draw upon a long tradition of mining in the west, which both pocked the region with pits and tunnels, none more famous, perhaps than the Berkeley Pit near Butte, Montana, but has also fueled a thriving cottage industry of mining archaeology. Finally, there are the massive craters of the Nevada Test Site where detonations of nuclear and conventional bombs excavated tons of earth.
Somehow I want to weave these themes together in a short chapter on excavating contemporary trash in the West with a focus on the Atari excavations.