More on Military Camps and the Cold War

The last week has been pretty hectic. In fact, it’s been so hectic, I more or less pulled the plug on working on another chapter of my ongoing (slow going?) book project. After a couple of day of working on syllabi and publishing projects, the old itch returned, though, and I took another swing at the chapter that I’m currently writing.

Chapter 6 will deal mainly with the archaeology of military camps, the Cold War, and the contemporary college campuses. I posted the a very rough draft of the introduction on Monday and then another chunk of it here. Here’s a third installment. It obviously needs work, but it feels like it’s starting to head somewhere.

The vast scale of mid and late 20th century military sites likewise offers a challenge to archaeologists seeking to document and preserve them (Schofield 2005, 24). The Nevada Test Site, for example, saw close to 2000 tests of nuclear devices from its opening in 1951 to implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1992. The site extends over 1360 square miles in southern Nevada and contains a wide range of landscapes, monuments, and artifacts associated with the development of the United State’s nuclear deterrent. As a number of commentators have noted, for most of the 20th century, the NTS represented a major front in the Cold War where the US demonstrated their continued commitment to nuclear weapons and peace through strength. Efforts to document key areas of the site have revealed not only the development and use of this important installation over time, but a wide range of post-depositional processes that have shaped the assemblage present across this massive installation. Archaeological work at Fenchman Flat, an area of almost 100 square miles which saw nuclear tests throughout the 1950s and 1960s, revealed an area with 157 buildings and structures, most of which were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (Beck 2002; Hanson 2011; Johnson et al. 2000). The most unusual of the sites recorded in this area were the wide range of features erected to test the effects of nuclear devices on typical American homes, businesses, and and landscapes. The installation of temporary forests, the construction of realistic suburban dwellings, various forms of bomb shelters and, in one instance, the depositing of a massive metal safe in the blast area served to test the ability of various structures to endure a blast. In many cases, the remains of these features continue to stand on Frenchman Flat as enduring reminders of this site’s role as an active front in a Cold War arms race. The presence of ersatz civilian structures in specific military surroundings offers an inverted image of Paul Virilio’s concept of “Total War” which traced the spread of bunkers, walls, and installations throughout Europe and North America (Virilio 2008, 18).

The work at the Nevada Test Site also included the documentation of Camp Desert Rock which functioned to house soldiers and officers associated with the nuclear tests in the 1950s. The study the camp revealed how the space was adapted to accommodate changing functions over the its short, 6-year history (Edwards 1997; Hanson 2016, 87-94). Moreover, the changes documented by Edwards during her survey of the site showed how the archaeological study of military installations, even from the relatively recent past, could reveal changes that escaped notice even in the copious archival records of the modern military (Hanson 2016, 91-92). For more recent or contemporary sites, the absent or incomplete nature of archival documents reflects secretive nature of US military operations. Archaeologists, however, have found ways to document secret or “black sites” using publicly available satellite imagery. Adrian Meyers’ use of Google Earth to map the development Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta and attendant facilities at the US installations at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba (Meyers 2010). This work, which relied entirely on Google Earth imagery, documented the rapid increase in building associated with the secret detention facilities between 2003 and 2008. Meyers’s revealed the speed with which the war on terror escalated and traced the expansion of the Guantánamo installations. Many of the first structures at the various detention camps were portable units imported from off the site which were later replaced by more permanent concrete style prison buildings. By tracing these changes in architecture at the site, Meyers was able to see the growth in capacity at the various camps and understand the increase in inmates either realized or anticipated at the site. This served to make visible the secret workings of US military installations and also to preserve a record of change at the sites to compare in the future to declassified archival material.

The use of archaeological methods as a medium for protesting military activities by making them visible extends to work documenting protest sites that developed alongside Cold War military installation. For example, work to document the Peace Camp site outside the main gate the the NTS demonstrated the extent and character of protests against nuclear testing, the eviction of the Western Shoshone from their traditional land, and the environmental impact of military activities on the fragile desert ecology (Beck et al. 2007; Beck et al. 2011; Hanson 2016, 100-105). Ironically, the camp’s iterative organization parallel, in some ways, the adaptable character of the various Guantánamo Bay camps or the development of Camp Desert Rock. If the early versions of the camp were largely ad hoc and aside for some fire rings and tent pads small and loosely organized. Subsequent iterations of the camp reveal greater organization and formality with neatly delineated spaces for activities ranging from sleeping, cooking, meditation, art, and the sanitary needs of the protestors. Unlike the hierarchical organization of Camp Desert Rock where VIP visitors and officers had increasing creature comforts, the Peace Camps appears to have remained egalitarian in organization. In this way, it shared the organization of later activist camps from the massive artistic conflagration of Burning Man to protest camps associated with resistance to capitalism associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.


  1. Bill, your post today coincided with a You-Tube video by CPG Grey that I watched yesterday about his visit to an abandoned missile site in Utah. Maybe it’ll interest you. CPG Grey is well known on YouTube so google will find him.

    I’m a longtime reader of your blog and I appreciate that you’ve kept it going given the circumstances in academia these days. I miss your podcast.


    1. Thanks, Debby!! I’ll check it out!


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