The Archaeology of Burning Man

Last weekend, I read Carolyn White’s new book, The Archaeology of Burning Man (2020). It was published by the University of New Mexico Press which has been doing really nice work lately. The Archaeology of Burning Man appears in their Archaeologies of Landscapes in the Americas series. If I were going to write a book on our work in the Bakken oil patch, I would seriously consider sending it to that series!

White’s book, as it title suggests, looks at the famous Burning Man festival that occurs in late August and September in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Over the past decade, Burning Man has attracted over 50,000 people who occupy a massive temporary city constructed on an ancient dry lake bed or playa. The festival is ticketed, but once at Burning Man participants pledge not to engage in any commercial activity, to embrace a gift economy, to work toward radical self reliance, and to leave no trace on the ecologically sensitive desert landscape when the event concludes. The highlight of the festival is the burning of two large structures built for the event: a wooden effigy of a man, on one night, and then, the next night, a large wooden complex called the temple. 

White’s work benefits from not only years of careful documentation of the event, but also collaboration with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, just to be clear) and the even coordinators who provided her with access to almost all parts of the pre-event, event, and post-event planning.

Rather than review the book, I’m going to follow my usual practice of highlighting a few things about the work that are useful to my work on the archaeology of the contemporary world.  

1. Description. The core of this book is a series of detailed description of various context in and around “Black Rock City.” While White works at different scales, starting with a detailed discussion of the planning and organization of the city itself, she nevertheless remains focused on the kind of detailed description characteristic of archaeological work. Such “stratigraphic” attention to detail not only captured various spaces and sites at a moment, but also emphasized the human scale of the event. Only rarely did her descriptions go beyond the space encountered by a person moving through various contexts in the city whether those are associated with the staff attending the city’s main gate or the various temporary domestic spaces occupied by participants in the festival. As a result, the book only rarely steps back and offers a cartographic perspective on Black Rock City.

As an archaeologist of the contemporary world, White’s attention to detail really made me happy. So many books and articles on contemporary sites feel descriptively impoverished when compared with the level of detail presented in the archaeology of an ancient site. In fact, most archaeology of the contemporary world leans rather heavily on winnowed descriptions bolstered by theory or presented in order to advance a particular argument rather than to report on the situation. White’s work runs counter to this. While she includes a discussion of theory in the beginning of her book (and this, to be frank, feels a bit like something added at a reviewers request), most of the book eschews overtly theoretical reflection and privileges granular descriptions that rarely even go so far as to offer observations on function of objects present in a space. 

2. Formation Processes. White’s attention to the entire process of constructing and disassembling Black Rock City on the Nevada playa offers fascinating insights into formation processes in the 21st century world. As part of the Burning Man ethos and their agreement with the BLM who oversees the Black Rock Desert, the participants agree to leave no trace. As a result, the entire structure of Black Rock City is meticulously removed from the desert playa and the surface of the ground is carefully restored to its pre-Burning Man state. 

Of course, the practice of building and then removing an entire city of as many as 70,000 people from the landscape in less than two months is a distinctly modern (and probably late modern) form of formation processes that reflects not only contemporary attitudes toward the environment and nature and the massive capacities of modern equipment and the intensive communication and enforcement of social expectations.

Much of this speaks to how speed works in the 21st century (along the lines of Virilio’s dromology). Even a city can be ephemeral as people, things, and, of course, capital move in ways that explicitly reduce their visibility. The rapid deployment and removal of the Burning Man festival events also reveals the artificiality of the our modern concept of nature. The pristine character of the Black Rock playa does not reflect the absence of human activity at the site but its intensive and highly regulated presence. Like the deep horizontal bore holes in the Bakken that leave almost no traces on the surface, the meticulous removal of the Burning Man encampment speaks to our increasing ability to create the presence of absence in the landscape and (echoing somewhat the work of Kostis Kourelis that I discussed yesterday) transform places in non-places almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, a careful archaeologists or pedologist might be able to recognize the signs of  manicured nature long after the Burning Man organizers removed Black Rock City. At the same time, the ability to remove “MOOP” (matter out of place), speaks to new ways of thinking about the place of humans in our surroundings in an era catalyzed by the ability to deploy intensively energy and resources.

3. People and Places at Home. White focused particularly on domestic spaces in Black Rock City as they existed as individual camps (which might house as many as 50 people) and in villages (groups of camps around a particular theme). Because she always worked at the human scale, the difference between a large and small camp or a camp that was part of a village or standing alone was sometimes hard to discern. From an archaeological perspective, then, the desire to emphasize the smallest possible context sometimes obscured the larger processes at work.

For example, I often found myself wondering what the arrangement of objects revealed about the function of domestic spaces. While White followed Henri Lefebvre distinctions between public, private, and intermediate spaces these were largely dependent on the arrangement of domestic space in relation to obvious public spaces such as roads. This was largely convincing, but at times I wanted to understand more clearly how people used their public and private spaces and how these uses complicated our understanding of public, private, and intermediate. A Roman house, for example, had public space that was nevertheless clearly marked off from the space of the road and as a result, access to the public space of the house was still a sign of some privilege (especially when compared to access to the road outside). A “client” gained privilege through the access to the home of a prominent “patron” through his presence in the public, yet also restricted, space of a patron’s home. 

I found myself curious about how access to public and private spaces in Burning Man camps not only defined the assemblages present in these spaces, but also communicated various relationships between individuals and groups. I also found myself curious about what people did when they gathered in public space and how this differed from private space. (A tempting little intimation came when White noted a space where folks could gather that was not visible from the street, but they could be easily alerted to the presence of law enforcement). Certain things like cooking appeared to take place in public and in private spaces in various camps suggesting that certain activities served different function and spoke to the diversity of approaches to life in Black Rock City.

4. People and Places within the City. In a related sense, I never got a clear sense for what happened at Burning Man. I understand, of course, the burning of the man and the temple as culminating events. I also appreciate the spirit of cooperation, fellowship, and creative camaraderie that the event encouraged, but I’m less clear on what people did, on a day-to-day level, in the Black Rock Desert. 

This may be part of the consequence of White’s focus on domestic space and the adoption of private, public, and intermediary as the basic modes for interpreting these spaces. This distinction between public and private, however, leaves much unsaid. Public space in camps seems to mainly function around eating, drinking, and socializing, but public space across the entirety of Black Rock City is harder to understand. References to yoga and dance classes, “art cars,” and even concerts offer tantalizing glimpses of the range of public activities at Burning Man, but how these shape a city dedicated almost entirely to performances and social activities (as opposed to economic or political ones) remains unexplored. 

To be clear, this book is good and, more importantly, it is significant for the archaeology of the contemporary world in an American context. To my mind, it is the first book length treatment of a contemporary site that fully embraces an approach grounded in American historical archaeology. Jason DeLeon’s work is great and important, of course, but his book length work, The Land of Open Graves, defies any single method drawing as heavily on ethnography, photography, and public policy discussions as archaeology. My work, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, was perhaps too playful and experimental to be easily classified and has few archaeological precedents. Bill Rathje’s book length work was journalistic in tone and lacked the rigorous scholarly apparatus of White’s book. In this way, it is a watershed in our field and an important contribution to the archaeology of the contemporary world. 

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