Why An Archaeologist Heads to Burning Man Every Year

An archaeologist uses the world’s biggest pop-up community to learn about humanity’s past settlements

By Jonathon Keats
Jan 3, 2019 12:00 AMNov 14, 2019 7:39 PM
Scott London and Jeremy Guillory


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Every year around Labor Day weekend, about 75,000 people converge on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to build a city. Occupying more than 14,000 acres, the pop-up metropolis features distinctive neighborhoods, extensive dining and entertainment, even a small airport. I find no hint of this when I visit the playa, or desert basin, on a sunny afternoon in March. All I see is a flat expanse of white alkaline soil, nearly identical to what pioneers described in their 19th-century journals.

The disappearing act is by design. It’s one of the core attributes of Black Rock City, guided by the tenets of the event for which this temporary metropolis is built: the annual pyrotechnic extravaganza known as Burning Man. Yet the weeklong festival’s leave-no-trace ethos has not stopped archaeologist Carolyn White from studying the city as she would any other vanished civilization. In fact, the cyclicality is one of the qualities that draws her here year after year.

White, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), has brought me out to the Black Rock Desert to see what she describes as “an archaeologist’s worst nightmare.” But it’s one that might help her field reconsider “the ways that archaeology works,” she says. Her decade-long project has entailed close observation of the temporary settlement from construction to dismantling, as well as the analysis of any artifacts that get left behind by accident.

Her work has yielded insights about Burning Man as a cultural phenomenon and the organizing principles of urban habitats. It’s even shedding light on possible “unknown unknowns” in the ancient archaeological record.

Burning Man’s eponymous man stands watch as tens of thousands of festival-goers gather in the Nevada desert in 2014. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

White has become a familiar presence in Burning Man circles, where she is known as Dr. Jones. (All Burning Man regulars have “playa names,” pseudonyms given by fellow Burners. Hers references Indiana Jones, the most famous archaeologist who never lived.) White has even created her own small settlement, Camp Anthro, which she and UNR cultural anthropologist Deborah Boehm — known as Fieldnotes on the playa — call home when they attend the festival.

The Burning Man organizers have enthusiastically embraced White’s project, as I see for myself when we run into festival co-founder Michael Mikel at a cocktail bar back in Reno. Mikel, also a historian and a futurist, says White’s work has helped inform organizational efforts to leave even less of a trace on the playa than Burning Man has in the past — ironically making her archaeology more challenging. But the connection is also intellectual. “They encourage scholarship about Burning Man because they see Burning Man as being historically significant,” says White. “And because there’s this irreverence associated with Burning Man, they’re willing to see more experimental scholarship as something that’s viable.”

Like the festival itself, White’s contemporary archaeology is radically exploratory. “When you’re looking at an archaeology that doesn’t go back into the past, it’s almost looking into an archaeology of the future,” Mikel says. “I think what you’re beginning to do is to look forward in time.”

A Brief History of Burning Man

It all started back in 1986, with an impromptu gathering of around a dozen friends on a San Francisco beach. Burning Man co-founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James had transformed a pile of scrap lumber into an 8-foot-tall wooden figure that was doused in gasoline and set ablaze. As the crowd of curious onlookers grew, they realized they had the makings of a community. In 1990, what became known as Burning Man moved to its current home in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the first time, where 350 participants watched a 40-foot wooden figure reduced to ash. As the attendance grew over the years, so did the man, towering as high as 105 feet. ­— Alison Mackey

Growing Awareness

Although not exactly invented at Burning Man, the practice of contemporary archaeology is fairly new, and still far from mainstream. Arguably the earliest example, and still one of the most famous, originated in 1973 when a University of Arizona archaeologist named William Rathje decided to study garbage in Tucson.

As a specialist in Maya civilization, Rathje was well practiced in the study of middens, heaps of ancient rubbish that had provided his field with most of its knowledge about Mesoamerican culture. Prompted by several students, he realized that the same approach could be used to understand his own society. For the next four decades, often with assistance from local trash collectors, he amassed and cataloged what people threw out. His research revealed the degree to which people were in denial about their junk food consumption, and also highlighted less obvious phenomena, such as the fact that consumers waste more perishables in times of economic stress because they tend to overstock.

Rathje’s Garbage Project had an impact on public policy, informing fields ranging from nutrition to landfill management, but it failed to attract broad support in Rathje’s own discipline. “Archaeologists ask, ‘Why bother looking at the present?’ ” says White, citing a prejudice against recency that even extends to study of the 19th and 20th centuries. “There are still not that many people looking at active sites,” she says, “and they often have an activist or political slant.” As an example, White cites archaeological work on undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States, initiated by University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León, who studies the distribution of abandoned personal items in the Sonoran Desert. The work shows how border policy affects risk-taking behaviors.

White wasn’t aware of any research in contemporary archaeology before she became interested in Burning Man. Her background was primarily in American colonial material culture when she started at UNR in 2005.

Though the festival embraces a "leave no trace" ethos, small items are often left behind. A team of dedicated volunteers spends weeks combing the desert every year after the festival's end to ensure that the desert is once again pristine. Aaron Muszalski

One of the first sites she excavated was a Depression-era mining community called Rabbithole Springs, just southeast of the Black Rock Desert. She began work in the late summer and found the area getting dustier every morning. One day, she mentioned it to a Bureau of Land Management officer who oversaw the area. “Oh yeah, they’re starting to set up,” he told her, referring to the Department of Public Works, a division of the Burning Man organization responsible for laying out Black Rock City.

“I’d heard about Burning Man from my brother-in-law, but I had no idea that I was physically that close,” White recalls. “But I’d been thinking about this idea of looking at the world through an archaeological lens. I started wondering whether Burning Man might be a good place to try it out.” Since the BLM is deeply involved in the logistics of Burning Man — which takes place on public land leased by the organization — her contact there had ready access. He arranged a visit.

Leaving No Trace: Cleaning up the Playa

How do you make a city of 75,000 disappear? With a little help from your friends!

While every participant is expected to adhere to the “leave no trace” core of the Burning Man philosophy, things are always left behind. That’s where the Playa Restoration Team, or Resto, steps in, a part of the Black Rock City Department of Public Works. Starting on the final day of the festival, this dedicated group of volunteers spends weeks combing the playa for damage and debris, helping complete the yearly transformation from bustling city to pristine desert. — A.M.

Seeing the Sights

White was astounded by the scale and complexity of the emerging city, which has grown every year since 1990, when a group of friends moved their annual summer solstice ceremony from a San Francisco beach into the Nevada desert. She resolved to return one day during the festival itself, not only to witness the ritual burning of the namesake wooden effigy, which stands as tall as 105 feet, but also to see the workings of a community that operates on utopian principles, including spontaneous gift-giving and radical self-expression. All she needed was a willing campmate.

A few years later, Boehm took a position in the UNR anthropology department. Like White, Boehm was interested in contemporary society. (Much of her fieldwork has been focused on the struggles of recent immigrants.) Also like White, she was a Burning Man neophyte. She was naive enough to believe, as White did, that a study of Burning Man would be a nicely self-contained project — an entertaining break from her usual work. In late August of 2008, they set up Camp Anthro and watched tens of thousands of Burners descend on the playa. “I realized that to study Burning Man is a bit of an overwhelming endeavor,” says Boehm.

University of Nevada, Reno, professors Carolyn White (left) and Deborah Boehm, aka Dr. Jones and Fieldnotes, visit the Center Camp tent during one of their many Burning Man field expeditions. Courtesy of Carolyn White

White is more frank. “We were kind of paralyzed,” she says. “I had all these plans about how I was going to systematically map camps with my ruler and compass, but everything was constantly changing. I threw my plans out the window and started to walk around like any tourist visiting a city for the first time.”

After her sightseeing, White realized she needed to let go of the urge to map camps by the centimeter, and embrace the festival’s vaunted principle of “radical participation.” She decorated her bicycle and gave up the Indiana Jones khaki for more colorful attire. Inspired by Boehm’s casual approach to learning about people through conversation, she started hanging out in camps and chatting with her fellow Burners. Sometimes she asked them to give her tours of their camps, where she made quick sketches and took a few digital photos.

Over time, White started to detect disconnects between what she heard and what she saw. “The gifting culture is pervasive,” she says, “but as much as there’s an openness, there are also a lot of boundaries. In people’s camps, the public space is always clearly demarcated by things like a clear path or extra chairs, but what is not so visible is that there are all of these private spaces that people close off.”

Volunteers form a line to make sure every square inch is accounted for. Aaron Muszalski

Her conclusion wasn’t that people were trying to hide something or being disingenuous in their embrace of “radical inclusion.” (After all, they were happy to indulge her invasive documentation and to field Boehm’s nosy questions.) Rather, the research showed White that even in this most free and short-lived of cities, “people need their private space.” The radical inclusion is made possible by these secret escape hatches.

William L. Fox, who oversees the Burning Man archive as director of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + The Environment, sees White’s work as an important contribution to how Black Rock City will be studied by future generations. He also sees it more broadly as “a model for investigative behavior, a forensics protocol for ephemeral events.” By learning how to do archaeology in the moment, White is adding a new layer to the permanent record.

The Future Is Past

In a windowless room on the UNR campus, White shows me dozens of Styrofoam trays containing tiny artifacts. On one table are Depression-era objects from Rabbithole Springs, including bottle glass and pencil stubs. The trays on the second table contain cigarette butts, condom wrappers and many, many pistachio shells. These are the physical remains of Black Rock City, a multiyear sampling of materials collected by the BLM after the Burners had gone home and a corps of volunteers had walked the playa with trash bags.

Essentials for cleaning, or "mooping" the desert include a pick-up stick and container to hold findings. Flags are plucked from the initial grounds survey, and rakes and shovels are also used to break up dunes and clean fire marks.

The BLM collects these items as part of an annual inspection, which is one of the conditions of Burning Man’s lease on the playa. Sixty sectors, each a tenth of an acre, are selected at random. Everything found in a sector is put in a ziplock bag. The law requires that the detritus from a sector not fill more than 3.8 square inches. Burning Man has successfully surpassed this standard every year since the first BLM inspection in 1991.

In the past, the inspection materials went in the trash. Now they get shipped to White’s lab. Everything from the 6 acres of inspection typically fits inside a single medium-size Priority Mail box. (The baggies take up most of the space.) When a box arrives, White’s students catalog the contents of each bag as if they were artifacts from Rabbithole or an ancient Maya city.

While these artifacts provide insights about Burning Man itself, they’re at least as important for what they reveal about White’s profession. “For me, it’s really useful to think about what’s here as a way of trying to understand what might be missing,” she says. Because she attends Burning Man in person, she can observe the discrepancies.

A satellite overview of Burning Man’s Black Rock City in 2013 reveals the scope and structure of the independent festival. DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

One example she gives is the dearth of safety pins. Having witnessed the cleanup, she’s seen that some volunteers turn safety pins into jewelry, and other volunteers will trade any safety pins they find for other playa collectibles, such as shell casings. “Whatever is considered valuable might likewise be missing from excavations on older sites,” White says. The lesson of the safety pins is that what is considered valuable to a culture may not be obvious to the archaeologist.

Other blind spots revealed by Burning Man have simple solutions. For instance, White believes that not enough attention is paid to the location of latrines on historic and prehistoric sites. “The port-a-potties at Burning Man practically structure the whole city,” she observes. By informing future excavations, contemporary archaeology can genuinely be — as Mikel suggests — an archaeology of the future.

In her historical work, White is applying what she’s learned. Instead of analyzing digs as fixed sites, defined by surface features left behind when they were abandoned, she wants to learn how the areas changed through time so she’s being more attentive to signifiers such as repairs.

“All sites are fundamentally ephemeral,” White says. Even if they don’t vanish annually like Black Rock City, their state of flux is their source of life. There is a trace of Burning Man in every society.

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