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Burning Man Through The Eyes Of An Archaeologist


(AP Photo/Brad Horn)

A an aerial view of Black Rock City is seen during the Burning Man festival near Gerlach, Nev., on Friday, Aug. 29, 2008.

“Each August, cadres of staff and volunteers begin to construct Black Rock City, a temporary city located in the Black Rock Desert of northwestern Nevada, 12 miles north of Gerlach, a town that greets visitors with a sign that reads, ‘Welcome to Nowhere.’”  

This is, of course, referring to Burning Man – and that was the intro to an archaeology book by Carolyn White, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada Reno.  

She set out to study Black Rock City as an archaeological site in 2008, and her book, “The Archaeology of Burning Man: The Rise and Fall of Black Rock City” – is the result of that research.  

“Burning Man and Black Rock City attracted me as a place where I could launch a project where I applied those methods and theories that I used to study the more traditional archaeological sites and apply those methods to the present,” she said.

White is interested in the daily lives of people and the city that appears and disappears in about two months' time at the end of the summer seemed like a great place to study how people create public and private spaces.

Black Rock City is actually an archaeologist's nightmare because one of the basic tenents of life on the playa is 'leave no trace' but archaeologists use traces to figure out how ancient civilizations lived.

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So instead of looking for traces of daily life, White went to the festival and interviewed Burners. She said overwhelmingly people wanted to talk about their campsites and how they lived.

“The great thing about this project is that there have been many willing participants who have been extraordinarily cooperative," she said.

At traditional archaeology sites, participants are long gone but at Burning Man, White could talk to people about their lives.

“I think that people were surprised that someone might be interested in the ways that they pack their car or where they store their food or how each camp gets rid of gray water," she said, "It’s not the kind of thing that people generally talk about. So to have someone interested in those mundane, daily events was overall something people were completely open to.”

But since there is no way to document all of Black Rock City in one visit, she went year after year looking to fill the gaps in her knowledge of the festival.

White said organizers start building the camp in August. They set up the boundaries and the roads that radiate out from the central hub, which is the gigantic statue of a man that will be burned at the end of the week. The roads also run concentrically around the playa, which is laid out like a massive clock.

Burners come later to fill in the clock with their own camps. Some are elaborate, she said, and some are simple tents for one person.

“I think in the book there is a nice cross-section between small, single-person tents to villages that are comprised of hundreds of people," she said, "I wanted to show the diversity and array of what people build out there from the simplest most basic to the over the top elaborate.”

The leave-no-trace ethic permeates the entire festival where the biggest insult is being called a 'MOOP-er.' MOOP is an acronym for 'matter out of place.' 

White said after the festival is finished the organizers spend a month and a half taking everything down and then comb the playa inch by inch looking for any trash that might have been left behind. 

White said it was that contrast behind what people think of as the chaos of Burning Man and how the event is really organized that drew her to the project.

“Immediately, I thought that the things that people think about Burning Man don’t really line up with what it’s like to live there on a daily basis,” she said.

It's not just about leaving nothing behind but it's about another of the 10 principles of Burning Man - radical self-reliance.

“Part of it is just that everyone has to bring in their own food, all their own water, all of the materials they need to survive and thrive in the city and people take that very seriously and have an attitude of bringing extra as well,” she said.

Besides the extraordinary organization and the radical self-reliance displayed by Burners, White was surprised by how ordinary Black Rock City can be. 

“One of the lessons for me, much to my surprise, was that Black Rock City is really very similar to every city. It’s just that Burning Man and the event that forms the city happens a lot more quickly,” she said.

White said the city is put together much the same way a 19th Century mining town might have been with divisions of public and private spaces. The only difference is some of the sites and sounds will be a lot more fantastical.

“It’s just people traveling to a place, making it their home for a short amount of time, and then, packing up and putting everything back so that they can do it again,” she said.

White hopes her research demonstrates the value of looking at the world we live in now from an archaeology standpoint that can teach us about how people live day to day and how they use resources as a way to guide the future of civilization. 


Carolyn White, anthropology professor, University of Nevada Reno 

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