A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By JASON URBANUS
Thursday, January 14, 2021
The small English village of Rendlesham, Suffolk, sits just four miles upriver to the northeast of the famed Anglo-Saxon royal burial site of Sutton Hoo. Portions of the modern village and its fields had long attracted the notice of archaeologists, and had been investigated during the nineteenth century, in the 1940s, and as recently as 1982. Evidence from these studies, though relatively scant, established that it had been an Anglo-Saxon settlement, but not necessarily with a royal connection. Then, in 2008, a Rendlesham landowner notified authorities that “nighthawks”—metal detectorists who raid archaeological sites in darkness, searching out illicit treasure—had been scouring his fields.
The renewed attention brought by the looters enabled the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, working with the landowner and volunteer metal detectorists, to conduct a survey, led by archaeologist Jude Plouviez, to evaluate damage and reassess the site’s archaeological potential. Now, some six years later, the investigation is ongoing, and the fields of Rendlesham are helping to fill in our knowledge of the kingdom that the Anglo-Saxon royals of Sutton Hoo once presided over. While the magnificent burials, which date from the sixth and seventh centuries, bring to mind romantic images of warriors such as Beowulf, recent archaeological fieldwork is providing scholars with a new and fuller view of Anglo-Saxon life.
Sutton Hoo is located in eastern England in an area known as East Anglia. The name derives from the people known as the Angles, a Germanic tribe that began invading and settling in Britain around the fifth century. The East Angles were among the largest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon tribes, ruling from centers located along the coast and river valleys in present-day East Anglia. It was there, on a small rise above the River Deben, at Sutton Hoo, that the rulers and royal families of the East Angles were laid to rest.
In 1939, wealthy widowed landowner Edith Pretty sponsored the archaeological excavation of a series of mysterious earthen mounds on her property near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The barrows turned out to be a collection of remarkable tombs, equipped with stunning artifacts, which remain among the most important examples of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship ever excavated.
The graves of Sutton Hoo held impressive trappings of wealth. Ornate jewelry, finely crafted arms and armor, gaming pieces, musical instruments, and even an assortment of animals were entombed with the dead. But one mound in particular stood out—its occupant had been laid to rest within a nearly 90-foot-long ship filled with a multitude of objects.
Although almost nothing remained of its original wooden framework, over the course of 1,300 years, the ship’s rotting timbers left a perfect impression in the soil, allowing archaeologists to determine its exact design and size. The burial chamber was furnished with gold and garnet jewelry, silver bowls, coins, drinking horns, iron swords and spears, and a stunning warrior helmet and facemask, which, with its tinned bronze and gilt decoration, has become the iconic symbol of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Many experts have concluded, based on the richness of the grave goods and the size of the ship, that the tomb is that of Rædwald, the most powerful king of East Anglia, who died around A.D. 625.
Sutton Hoo exists almost entirely as a cemetery, and the question of where the Sutton Hoo kings, their families, and their supporters lived has long puzzled archaeologists. Over the past three-quarters of a century, it has been assumed that the royals buried in Sutton Hoo must have resided nearby, but exploratory fieldwork revealed almost no evidence of any significant settlement. One clue, which researchers had previously followed, is found in the writings of an eighth-century English monk known as the Venerable Bede. Bede, who wrote an early history of the English people, mentions a place called Rendlesham as one of the seats of early English kings: “Swithhelm, the son of Seaxbald, was successor to Sigebehrt. He was baptised by Cedd in East Anglia, in the royal village called Rendlesham, that is the residence of Rendil.”
At Rendlesham teams of archaeologists and volunteers have surveyed a research area encompassing more than 400 acres, using a variety of methods, mainly systematic metal detection and magnetometry. More than 3,500 finds have been recorded, dating from the prehistoric period through the modern age. However, an overwhelming concentration of Anglo-Saxon material indicates the existence of a major settlement in Rendlesham, and, for the first time, conclusive evidence of the site’s long association with the kings of Sutton Hoo.
The 125-acre settlement site is significantly larger than any other known contemporary rural Anglo-Saxon site in England. Although evidence shows that it was occupied from approximately 100 B.C. until today, Rendlesham flourished from the sixth to eighth centuries, a period that coincides with the Sutton Hoo burials. While some objects found in Rendlesham, such as jewelry, gold buckles, and brooches, attest to the wealth and elite status of some of its residents, the diversity of artifacts indicates that royalty were not its only inhabitants. Rendlesham, archaeologists believe, was much more than a “royal village” for East Anglian kings, and functioned as trading post, market, and general assembly center for the region at large. The king was also likely to have had estates in the area other than the one at Rendlesham and would have circulated among them to make contact with the local populations. “The discoveries at Rendlesham are of international significance and, like all new information, are forcing us to reconsider what we think we know. Such a rich, extensive and long-lived central place is something entirely new in the archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,” says Christopher Scull of Cardiff University and University College London, one of the project’s archaeological advisors.
The current project has also unearthed a broad range of artifacts representing different stages of the metal-manufacturing process, including scrap metal, casting molds, and slag, indicating that Rendlesham had a thriving production industry. Weights used to calculate commercial transactions, as well as a number of coins, of both Anglo-Saxon and continental currency, support the idea that Rendlesham was also an important economic center. It is significant, say the archaeologists, that many coins were found not in hoards or caches but, rather, on the ground. They believe that the coins were dropped—perhaps at fairs held in the village—as trade was conducted. The quality of the goods discovered at Rendlesham, both domestic and imported, suggests that high-end traders came there to exchange luxury goods not only from Britain and continental Europe, but also from as far away as the eastern Mediterranean.
The rediscovery of Rendlesham has above all provided new insight into Sutton Hoo society. “We have perhaps underestimated the economic and administrative sophistication of the society that created the burials at Sutton Hoo,” says Scull. “But now we are seeing at Rendlesham how a kingdom could flourish and be ruled without the urban infrastructure—the towns—that are the hallmark of government and commerce in the classical, medieval, and modern worlds. The site challenges a lot of our current thinking about society and economy in the sixth and seventh centuries.” What we know about the kings of Sutton Hoo has so far been learned by examining their graves and funerary practices. Now, we are learning about their lives.
Jason Urbanus is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By ANDREW CURRY
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Not too long ago, archaeologist Rengert Elburg found something that convinced him that “Stone Age sophistication” is not a contradiction in terms. It was a wood-lined well, discovered during construction work in Altscherbitz, near the eastern German city of Leipzig. Buried more than 20 feet underground, preserved for millennia by cold, wet, oxygen–free conditions, the timber box at the bottom of the well was 7,000 years old—the world’s oldest known intact wooden architecture.
Elburg’s team at the Saxony State Archaeological Office removed the ancient well in a single 70-ton block, and brought it back to their lab in Dresden for careful excavation, documentation, and preservation. There, they recovered 151 timbers from the well, which, during the Neolithic period, was part of a large settlement that included nearly 100 timber longhouses. Even after so many millennia, the well’s extraordinary state of preservation began to give the researchers clues to the tools and techniques the ancient woodworkers used. They learned, for example, that to reinforce the bottom of the well, prehistoric carpenters had fashioned boards and beams from old-growth oaks three feet thick, then fit them together using tusked mortise-and-tenon joints, a technique not seen again until the Roman Empire, five millennia later.
When Elburg examined the wood, he could see not only tree rings but also tool marks. But with nothing to compare these ancient tool marks to, this evidence was hard to understand. Thus, he and a motley collection of archaeologists, amateur woodworkers, historical reenactors, and flintknapping hobbyists have been gathering each spring since 2011 for a most unusual workshop. Held in a forest just outside the town of Ergersheim in the southern German region of Franconia, it’s experimental archaeology with a serious purpose.
On the first full day of the 2014 workshop, a late-March Saturday, the woods are the dull brown of dead leaves, with a few tiny white flowers emerging to greet the unseasonably warm sun. It’s easy to spot the workshop participants—they’re all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with an adze-wielding beaver. Elburg’s brought along a Stone Age woodworking toolkit fashioned by freelance archaeo-technician Wulf Hein, who uses the replica tools he makes to create copies of ancient artifacts. After less than an hour of hacking away at a sturdy, decades-old oak donated by the local authorities, a glancing blow has shattered the sharp end of a basalt wedge, rendering it unusable. Red T-shirts cluster around Elburg as he declares the wedge—a 5.5-pound triangle of stone with a hole in the broad end, attached to a slender wood handle—unsalvageable. It’s one of only a handful they have along. “That’s really a shame,” the archaeologist says with a grimace. “That one was really nicely carved. Too bad. Time for another broad wedge, I guess.”
Recreating The Neolithic Toolkit
Soon, the rhythmic pounding of stone against oak picks up again. The workshop’s goal is to reconstruct a few layers of the ancient well from scratch, beginning with chopping down an oak and ending with finishing the joints. Comparing ancient evidence with the byproducts of the participants’ tree clearing and woodworking, such as the chips that litter the ground after a few hours of chopping and chiseling, will help refine what researchers know about Stone Age carpentry. Every once in a while, the noise stops to allow a researcher with a portable 3-D scanner, which looks a bit like a hand mixer with no beaters, to take progress-report scans of the gouges in the trunks. “It’s the first time we’re using the 3-D scanner in the field,” Elburg says. “We can take the records of tool marks from here and compare them to what we have from the well at Altscherbitz.”
Experiments such as the Ergersheim workshop have a long history. Over the years, such research, combined with ethnographic studies of people still using stone tools in the modern era, have helped shape how archaeologists understand the cultures that used them in the past. This type of research has been especially illuminating for the European Neolithic.
The Neolithic period, also known as the Late Stone Age, began 10,000 years ago in what is today Turkey. It was a time of technological and social change, marking a momentous shift from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled farming communities. In Europe, this era began about 7,500 years ago, right around the time the Altscherbitz well was dug. Bringing the Neolithic culture to Europe, Elburg explains, was possible in large part because of advanced technology. “Ground-stone tools enabled these first farmers to clear the woods and build the first permanent houses in Central Europe,” he says.
Around the time farming started in Germany and Denmark, pollen records show there was a dramatic shift in the European landscape. Tree cover declined, and pollen from grasses and shrubs increased. Archaeologists trying to explain this assumed that shifting climate had reduced the forest cover, making it possible for Neolithic farms to flourish. Given the primitive tools available in the Stone Age, their reasoning went, it was unrealistic to think people could have made much of a dent in the primeval forests.
A pollen expert at the Geological Survey of Denmark named Johannes Iversen, however, had his doubts. In 1952, using actual Stone Age flint tools taken from a local museum, he and a few colleagues conducted an experiment in a patch of Danish forest. Photos from the time show them in shirtsleeves, smoking pipes as they swung stone axes. Their first attempts to fell trees were a self-described “fiasco,” according to their journals. “In the course of a few minutes all four of the axes we had brought with us were useless,” the researchers wrote.
Recreating The Neolithic Toolkit
Iversen and his colleagues then rethought how the stones might have fit in their wood handles, and refined their cutting techniques. With the help of some local foresters, over the course of a summer, Iversen and a few other middle-aged Danish academics managed to clear-cut 2.5 acres of forest using nothing but stone tools. Based on this experiment, their calculations suggested that it would have taken a single Stone Age farmer only 36 days—or even less—to clear an equivalent area, which would have made open-field agriculture and managed forestry a realistic possibility for Neolithic European farmers.
The experiment marked the beginning of a significant shift in the way archaeologists thought about early Europeans and their tools. “The old view was that Neolithic people were more or less ape-men,” Elburg says. “It was a very slow process, but eventually people became aware that the Stone Age was not primitive, and that Stone Age tools were not crude blunt-force instruments, but sophisticated in their own way.”
Archaeologist Petra Schweizer-Strobel of the University of Tübingen arrives at Ergersheim armed with ziplock bags and a permanent marker. As workshop participants chop at tree trunks with stone wedges, she kneels nearby and gathers the wood chips, carefully labeling the bags. “I’m noting what tools are being used, what type of wood, and who’s doing the work,” she explains. “A woman will make smaller chips than a man, for example.”
Schweizer-Strobel has spent years examining wood, recovered at the bottom of Lake Constance, from the remains of a Neolithic settlement called Hornstaad-Hoernle, which was located on the Rhine River at the northern foot of the Alps some 6,000 years ago. Hornstaad-Hoernle is one of more than 1,000 known “pile-dwelling” settlements, which were built on prehistoric lakeshores using timber pilings to lift houses above the water. Thanks to oxygen–free conditions at the bottom of some lakes, the pilings and wood debris that dropped into the water from the settlements provide well-preserved evidence of prehistoric woodworking. “I have an unbelievable quantity of chips and waste,” says Schweizer-Strobel. “Take them out of the water and you can see every tool mark. If the ax was starting to get chipped or dull, you can see even that in the wood.”
Comparing the fresh chips from Ergersheim to the 6,000-year-old wood waste recovered at Hornstaad-Hoernle will help her understand the evidence she’s seeing at the pile-dwelling settlements—who was working where, what kind of work was done in the middle of the settlement, and what kind of work was done off-site. She’s also gained a new appreciation for the tools themselves. “Before, people thought you’d never be able to work with these stone axes. It turns out you can, and pretty well,” Schweizer-Strobel says. “I’d never have thought they were so durable and effective.”
Recreating The Neolithic Toolkit
As the day wears on, a pattern of labor begins to emerge. In one area, a trio of toppled trees is being split using wooden wedges and mallets. Nearby, long sections of timber are stripped of bark and fashioned into beams and boards. The final stop is a cluster of craftsmen wielding wooden mallets and sharpened bone chisels to make the joints. Overseeing the last station is Anja Probst, a graduate student at the University of Freiburg who specializes in prehistoric bone tools. It turns out that “Stone Age” is something of a misnomer.
It might be more accurate to call the millennia before the development of metallurgy the “Bone Age,” says Probst. “Bone and antler were actually the most common tools in the Stone Age. You’re already hunting or eating meat, so there are always bones around. Stone was more difficult to get, and had to be transported over many miles.” Close examination of preserved wood from the Altscherbitz well and other prehistoric finds from the area show that chisels were used to make holes and grooves even in hardwood such as oak, and could create perfect square holes in the boards. This sort of fine finishing work needed a lighter touch than the heavy basalt adzes and wedges could provide, and chisels could only be made out of bone and antler.
To prove it, Probst gets cow bones from rare-breed cattle that spend the year outdoors, and resemble the types of animals ancient woodworkers would have encountered. Probst explains that the bones are harder and more durable than those from factory-farmed animals. She then cures, splits, and sharpens them into chisels, which she brings with her to Ergersheim to try out. When they get dull, she rubs the chisels on a bit of sandstone to bring back a sharp edge. Back in the lab, Probst will examine the tools to see what ancient craftsmen were likely using to build wells, longhouses, and other structures. “We look at the wear with a stereomicroscope, an electron microscope, and a white-light interferometer,” she says. “It’s a 3-D surface, and we measure every wear pattern we can see.”
By evening, a frame of wood is taking shape. It will be transported back to Dresden and studied in-depth, but for now Elburg kneels next to the familiar form, comparing the work in progress to a schematic taken from the scans of the Altscherbitz well and nodding in satisfaction. “You have to handle things. By using stone tools ourselves, we can see what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Because from your writing desk you can’t say anything.”
Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
Recreating The Neolithic Toolkit
By SAMIR S. PATEL (Additional Reporting by BARRY YEOMAN)
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
The time: 1955. The place: a dry lakebed in southern Nevada called Frenchman Flat. An explosion equivalent to 22,000 tons of TNT creates a roiling mass of superheated, low-density gas. This fireball rises and collides with the surrounding air, creating turbulent vortices that suck smoke and debris up from the ground into a column. The “stem” rises into cooler, thinner air, where the ascent slows, debris disperses, and moisture condenses to form a “cap.” Over days and even months, nuclear fallout spreads and drifts to Earth.
Between 1951 and 1962, well after the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 14 mushroom clouds rose above this corner of the Nevada desert. They were part of a long, complex, and varied program of nuclear testing, and each had a broad audience. One part was global, as the Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, squared off; the other was sitting on benches on an overlook seven miles away. A stream of political and military VIPs sat there, squinting at blasts and being buffeted by powerful shockwaves. Today, 11 rows of the benches sit under the desert sun, with nails jutting from their warped, desiccated planks. “I like these benches,” says Colleen Beck, an archaeologist with the Desert Research Institute (DRI), part of the Nevada System of Higher Education. “While hardly anyone comes here now, you can really imagine people sitting on them, watching a test.”
Frenchman Flat is one of 14 historic districts at what was once called the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), 1,360 square miles of dust, scrub, and mesa managed by the U.S. Department of Energy. This battlefield that never saw a battle was a main source of the heat of the Cold War. All told, more than 1,000 nuclear weapons were detonated at the Test Site—aboveground and in tunnels—over more than 40 years. Material from these experiments is scattered across the landscape. Each squat building, twisted hunk of metal, and heavily gated tunnel entrance reflects the need both to understand a new, utterly alien power—and to project a mastery of that power to the rest of the world. Beck and her colleagues at the DRI, under contract with the Department of Energy, have spent two decades cataloguing and studying these diverse remains—the rusted wreckage of towers that held bombs, seemingly mundane research support areas, instruments from specific experiments, mock suburban homes. The Test Site offers a complex archaeology of science and war, of geopolitics and popular culture.
In August 1945, the United States dropped nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. The blasts, very small by the standard of what would come, killed more than 100,000, injured and sickened countless more, and left two cities in ruin. Two months later, President Harry Truman told Congress that the atomic bomb signaled “a new era in the history of civilization.” He went on: “Atomic force in ignorant or evil hands could inflict untold disaster upon the nation and the world. Society cannot hope even to protect itself—much less to realize the benefits of the discovery—unless prompt action is taken to guard against the hazards of misuse.”
Congress reacted in 1946 by creating the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to oversee nuclear development. Responding to the threat of a Soviet nuclear program, the AEC authorized nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific, and then later decided the Nevada desert would be less vulnerable to attack. In December 1950, the commission recommended establishing a permanent proving ground on a piece of the old Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. Truman concurred, and the first atmospheric detonation at the Nevada Test Site, a one-kiloton bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat, took place a month later. The U.S. nuclear testing program continued for 41 years and included 928 nuclear tests (with 1,021 total detonations). Most were underground, but 100 tests were atmospheric, or out in the open. Today, as the Nevada National Security Site, it is still used for radioactive waste storage, first-responder training, “subcritical” nuclear tests, and other projects.
The nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site were largely clustered in four areas: Yucca Flat, Pahute and Rainier Mesas, and Frenchman Flat, which stands out for its concentration of aboveground remains. “As time passes, memories are fading about what nuclear weapons can do,” says Beck. “But when you go out there on Frenchman Flat, you can really see how powerful a nuclear detonation can be.”
The material remains at the Test Site represent just how little was known about the power and impact of nuclear weapons technology—even after it had been rushed into use in Japan. Subsequently, tests would be conducted to assess the effects of bombs, simulate nuclear warfare, better understand the effects of radiation, and, of course, build bigger and better bombs. Additional research efforts examined the storage of nuclear waste and the application of nuclear technology to missiles, space travel, and large-scale engineering projects, such as canals. On Frenchman Flat, many of the atmospheric tests were focused on “survivability,” specifically how different structures and materials respond to nuclear blasts. There are, for example, the remains of glass houses, a “motel” (to test structural partitions and masonry), a small house cheekily named “Joe’s Bar,” and dozens of other structures.
Beck was born a month after the Test Site opened 63 years ago. She conducted fieldwork in Peru and the American West before moving to Las Vegas in 1989. She joined the DRI the next year. “When I began, we were really only looking at prehistoric archaeology and at mining- and ranching-related facilities,” she says. Underground testing was still taking place when she started her work there, and part of her job was to identify Native American artifacts in areas scheduled for detonations.
It can be hard to imagine anyone actually living there, Beck says, in part because of lingering radioactivity and ongoing nuclear waste research, but evidence is all around. The variety of stone points found on-site shows occupation that goes back through the Paleoindian period to some 11,000 years ago. At a site called Midway Valley, DRI researchers found a quarry for chalcedony and obsidian that was used for thousands of years. And in Fortymile Canyon there are petroglyphs that some interpret as evidence of vision quests.
There are also later habitation sites for Native Americans, as well as for the prospectors, miners, and ranchers who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. Often clustered around springs, such sites include seasonal camps, rock shelters, cabins, horse corrals, and water troughs, as well as mining equipment and the writer’s cabin of B.M. Bower, who wrote dozens of novels set in the American West.
“But one of the biggest thrills,” she recalls, “was to go into Frenchman Flat and look at the atmospheric-testing grounds. Within a year, it had become apparent to me that the remains at the site were significant historically but were being totally ignored.”
The Department of Energy agreed. In 1991, Beck worked with an architect to document her first twentieth-century structures, and she’s been doing Cold War archaeology ever since. Year after year, archaeologists from the DRI have walked transects across the vast landscape, documented historical remains, and conducted targeted surveys of buildings and structures—almost 2,000 sites so far, representing less than 5 percent of the Test Site. Documenting it all, Beck says, would take lifetimes. “You’d think that after more than 20 years we would have seen it all, but that’s far from the truth,” she says. “We still find things—it’s really amazing.”
At Frenchman Flat, Beck leads a visiting reporter through some of the remains, which are concentrated in about 4.5 square miles of dusty terrain. There, nuclear weapons were dropped by bombers, carried aloft by balloons, perched on towers, and fired from a cannon. Each nuclear detonation was part of a test series or “operation,” often consisting of dozens of “shots,” or explosions. Countless experiments and measurements were conducted and recorded, sometimes across multiple shots or operations.
For example, for one shot called Priscilla, a 37-kiloton weapon was detonated from a balloon 690 feet off the ground on June 24, 1954, as part of Operation Plumbbob. A structure that looks suspiciously like a bank vault remains on Frenchman Flat from that test. “Look how thick those walls were,” Beck says, approaching the twisted steel rods—once encased in concrete—radiating from its sides. The interior of the vault, however, survived intact. “Everyone jokes that they were trying to make sure the money would be safe after a nuclear blast,” Beck says. In fact, according to a 1957 government document, the vault was donated by the Mosler Safe Company “out of the concern on the part of banks and insurance companies over protection of records and valuables.”
Surrounding the vault in every direction are other battered and rusting ruins. A twisted train trestle sits atop two concrete blocks—what’s left of a railway bridge that endured two explosions. An airplane hangar has collapsed beyond recognition. An underground parking garage, included in tests to see how such buildings would perform as bomb shelters, is mostly intact. There is also a group of domed shelters made from concrete and rebar. Some are blown apart, others are not. “They were trying to see whether a dome shape would have a better survival rate than, say, a rectangular building” Beck says. Another feature on Frenchman Flat is an aluminum cylinder with two square holes cut into its side, lying horizontally and held upright by three steel plates. In Priscilla and other tests, pigs were used as human proxies. During the years of atmospheric testing, 1,200 pigs lived on the site in pens nicknamed the “Pork Sheraton.” Prior to detonations, some were placed in containers such as this and outfitted in a variety of fabrics to test how materials held up under intense heat.
But pigs weren’t the only ones exposed to radiation. During the 1950s, 60,000 troops passed through the Test Site. Wearing helmets, gas masks, and ordinary fatigues, many crouched in trenches during the blasts, and later advanced closer—simulating ground warfare in an all-out nuclear conflagration. Another shot in Operation Plumbbob, Smoky, a 44-kiloton device detonated on a tower on Yucca Flat, on the other side of the Test Site, on August 31, 1957, involved 3,000 U.S. servicemen on the ground.
After testing was conducted, many such atmospheric detonation sites were cleaned up, but Smoky was not. “This is the best intact atmospheric nuclear test site,” Beck says. “It makes it extremely special.” She and her team, wearing protective suits, recently conducted an archaeological assessment there. Primary among the remains are twisted fragments and stanchions from the 700-foot tower that held the Smoky device. Evidence of experiments remains, too: A few hundred scattered lead bricks had shielded some kind of instrumentation, and there are French- and German-designed personnel bunkers that were being tested. There is also a hill next to ground zero that is called the “Coke Hill” but is covered in charcoal, and another smaller hill behind it. As with a number of the structures the DRI has documented, no one knew what the hills were used for until engineering drawings finally turned up—they were earthen berms used to protect instrumentation. Despite extensive written documentation, there is much that is still unknown about some sites. “We believe in most cases the data exists somewhere,” Beck says.
More than anything, Beck and the DRI are adding a tangible component to this vast written record, much of which is classified. Their work provides another means of understanding a time defined by fear and uncertainty, but also optimism. It’s not, Beck says, that these materials are going to be lost, as the site is still heavily protected and most of the remains are durable. It is rather that they need to be found, and then inventoried, so that there is an index of knowledge as memories of the age of atomic experimentation fade.
Of more than 300 million U.S. residents, some 80 million were born after the 1992 testing moratorium. And less than a third of the population is old enough to remember the mushroom clouds of atmospheric tests that rose over the Nevada desert. “I’m not sure how any people, even my kids, can grasp what it was really like,” Beck says, thinking back to the time when nuclear anxiety permeated daily life. She sees her work as preserving at least a glimpse of that era.
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY. Barry Yeoman is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.
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