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Dawn of a Thousand Suns

As the beginning of the Atomic Age fades into history, archaeologists work to document a time of uncertainty and experimentation

November/December 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.”


Nuclear-America-BenchesFrenchman 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.



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