Christie on White, 'The Archaeology of Burning Man: The Rise and Fall of Black Rock City'

Carolyn L. White
Jessica Christie

Carolyn L. White. The Archaeology of Burning Man: The Rise and Fall of Black Rock City. Archaeologies of Landscape in the Americas Series. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020. Illustrations. 280 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-6133-2.

Reviewed by Jessica Christie (East Carolina University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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The Archaeology of Burning Man is a unique analysis of a temporary, contemporary city that is built, lived, celebrated, ritualized, and dismantled in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada during one week every September. Black Rock City is a place crowded with spectacle and at the same time a typical city in which mundane acts of daily life and tasks of upkeep intertwine with social gatherings and ritual. Life at Burning Man is subjected to a strict ethos of ten principles, emphasizing community values, participation, individualism, freedom of expression, and Leave No Trace.

Carolyn L. White’s research approach engages Black Rock City’s massive scale, infrastructure, public spaces, private spaces, and relationships between the built and natural environment through the framework of contemporary archaeology. While “contemporary archaeology” is an emerging subfield of historical archaeology, the emphasis on “archaeology” distracts from the actual objectives of the study, which might be better characterized as an investigation of the material culture, performance, and lifeworld of Burning Man. Cultural anthropology may be the better fitting discipline.

In chapter 2, White introduces her theoretical approaches. She leans heavily on Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974) and applies his modalities of a tripartite order of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space as well as his scheme of public, private, and intermediary spaces to Black Rock City. She draws from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), theorizing the differences between “strategies” and “tactics,” strategies and tactics form the lens through which power dynamics and the political economy at Burning Man are analyzed. White employs Georges Bataille’s model of production, consumption, and sacrifice to evaluate Burning Man as an economic phenomenon of a closed energy system that must find a release outlet, concluding that it “is a marvelous example of squandering wealth, of that dissipation of energy” (p. 45). This is a limiting view that ignores the profound social and environmental implications of the event, which in lived practice is not that “closed.” The author tackles the messiness of Burning Man through metaphors of rhizomes and meshworks and smooth and striated space.

Chapter 3 chronicles the highly organized layout, construction, and rise of the city, from the Golden Spike ceremony of setting the center point to the perimeter fence. Chapter 4 explains the infrastructure of Burning Man, including the gate; the Department of Public Works; Camp Clean, which is the living area of a crew hired from the region to attend to the porta-potties; Burning Man Information Radio; Center Camp Café; and Arctica, where ice is sold. Chapter 5 investigates households, ranging from single tents, to multistory apartment buildings, to a gathering of RVs around a central table. White describes house forms and then focuses in on one camp, Whiskey and Dust. Chapter 6 offers a tour through theme camps Jungle Camp and Camp 11:11. The author observes changes and continuities in Jungle Camp between 2009 and 2010. Chapter 7, “Village Life,” and chapter 8, “The Fall of the City,” delve into the grandeur and spectacle of Burning Man. Villages consist of several theme camps, some of which house grandiose structures, such as Troy/Vertical Camp featuring an immense cubist-like structure that rises four stories and is built from shade cloth and scaffolding, or Alternative Energy Zone, which extends over two city blocks and consists of a great diversity of individual theme camps united under the agreement not to run fossil-fueled generators. The end of Black Rock City begins with the great burning spectacles: the Man burn is a loud, joyous, and celebratory affair accompanied by dancing whereas the Temple burn on the last night of the event is somber and quiet, when people are reflective. After that, the exodus begins following the Leave No Trace principle.

In her chapter 9, the epilogue, White summarizes how her theoretical approaches contribute to her investigation of Burning Man. Her theories help order the diverse material but not truly deepen the readers’ understanding. As she notes: “This book is itself a meshwork [like Black Rock City]—it is a system of parts that in some ways fit together and interlock but in other ways stand together uncomfortably” (p. 222).

The greatest impact her book makes lies in questioning the discipline of archaeology. White reminds us that traditional archaeological methods do not adequately analyze the role of time and decay on archaeological sites or manifold concurrent uses of space. Active-site “archaeology” teaches to ask more and new questions from the material conventional archaeology has left out. The author concludes: “The archaeology of Burning Man offers a critique of archaeology as a practice used to answer questions of interest” (pp. 232-33). This is a profound statement that will provoke much discussion. White implies that “questions of interest” relate to the present; this links back to the conundrum that established archaeology excavates ancient sites and that there are usually insufficient material data to provide scientific answers to a wide range of present-related questions.

Citation: Jessica Christie. Review of White, Carolyn L., The Archaeology of Burning Man: The Rise and Fall of Black Rock City. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

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