On Bombs and Preservation

A U.S. Naval Air Warfare testing ground contains what might be one of the most important collections of prehistoric rock art in the world, reports the New York Times. In fact, “there may be as many as 100,000 images carved into the dark volcanic canyons above the China Lake basin,” we read, “some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years, others as recent as the mid-20th century.”

Everywhere we looked, for a mile or so down canyon, there were images pecked or scratched into the rock faces: stylized human figures in a variety of headgear, stick figures with bows and arrows, dogs or coyotes, bear paws with extra digits, all manner of abstract geometric patterns, zigzags and circles and dots, and hundreds upon hundreds of what looked like bighorn sheep, some small, some larger than life size.

David Whitley, an archaeologist interviewed by the NYT, sees the figures as early, graphic “evidence of cognitive sophistication.”

[Images: Three photos by Bill Becher for The New York Times].

The actual location of these glyphs, however, is inside an extensive Naval Air Weapons Station—descriptions of which verge on the Sebaldian in tone:

Floating across a landscape strewn with more than a half-century’s weapons-testing debris—observation towers, armored vehicles, projectile-riddled shipping containers—I tried to fathom that people had been coming here and making art since at least 90 centuries before the founding of Rome.
“It was a very different place then,” Mr. Whitley explained, conjuring the end of the last ice age, 18,000 years ago, the melting of glaciers, the system of saline lakes across what is now called the Great Basin. “This had water over 100 feet deep,” he said. Mammoths, saber-toothed cats and giant Pleistocene bison still roamed the upland peninsulas.

This spatial elision between landscapes of aerial bombing and historically invaluable archaeological sites brings to mind another article, published several weeks ago in the Air Force Times. The objectivity of the following statements clearly deserve some skepticism—as the U.S. military is not widely lauded for its archaeological sensitivity—but there is a fascinating idea under the surface here:

War games and live fire are expected on this military bombing range. But there are also delicate reminders—cultural traces—of a people who lived here beginning around 10,000 B.C. This desert, both severe and beautiful, is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the Southwest. They remain because the military—with an arsenal of overwhelming force—practices its craft with an eye on preserving history on the nearly 3,000 square miles of desert.

As it happens, U.S. military bases can often overlap with beautifully preserved landscapes—the reason you can hike the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, for instance, without walking through backyard hot tubs, Ferris Bueller-style, is because all of that land used to be owned by the military (and was thus removed from the sphere of private real estate development). The Korean DMZ is another, well-known example of this phenomenon—war, the great preserver.

But I’m less excited by the idea of compiling a list of militarily-preserved landscapes than by the surreal intermixture of bomb fragments, prehistoric rock art, and ancient artifacts that can be found in the wake of military use and occupation. For instance, the fact that, as the BBC reported four years ago, U.S. Army sandbags “have been filled with precious archaeological fragments” by forces stationed in the civilization-defining ruins of Babylon, marks a scene of amnesia-laden catastrophe even as it will someday present archaeologists with a scene of near-overwhelming interpretive complexity.

You zoom into the very grain of the world only to find, in that moment of observational precision, all of its fragments have been knocked out of place. History is undone by unexpected proximities. Perhaps human history will be like the archaeology of a hurricane.

[Image: A photo of subsidence craters, the spatial aftermath of underground nuclear tests, taken by Emmet Gowin; via the Boston Globe].

In any case, the irony that 16,000-year-old petroglyphs might actually be better preserved precisely because they are located inside the canyons of a 21st-century desert bombing range is equal in weight to the sheer tragedy that such incongruous land use practices might result in those petroglyphs’ total destruction. It’s an unintentional—but also socially invisibleBamiyan, as the traces of human history are scratched out by shrapnel and tank treads, one at a time.

So will the legacy of the United States by the replacement of things like Newspaper Rock with a new system of monumental desert signs—speaking to the ages through a language of craters—the bomb site as national park? Or will these early glyphs remain legible in centuries to come precisely because they were exiled to the edge and forgotten there, placed in the void alongside live-fire exercises and smart-bomb runs?

(Air Force Times article found via the always excellent Archaeology news service; New York Times article spotted by @stevesilberman).

2 thoughts on “On Bombs and Preservation”

  1. As an archaeologist living near and working on this very Navy base, I feel comfortable saying that the government, at least in this case, has consistently impressed me with its preservation efforts. I also believe that if it had not been for the protection provided by the base, these amazing petroglyphs would have suffered a great deal of damage, and the fact that they're nearly pristine is due in large part to the exclusive nature of China Lake.

    The preservation requirements are so stringent, in fact, that several members of my immediate family (who work in research and testing at China Lake) are continually frustrated in their efforts at work. So, at least here, the cultural resource is better for its contact with the US government.

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