The Archaeology of Awe

I remained perfectly still, knowing that any movement would cause the dust drifts balancing on the folds of my sleeping bag to cascade inside of it. It was my second day at Burning Man and all my possessions - from the clothing inside my backpack to the delicate gears inside my digital camera - were impregnated with the remnants of a massive dust storm. As an archaeologist, I was certainly used to less than ideal conditions, but this was not my idea of camping. Yet it was because of archaeology that I had chosen to come here in the first place during what was ostensibly my vacation.

I had been directing archaeological research for a decade in the highland Andes, in one of those rare places on earth where civilization once spontaneously arose. The more years I spent digging, the more enigmatic the site became. From the air, the ruins seemed ordered in a geometric array of fine stone; on the ground, these monuments seemed barely more than façades cobbled together by random blocks that had been torn out and reused from previous ruined buildings. Outside these stone temples, the most common archaeological finds were pits filled with a mixture of ash, smashed beer cups, hallucinogenic drug paraphernalia, and bones from choice cut of llama. I had come looking for the origins of civilization, but instead it seemed I had arrived very late to a massive party. This party, though, was not just a singular event: the city had lasted a thousand years, and inspired others to follow suit, including the Inca of Machu Picchu fame.

At a time when I was struggling to explain my data, I started hearing more about an insane festival in the Nevada desert. I had always dismissed it as another rave party for young adults, but uncanny similarities between the ancient ruins and the modern festival - its isolation, its regular plan (at least from the air), its emphasis on communal festive activities - inspired me to delve into a surprising amount of serious analytical literature about this festival. I worked this information into a single lecture on Burning Man that ended up the central focus of a class syllabus, which ultimately resulted in successive years of doubled enrollment, until I reluctantly had to impose a cap. I was thoroughly enjoying lecturing to a packed class of attentive students, but all the while, I was harboring a terrible secret: I had never actually been to Burning Man.

This, strangely enough, worked to my advantage, as I had a theoretical framework unbiased by the complexity of experience. Students who had been to Burning Man were the least capable of speaking about it; in fact, "indescribable" was the most common word they used to describe their experience. I provided the jargon and academic sound bites, along with validation from primary anthropological and religious scholars, but one insightful student told me that the more I explained, the further away I led them from the truth of the experience. So I opted to do some "experimental archaeology," a process I was already familiar with from recreating ancient technologies as a means to understand the past. Except, this time, instead of stone tools and ancient watercraft, I would be the subject, and I would experience firsthand the appeal and the effect of this festival.

My experiment began with the long journey across the Nevada desert that is considered part of the experience - the start of the journey from the profane world to the sacred as religious scholar Mircea Eliade would have said. And as we approached our destination and met up with other attendees, I felt a level of expectation that ornithologists call zugunruhe: the anxious behavior in migratory animals just prior to and during the migration period. Upon arrival, the beautiful and orderly radial pattern of the city I had seen in a thousand aerial pictures turned into an elaborate chaos of eclectic camps and works of art. And time quickly lost meaning. For example, a trip across the street to get a cup of coffee turned into a ride in a party car across the city, with stops for bacon and Bloody Mary's, followed by cold brewed coffee mixed with a side of conversation with my newfound friends about urban chicken raising in Seattle. Next, a session of Buddhist chanting and a visit to a lemonade stand and several art installations, before finding my way home through the beautiful chaos of costumed people on wildly decorated bicycles. That was merely the first day, before lunch. As the thumping music of the rave parties signaled the start of the evening activities, I would crawl into my dusty tent exhausted in body and mind and sleep like a child until the morning.

As the week continued, these euphoric spells of high creativity began to alternate with moments of primordial despair as skin burned and cracked, hair knotted, and clothing stiffened from sweat and dust. This brewing of emotional and intellectual conflict is an intentional part of the experience, co-founder Larry Harvey told me as we sat around a campfire on the last night of the festival. The original founders now ran the complex logistics of Burning Man in a professional manner, but they were considered first and foremost to be "engineers of experience" - and they had designed, or observed the organic development of, a setting that combines visceral personal experience with intense feelings of collective effervescence. The first, defining decision on the nature of the experience was the intentional choice of such an inhospitable place. "If the weather was room temperature, their spirits would go spiraling into the air," said Larry as he made a spiraling motion with his hand. "The weather brings them down, forces them to take shelter and rely on others to survive." The rewards for those that could accept this penitence were substantial. One artist mentioned that a week at Burning Man gave him six months of ideas for work. For me, the hard structure of campus life built around university time and cycles melted away towards whimsical spontaneity, and my mind began dashing off in all creative directions as I revalued my research data and fantasized about making my own event for the following year.

"It's amazing how much people love this place," volunteered a first-time burner sitting next to me on a tall art sculpture made of nested cubes. "They put all this blood, sweat and tears into this place, then burn it all a week later." From my vantage point, I tried to imagine the mute spaces and eroding stones of my archaeological site humming with the kind of energy that had surrounded me for the past several days. As much as we like to think that we are rational beings, that our decisions are calculated, efficient, and economic, there seems to be something in us as human beings that is not satisfied solely with efficiency and comfort. Burning Man is a modern high tech festival, but underneath the LED lights and amplified sound systems is an ancient archetype that feeds the basic human desire to experience a creative rush, the human connection across social boundaries, and perhaps above all, a sense of awe. We also yearn for a community with which to share these experiences. This has been a very successful formula to the point that Burning Man is in danger of succumbing to its own success. Harnessing this basic human desire thousands of years ago established civilization in the high Andes, breaking with a cycle of hunting and gathering that had dominated the human condition for tens of thousands of years. We have yet to see to what end, if any, this desire will be wielded now.