Although not exactly invented at Burning Man, the practice of contemporary
archaeology is fairly new, and still far from mainstream. Arguably the
earliest example, and still one of the most famous, originated in 1973 when
a University of Arizona archaeologist named William Rathje decided to study
garbage in Tucson.
As a specialist in Maya civilization, Rathje was well practiced in the
study of middens, heaps of ancient rubbish that had provided his field with
most of its knowledge about Mesoamerican culture. Prompted by several
students, he realized that the same approach could be used to understand
his own society. For the next four decades, often with assistance from
local trash collectors, he amassed and cataloged what people threw out. His
research revealed the degree to which people were in denial about their
junk food consumption, and also highlighted less obvious phenomena, such as
the fact that consumers waste more perishables in times of economic stress
because they tend to overstock.
Rathje’s Garbage Project had an impact on public policy, informing fields
ranging from nutrition to landfill management, but it failed to attract
broad support in Rathje’s own discipline. “Archaeologists ask, ‘Why bother
looking at the present?’ ” says White, citing a prejudice against recency
that even extends to study of the 19th and 20th centuries. “There are still
not that many people looking at active sites,” she says, “and they often
have an activist or political slant.” As an example, White cites
archaeological work on undocumented migration from Mexico to the United
States, initiated by University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León,
who studies the distribution of abandoned personal items in the Sonoran
Desert. The work shows how border policy affects risk-taking behaviors.
White wasn’t aware of any research in contemporary archaeology before she
became interested in Burning Man. Her background was primarily in American
colonial material culture when she started at UNR in 2005.