Woodstock, Landscape, and Archaeology

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

A few weeks ago Kostis mentioned that he thought that archaeology was “a post hippie” discipline.  A certain tendency to emphasize rural places, the integrated, almost spiritual, character of landscapes, community engagement, and political activism would seem to evoke many of the central ideals of the hippie movement, albeit within a far more structured environment.  (It’s an open issue whether punk shared the celebrated spontaneity of the hippie movement or parodied it).

This weekend, the New York Times offered a shortish article: “Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace“.  Aside from well-worn ironic observation that the memory of Woodstock became a commodity almost as soon as the festival was over, there was a short paragraph that included one interesting line:

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

The notion that the original hillside would be preserved is an interesting example of how the absence of development could nevertheless represent the commidification of a particular landscape.  Paralleling the desire to preserve battlefields, archaeological landscapes, and other places of cultural significance, the archaeology of absence evokes both the notion of a sacred precinct as well as haunting ideas of ritual abandonment.  In the hyper-commodified world of Woodstock nostalgia, the protected hillside stands out both as an ironic and highly structured place of commemoration.

Perhaps this is another characteristic that separates Punk Archaeology from its post-hippie variants.  The hippie movement, for all its energy, has long been overrun by a kind of crude commercialism so even an archaeologically motivated decision like preserving the famous Woodstock hillside cannot stand outside the discourse of capitalism and gain.

Has Punk remained more authentic?  Certainly the battle to save Punk landmarks like CBGBs has been less successful.  The urban foundation of Punk perhaps created landmarks in an environment which had a more ephemeral character.  Change was anticipated and expected in urban landscapes.  The countryside was idealized as unchanging and efforts to commemorate the countryside typically involve limiting the impact of human activities or even marking it off entirely.  Archaeology, however, relies upon the traces of change through time to document human culture.  The urbanism of Punk contributes to its resistance to commodification (and makes its appeals to nostalgia more ironic still) and preserves it for a different method of documentation later.  Punk Archaeology.

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