Archaeology of an atomic test site


Archaeologist Colleen Beck has spent 20 years studying the fake suburban homes, real bunkers, scientific instrumentation, and tunnels at the Nevada Test Site, 1,360 miles of land where more than a dozen atomic bombs were detonated between 1951 and 1962. From Samir S. Patel's feature in Archaeology magazine:


For example, for one shot called Priscilla, a 37-kiloton weapon was detonated from a balloon 690 feet off the ground on June 24, 1954, as part of Operation Plumbbob. A structure that looks suspiciously like a bank vault remains on Frenchman Flat from that test. "Look how thick those walls were," Beck says, approaching the twisted steel rods—once encased in concrete—radiating from its sides. The interior of the vault, however, survived intact. "Everyone jokes that they were trying to make sure the money would be safe after a nuclear blast," Beck says. In fact, according to a 1957 government document, the vault was donated by the Mosler Safe Company "out of the concern on the part of banks and insurance companies over protection of records and valuables."

Surrounding the vault in every direction are other battered and rusting ruins. A twisted train trestle sits atop two concrete blocks—what's left of a railway bridge that endured two explosions. An airplane hangar has collapsed beyond recognition. An underground parking garage, included in tests to see how such buildings would perform as bomb shelters, is mostly intact. There is also a group of domed shelters made from concrete and rebar. Some are blown apart, others are not. "They were trying to see whether a dome shape would have a better survival rate than, say, a rectangular building" Beck says. Another feature on Frenchman Flat is an aluminum cylinder with two square holes cut into its side, lying horizontally and held upright by three steel plates. In Priscilla and other tests, pigs were used as human proxies. During the years of atmospheric testing, 1,200 pigs lived on the site in pens nicknamed the "Pork Sheraton." Prior to detonations, some were placed in containers such as this and outfitted in a variety of fabrics to test how materials held up under intense heat.

"Dawn of a Thousand Suns"