No ancient temple was harmed; ancient implements may have been

Israeli Burning Man may have accidentally damaged prehistoric tools

Central art installation of last week’s Midburn festival was built atop 150,000-year-old archaeological site

The Temple of One burns on the last night of the Israeli Burning Man festival, Midburn, in the desert near Sde Boker, May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
The Temple of One burns on the last night of the Israeli Burning Man festival, Midburn, in the desert near Sde Boker, May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

First it was the cops, then it was the Neanderthals.

Before Israel’s Burning Man ever got underway, police threatened to put the kibosh on the event due to disputes over public nudity and surveillance.

Those issues were ironed out in the last hours before the festival. But when the music was already thumping, and the art installations already stretched across the desert floor for the close to 7,000 participants, another issue arose: Midburn organizers had accidentally built the Temple of One — a massive, star-shaped structure for contemplation — in the exact center of the camp, atop an ancient archaeological site.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Southern Negev District head, archaeologist Yoram Haimi, the Middle Paleolithic site where the temple was built dated back at least 150,000 years. The small hilltop, which rises gently above the surrounding area, was sporadically inhabited until about 70,000 years ago, most likely due to the seasonal Boker stream, which possibly provided running water during the rainy season, he said.

Haimi noted that the site contains a number of ancient tools made from stone, including flints, blades, and scrapers for preparing meat and leather. The tools are only identifiable by trained archaeologists. To a regular person, they would look like a pile of rocks.

The fear is that these tools — and not, as widely and incorrectly reported, an ancient wooden temple — may have been damaged by the Midburn event. No structures are left from this period, just shards and tools. Archaeologists do not know if these early humans even had structures, or whether they slept and lived in the open.

Flint knife (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Jerusalem Bible Lands Museum)
Flint knife (Courtesy of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem)

Haimi claimed that the festival organizers did not coordinate with the Israel Antiquities Authority for the necessary permits and that, by the time the IAA discovered that the Temple structure had been built on an archaeological site, the festival was already underway.

On the last night of the festival, as is the custom at Burning Man events around the world, the community gathered to watch the Temple burn to the ground.

“We got all of the permits that were required, from the police, Israel Lands Authority, National Parks Administration, Magen David Adom, the firefighters, every permit that we needed to host the event,” said Midburn head of communications Dan Peguine. “We were never asked to get a permit from the IAA.”

One of the arms of the Temple of One installation, at the Midburn festival on May 24, 2015 (Photo by Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
One of the arms of the Temple of One installation at the Midburn festival, May 24, 2015 (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Haimi countered that every large event needs to be coordinated with the IAA, and even the army checks with the Authority before building a temporary camp for training purposes. He said that last year’s Midburn, located a few kilometers to the south of this year’s event, had also been coordinated with the IAA.

The Temple structure, based loosely on the design of a Star of David, was two stories high and spanned 27 meters (90 feet) from each point. There were six separate entrances, three of which led to an upper floor. The entire structure was accessible to the disabled.

Peguine said the Midburn organization is conducting an internal investigation to understand how the oversight occurred. “We’re a community in which one of our 10 founding principles is ‘Leave No Trace,’” he said. Leave No Trace is an outdoor philosophy about leaving any site in pristine condition after use.

“Not knowing the law does not cancel the fact that they’ve broken the law,” said Haimi. “We didn’t stop the festival, we could have done a stop work order and stopped the whole festival, but we didn’t. They’re nice people. But they have to coordinate with the IAA. We’re in favor of festivals and happy events here, as long as they coordinate.”

The good news, said Haimi, is that stone tools, which have survived for 150,000 years, won’t be destroyed by a bonfire — even a large bonfire. The problem comes from heavy machinery that drove over the site during the construction of the Temple, scattering the rocks and tools. “[Now, the tools] are not ‘in situ,’ it’s not where they were left,” he went on. “The moment everything moved, we’re finished. We have a problem on an archaeological level.”

Neither will the archaeologists know the extent of the damage until the rains come in the fall or winter and wash the fine dust away.

Peguine said that IAA representatives who visited during the festival said the fire would not affect the stone tools. The problem lay in the construction — which had already taken place — and in the cleanup.

A Midburn participant twirls flaming baton at the second annual festival modeled after America's Burning Man on May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
A Midburn participant twirls a flaming baton at the second annual festival, which is modeled after America’s Burning Man, on May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

“After we burned the Temple, we did a lot of super cleaning including picking up the nails by hand, and we didn’t use heavy machinery,” he said.

The story about the burned archaeological site was picked up by the international media, which inaccurately accused Midburn of “gutting an ancient wooden temple.” The temple that was burned was actually less than a week old.

That incorrect perception has harmed Midburn’s standing in the international world of Burning Man, which places an emphasis on environmental responsibility and operating with the cooperation of local authorities.

On Friday, a group of 40 volunteers who’d attended Midburn traveled to the site to do a final cleanup, going over every square meter to ensure that no trash was left behind.

“It could be that the damage is minimal,” admitted Haimi. “We’ll only know after the rain washes the dust away.”

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