Archaeology of the Future

3 Jun

A recent post on the ill-fated Safeguard ABM system by Matthew Gault over at War is Boring pointed me towards some stunning photographs held by the Library of Congress. Matthew’s article does a great job of explaining the background to these eerie, haunting images. Whoever the official photographer was, they certainly had an eye for an arresting image.

East oblique of missile site control building, with better view of exhaust (the taller columns) and intake shafts – Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Mickelsen Safeguard Complex – a clustered array of concrete monoliths and a landscape-dominating pyramid – are like a latter-day Chichen Itza or Stonehenge. They unexpectedly jut out of the landscape like the last remnants of a strange civilization.

Which is pretty appropriate, given what they are. The remnants of the Cold War. A last line of defence that operated for a day and was then shut down. It got me thinking about teaching the Cold War to students. In particular, it made me reflect on my experiences of teaching The War Game.

View from heat sink, south oblique of missile site control building – Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Like watching The War Game, with all of its arresting images of a nuclear conflict that never happened, how will seeing monuments of deterrence impact those who did not live through the era? Indeed, what will future archaeologists make of these structures?

Northwest face of missile site control building. Bottom exit is the emergency escape tunnel/unloading dock leading from the subterranean second floor at vestibule #266 and room #265 – Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Will people 500, 1000, 2000 years from now look upon these strange structures and wonder what purpose they served? Will there even be archaeologists around to spend time deciphering inscrutable concrete blocks? Will they have the same trouble as us when we look at Stonehenge and attempt to fathom its true purpose? How do we divine intention when we lack the context of how and why something was constructed?

Tom Vanderbilt speaks very eloquently of his journey through the America’s atomic archaeology in Survival City.(1) The Mickelsen Complex fits into the architecture of paranoia that Vanderbilt describes on his journey around the United States, an artefact built to combat an existential threat, the defensive system then became a threat in and of itself.

If these photographs have inspired anything, it is for me to think more deeply about how I teach the Cold War era to students. Because it is just as strange and unfathomable as the deep past. We still struggle to understand exactly what its remnants mean and how we can explain them.

You can see many more photographs of the complex here at the Library of Congress site.


(1) Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002)

One Response to “Archaeology of the Future”


  1. Teaching the nuclear Cold War: Week 1 | theatomicage -

    […] The first session of my nuclear Cold War course was – as these things are – initially taken up with the kind of administrative tedium that undergraduate students so frequently have to suffer in the first week of teaching.  That aside, I attempted to outline why this course exists, pondering some of my own research interests, and musing on what future archaeologists might think of the detritus of the nuclear Cold War. […]

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