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Lost Cities, Movie Sets, and Nature's Periodic Cruelty

I have to admit that I was rather excited when I saw the headline "Star Wars home of Anakin Skywalker threatened by dune" in my BBC RSS feed (and not only because, like many Star Wars fans, I'd be happy to forget about Mos Espa along with the rest of The Phantom Menace). The first thing I thought of when I read the headline wasn't the movie, actually, but rather a lecture I saw Michael Moseley give at the Cotsen Institute a few years ago. The talk was mostly about periodic natural disasters in Peru, including sand incursions, and I found it quite fascinating. (If you're interested, he's published on it a number of times, including here, which is conveniently linkable and, unlike many Google Books entries, seems to show the whole chapter.)

This story seems like a neat illustration of that, on a non-catastrophic scale. A movie set is built in the path of a barchan dune, becomes a tourist destination for fans, and less than a decade and a half later people realize that perhaps "in the path of a barchan dune" is not the best place to build something. The slideshow at the top of the BBC piece is nice, although I wondered if Google Earth had more historical imagery. It turns out you can just fly to "Mos Espa" in Google Earth (which really shouldn't have surprised me), but the only image the BBC didn't include is one from 2004. It's pretty cool to be able to go through the 2004, 2008, and 2009 images, though, and see a single vehicle track up the slip face of the dune turn into tracks covering most of the dune until finally, in 2009, the tracks all disappear, covered by sand. It really gives you some perspective on how quickly these dunes can move.

The BBC story is actually a brief summary of an article in press by Lorenz et al. (2013), published in the journal Geomorphology. I have to give the authors props, since it's not every day I get geomorphology stories in my BBC feed. The paper itself, as you might expect for something published in Geomorphology, is primarily concerned with using satellite remote sensing to study the movement of the dunes. There are some interesting observations geared more toward "heritage" and tourism, though. For example, another nearby set building from The Phantom Menace has already been covered by a dune and emerged (seriously, they move really quickly). They note, though, that this caused some fairly significant damage, primarily because the buildings weren't really designed to last a long time or, you know, be covered by a sand dune. This is likely the fate of Mos Espa, too, and the authors suggest that given its potential as a tourism site, something might be done to protect it, like either diverting the dune or just moving the site. This leads them to this great connection:

There would be some irony in such measures being adopted to protect a science fiction film set: it was exposure to eolian transport concerns and countermeasures that inspired author Frank Herbert to write a science fiction novel set on a desert world (‘Dune’) that itself became an epic film. (Lorenz et al. 2013:8)

(Incidentally, beyond its insights on desert cultural ecology, Dune also contains some interesting observations about the uses to which history and archaeology are put, and the processes of remembering and forgetting involved in this. These do get rather heavy-handed by the fourth or fifth installment, though.)

This reminded me of something I actually hadn't thought about in a while: a short literature review I did during my first year of grad school as the initial stage of a cool remote sensing project. That project, for a variety of reasons, never happened, but it did expose me to a neat bit of Hollywood archaeology. The site we were interested in was the so-called "Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille", or the remains of the set built for The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film, not the more familiar 1956 Charlton Heston version). The movie was filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara and, after filming, the sets were taken apart and buried beneath the dunes. This was, evidently, a compromise between hauling them away, which was too expensive, and leaving them intact, which would have allowed someone else to come along and use them. Either way, there they were, more or less forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1983. Comparing the "Lost City of DeMille" to Mos Espa is interesting, because the underlying problem is basically the same (movie sets just aren't built to last very long), but the environmental issues are different. In the case of the Ten Commandments set, the problem is that the sand is blowing away, leaving the site exposed to damage (more damage than was already caused by taking it apart and burying it under some sand dunes, anyway).

I remembered an archaeological project being in the works at the time I was looking into this (it's mentioned on this site, which doesn't appear to have been updated in a while), and wondered if anything had come of that. Unfortunately, this doesn't look good. I suppose something might have happened after the Dunes Center last updated their web site, but I can't find anything. It sounded like a really cool project, though: digging up the remains of what a legendary filmmaker and his crew in 1923 thought late 2nd millennium BC Egypt would have looked like.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLorenz, Ralph D., Nabil Gasmi, Jani Radebaugh, Jason W. Barnes, & Gian G. Ori (2013). Dunes on planet Tatooine: Observation of barchan migration at the Star Wars film set in Tunisia Geomorphology DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.06.026

Ghost towns on BuzzFeed

Travel Nevada has a BuzzFeed photo set featuring 20 photos of two early 20th century boomtowns (now ghost towns): Goldfield and Rhyolite. They actually posted this about a month ago, but I didn't see it until today when, through the miracle of the "related posts" links on some other article I was linked to, I stumbled across them. As you might have gathered, short-lived mining towns happen to be an interest of mine, so this naturally I had to look through these. The photos themselves are pretty neat, but none of them are so spectacular that I would have written this post to link to the set.What really caught my eye, though, was photo 19, which is one of the more interesting in the set in terms of subject matter. I don't consider myself a "truck person," but I recognize a late 1940s Ford when I see one, and that's a funny thing to see in a town that was abandoned in 1920. It really makes you think about the processes of abandonment and reuse in these ghost towns. As the Wikipedia article notes, Rhyolite may have been abandoned by 1920, but reuse – both as a movie set and a tourist destination – occurred as early as the mid-1920s. So, on the one hand, nobody was living there permanently, but on the other hand it's not as if everyone suddenly forgot about it and we've now found it as it was when everyone left. This truck, now presented in an "eerie" abandonment photo, wasn't even produced until almost 30 years after Rhyolite became a ghost town, and now it, too, has been abandoned there.

And trying to meet halfway

I started this post in February, and didn't quite know how to finish it, so it sat here for months waiting for me.  I didn't want to post anything else until it was finished, and so I've decided to finally just finish it quickly (and not entirely satisfactorily) and put it up.YouTube can be a funny thing. Its suggestions are often really far off, but sometimes you wind up with something that's not really related to what you were looking for, but completely fascinating. Today Months ago, I came across this video in the sidebar to another video I was watching: you aren't familiar with Centralia, PA, it's a fairly recent ghost town, abandoned as the result of a coal seam fire that's been burning for the past 50 or so years. These are actually not as uncommon as you might think – the more notable examples include the Brennender Berg in Saarland, which has been burning since the mid-17th century, and Burning Mountain in New South Wales, which has been burning since the 4th millennium BC (there's also the well-known and striking Darvaza, in Turkmenistan, which wasn't a coal seam fire, but a long-lasting natural gas fire). And there are, of course, others.This video is rather interesting for a few reasons. First, most of the stuff you see in Centralia is no longer around. All of the buildings were condemned in 1992, and as a quick scan of Google Earth will tell you, most of them have been bulldozed. I was thinking this might be an interesting use of Google Earth's historic imagery feature, but unfortunately this only goes back to 1993 for the area, so you don't see a whole lot of change.  Of course, YouTube is facing no shortage of videos of what Centralia looks like now to juxtapose with this one.  Many of them compare Centralia to Silent Hill, but I've watched a few of them and no one seems to have caught the monsters on film, so I'm not sure this is the most apt comparison.  You can also get a glimpse of Centralia in 1986 in the beginning of Made in U.S.A. (soundtrack by Sonic Youth!), which is, as I update this in June, currently streaming on Netflix.But then there's an odd combination of a few other things. The mundanity of the video itself is almost striking, given what would eventually become of the city. It's a great example of an unintentional historical document: a record of a family trip (I assume) can become a record of a place that they simply passed through. The video is called "A Trip to Centralia, Pa Circa 1957," but the main event here actually seems to have been the Bloomsburg Fair. At roughly 2:03 or 2:04 there's a brief and ominous glimpse of the mining operation itself, but it only lasts a few seconds.  These things stand out now, but the video itself almost forces you to realize that nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the late '50s.I'm also reminded of this story I read in Wired (now more than) a few months ago about Picher, OK, another recent industrial ghost town, although abandoned for different reasons.  In that case, toxic mining waste made the town uninhabitable, and yet a few people continue to live there, which was the point of the Wired story.  In both cases, it's this emotional attachment to a place that interests me most.  The circumstances were, of course, much different, but it makes me wonder about the ancient miners and smelters in southern Jordan, and what they felt when those sites were abandoned.