Archaeologists Are Finding Woodstock Really Did Take On Life of Its Own

If it seems weird to survey a site that’s only 50 years old, it is. But it’s not as unusual as you’d think

Catching some shut eye at Woodstock. Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor

As the saying goes, “If you remember Woodstock, you weren’t really there.” But in recent years, archaeologists have been helping dredge up some of those lost memories by surveying the site of the August 1969 music and arts festival. In 2018, they announced they had found the location of the stage where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Who, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gave iconic performances over three rainy days. Now, new research has located the site of the ad hoc trading post, and it’s not laid out the way organizers remember.

In the decades since peace, love, and 400,000 revelers flocked to fields in Bethel, New York, rented to the festival organizers by dairy farmer Max Yasgur, trees and vegetation have reclaimed the landscape that played host to what’s considered the high point of the 1960s counterculture. That’s one reason archaeologists and preservationists have begun to take a closer look at the grounds, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2017, George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports.

Most recently, Binghamton University's Public Archaeology Facility was asked by the Museum at Bethel Woods and Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which now runs a conservatory for the arts at the festival site, to look for the location of Bindy Bazaar. The outdoor marketplace, which consisted of about 25 booths, was a spot between two campgrounds where people traded, bartered and purchased goods and was also a popular rendezvous point for festival goers.

By examining surface vegetation and rocks in the area, now covered in forest, the team was able to identify 24 booth sites and 13 other “cultural features” that were made by people, but whose function is not known. Notably, the arrangements of the booths don’t correlate to maps made by festival organizers. Instead, they appear in a more natural arrangement with booths supplemented by rocks, trees wood and other materials.

Maria O'Donovan, project director, says the findings show how the festival was organic in ways organizers could not plan for. “Our research demonstrated that the reality of what occurred at Woodstock was not captured by the preliminary plans,” she says in a press release. "Archaeologists located 24 potential vendor booths concentrated on one side of the Bindy Bazaar area, laid out not according to the 1969 plans. This is more evidence that the festival took on a life of its own that organizers could not control.”

The findings aren’t surprising. Organizers of the event expected about 50,000 young music lovers to descend on the rural New York farm that summer. Instead, 400,000 showed up, meaning all sorts of impromptu arrangements had to be made to feed and shelter so many people (clothing was not much of a concern). The fact that this temporary community came together and supported one another contributes to the legend of Woodstock.

“I think we are all relatively aware that things did not go as planned when nearly half a million people showed up instead of the estimated 50,000,” O’Donovan tells Dvorsky. “In the Bindy Bazaar area, we were able to locate traces of the original vendor’s booths, which consisted of lines of rock that formed the base for relatively ephemeral booths of wood, tarps, and so on.”

Surprisingly, O’Donovan says her team did not identify much, if any, drug paraphernalia, though she points out that the team did not dig at the site, which might change that.

The findings will help the Bethel Woods Museum accurately put in trails and interpretive signs at the festival site.

If it seems weird that archaeologists would be called in to survey a site that’s only 50 years old, it is. But not as unusual as you’d think. Such investigations are “becoming much less rare,” O’Donovan tells Martin Finucane at The Boston Globe. “Actually, the archeology of the contemporary world has become a very important subject within archaeology,” she says, noting that “[Fifty] years, I suppose, is technically the limit.”

Speaking with Dvorsky, she argues that similar archaeological techniques could be used to understand things that happened just a decade ago to help illuminate the truth about immigration, human impact on the environment and urban land use. “What we produce is an interpretation of daily life and activities which is not often covered in historical documents or contemporary news reporting,” she says. “Archaeology, through its focus on daily life, adds depth to, and often contradicts, mainstream history and media.”

In fact, there are already plenty of academics, journals and resources dedicated to contemporary archaeology. In 2006, researchers even thoroughly dismantled an old van to help understand the unique challenges of working with 20th and 21st century materials.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.