Hundreds of thousands of people once converged on a remote site in upstate New York to engage in a mass ritual marked by a wide range of unusual behaviors.
It’s no wonder that archeologists are now looking at Woodstock.
Binghamton University’s Public Archaeology Facility has been examining the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the most famous of the 1960s rock festivals, which was held 50 years ago this summer.
Last year, archeologists determined the exact location of the stage where Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin, among others, played to an unexpectedly large crowd of 400,000, the university said.
More recently, by analyzing the rocks and vegetation surrounding the area, the team found 24 vendor booths and 13 other potential cultural features in an area known as the “Bindy Bazaar.”
“The Bindy Bazaar was a meeting place where transactions — which included trading and bartering, in addition to selling — and cultural interactions took place,” Maria O’Donovan, assistant to the director of the Public Archaeology Facility for historical archeology, said in the statement. “It exemplifies the informal, free-wheeling spirit of the counterculture.”
O’Donovan said that spirit was reflected in the fact that the booths in the bazaar were not set up the way they were shown on plans.
“Our research demonstrated that the reality of what occurred at Woodstock was not captured by the preliminary plans,” she said. “Archaeologists located 24 potential vendor booths concentrated on one side of the Bindy Bazaar area and not distributed as on the 1969 plans. This is more evidence that the festival took on a life of its own that organizers could not control. We also identified more recent usage of the area, which could be related to later anniversary events or casual use of the site before it was acquired and preserved.”
The archeologists worked closely with the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which owns the Woodstock site, and its Museum at Bethel Woods, which is focused on telling the story of the ’60s.
O’Donovan said the museum has “long-term preservation and interpretive goals for the site. Their immediate concerns were to prevent further impact to the area and to open the Bindy Bazaar to visitors with a reconstructed trail network and with interpretive signage. The Museum at Bethel Woods is considering special displays in the Bindy Bazaar for the 50th anniversary and I am sure the anniversary influenced the timing of our research.”
The Public Archaeology Facility is an organized research center at the university that performs archeological studies for business and government clients. O’Donovan said in a telephone interview that the center had been hired by the museum for the project.
Visitors to the site have been able to wander across the mainstage area where the concert took place. Now they will be able to navigate a small trail system on the wooded hillside where the Bindy Bazaar was located, she said.
“It’s actually quite a pleasant place,” she said.
She said archeological projects that look back into the near past are “becoming much less rare. Actually, the archeology of the contemporary world has become a very important subject within archeology.” But she also said, “50 years, I suppose, is technically the limit.”
Some old photos have documented a massive field of trash on the site after the concert was over, but it was all cleared away, which is unfortunate for an archeologist interested in the material items left by people’s daily life .
“They loaded it all off into trucks with heavy equipment, and it was gone,” O’Donovan said.
Asked if she was disappointed the trash had been taken away, O’Donovan said, “I suppose as an archeologist, I am. As a person, I’m not.”
With four inexperienced promoters, the festival began to go wrong quickly. The towns of Woodstock and Wallkill denied permission for the concert, forcing the festival to be held on farmer Max Yasgur’s land in Bethel, N.Y., from Aug. 15 to Aug. 18, 1969, according to britannica.com.
But something about the cultural moment touched a nerve and, even though few tickets were sold, about 400,000 people showed up for what was billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music.” Rain fell, but the audience bonded, possibly because of the psychedelics and marijuana consumed.
The Globe reported on Aug. 16, 1969, “More than 200,000 young Americans jammed into town for perhaps the most spectacular music festival ever staged in the East or, for that matter, anywhere in the nation. They began arriving Wednesday — long-haired, blue-jeaned and bell-bottomed — and by later tonight the crowd may swell to as many as 300,000.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.