Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Archaeology of Brutal Encounter: Heritage and Bomb Testing on Bikini Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Archaeology of Brutal Encounter: Heritage and Bomb Testing on Bikini Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands

Article excerpt


When the nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini, modelled the bikini at a public pool in Paris on 5 July 1946, the blaze of publicity that followed the unleashing of the fashion icon immediately trivialised the humanly willed catastrophe wrought on Bikini Atoll and its Indigenous inhabitants four days previously. Between 1946 and 1958, a total of 67 nuclear bomb tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands, including in 1954 the world's first deliverable hydrogen bomb, which vaporised three of Bikini's islands and produced radioactive fallout that resulted in the deaths of and ill-health effects for, Marshallese, American and Japanese people and for the atoll itself. Today, Bikini Atoll is almost uninhabited. This paper is based on a preliminary, survey of the atoll and outlines the material traces of nuclear testing, which comprise profound landscape modifications and other physical evidence, including an experimental target fleet of sunken ships, buildings and infrastructure remains, and cultural plantings. Listing of Bikini Atoll on the World Heritage List in 2010 has (re)materialised and (re)imagined the cultural landscape of Bikini Atoll in a way that privileges the global story of bomb testing over the local narrative of lost homeland. However, I argue that the listing of Bikini Atoll is a subversive act coopted by both global and local actors in a way that is mutually beneficial.

Keywords: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, nuclear testing, cultural landscape, World Heritage.


On Sunday 1 August 2010, during the 34th session of the World Heritage Committee (in Brasilia), Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site, Republic of the Marshall Islands, was inscribed on the World Heritage List as an outstanding technological ensemble and because of its association with outstanding artistic and literary works.

Ten months earlier, on 10 September 2009, I had been on Aoemen Island, Bikini Atoll, talking with Bikinian Councilmen Wilson Note and Banjo Joel. My field notes reflect on this encounter:

   After visiting and recording a bunker, which rises like a
   Mayan ruin above an eroding shoreline, I sat with
   Wilson and Banjo on a rock platform while we awaited
   Edward's return. I was filled with conflicting feelings. I
   was overwhelmed, even thrilled (though somewhat heat
   exhausted), at being in the presence of physical remains
   of such a massively destructive event and was also
   deeply disturbed by the knowledge of the historical
   experience of Bikinians like Wilson and Banjo. Wilson
   talked calmly about the loss of vegetation from
   Aoemen, how so few coconut palms had returned, the
   absence of ancient breadfruit trees and the lack of
   useful food and medicine plants. There was a great
   sadness, though no anger
   or nostalgia, and a sense of terrible loss in Wilson's

Bikini translates from Marshallese as "the lands of many coconuts" (Pik means "surface"; Ni means "coconut"), and refers to the huge groves of trees visible on the horizon to ancient mariners as they approached the atoll islands (Jack Niedenthal pers. comm., 14 February 2011). While coconut palms were replanted across Bikini and Eneu islands in the early 1970s as part of post-nuclear testing contamination rehabilitation, Aoemen, by contrast, has low scrub vegetation and no coconut trees. In 2008, huge waves caused by storm surge divided Aoemen into separate islands and removed much of its remnant vegetation.

In this paper, I begin with a brief historical account of the brutal encounter between nuclear bomb testing, Bikini Atoll and Bikinian people. I then describe the historical traces of bomb testing documented during a preliminary survey of the atoll islands in 2009. Although the survey was not systematic, nor did it use detailed recording methods, it involved considerable reflexivity because of the social proximity of the past (cf. Harrison & Schofield 2010). …

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