Archaeology of brutal encounter: Heritage and bomb testing on Bikini Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands

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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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-39
Number of pages14
JournalArchaeology in Oceania
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013
Externally publishedYes


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