On a patch of land in Upstate New York, a team of archaeologists are sweltering in the summer sun. Slowly, they are combing through the relics of one of history’s most iconic events – the Woodstock Festival of 1969. And they discover a number of artifacts buried beneath the dirt that shed new light on the defining moment of a generation.
More than 50 years ago, over 400,000 revelers gathered at a farm in Bethel, some 100 miles outside of New York City. Then over the course of three days, they engaged in a celebration of love and music so significant that it is still revered today. But there are many alive who still remember Woodstock – so why are archaeologists searching its hallowed fields?
Well, as the 50th anniversary of the festival approached, plans were made to create a series of commemorative trails that would run through the original site. But over the decades, the festival’s stages and campgrounds had disappeared, as nature reclaimed the fields. And with festivalgoers’ memories of the event being doubtless now a little hazy, experts were drafted in to uncover the site’s secrets.
Yes, twice in two years, archaeologists set up camp on the old farm – determined to uncover the secrets of its famous past. As their work progressed, they uncovered some fascinating details about exactly how Woodstock had unfolded. And eventually, the experts found something incredible: proof that the festival had been just as anarchic as many people seemingly believe.
The origins of the festival were less haphazard than you might imagine, though. In fact, the seeds of Woodstock were first sewn in early 1969, when a group of savvy businessmen and musical bigwigs hit upon the idea of staging a music festival in Upstate New York. The event was scheduled to take place over three days in August, and it was initially due to be held in the Orange County town of Wallkill. Local residents objected to the plans, however, and the authorities eventually formally blocked the festival.
By then, though, there was only one month to go until the festival. Searching for a last-minute solution, the organizers happened upon farmer Max Yasgur’s 600-acre property in Bethel, NY. And in order to secure permission to hold their event, they told the local authorities that at most only 50,000 people were expected to attend.
But as the festival approached, it became clear that these numbers were vastly inaccurate. In fact, organizers had sold some 186,000 tickets before the event and expected to shift thousands more on the gate. Worryingly, though, they’d left it too late to make the proper arrangements – and ultimately had to choose between finishing the fencing or the stage.
The organizers of Woodstock eventually chose the latter, leaving the festival’s security measures woefully inadequate for the amount of people that arrived. And when the crowds began to flock to the farm on August 13, a number of excited festivalgoers simply strolled through the gaps where the fencing had not been erected.
Ultimately, over 400,000 music lovers made it to Woodstock, and the revelers caused a monumental traffic jam that stretched back for 17 miles from the festival site. Then more than 30 acts took to the stage over the course of three rain-spattered days. Today, a number of those musicians are still remembered as some of the greatest names in rock and roll.
Beginning on August 15 Woodstock saw famous names such as The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead play to an audience of blissed-out hippies. And by the time that Jimi Hendrix performed the closing set of the festival at 8:30 a.m. on August 18, it seemed clear that something phenomenal had taken place.
Happily, despite the huge attendance, Woodstock was a relatively peaceful affair – although official records show that two people tragically lost their lives. One sleeping festivalgoer was apparently hit by a tractor, while the other succumbed to a suspected drug overdose. But apparently life had begun at Woodstock, too: there were rumors that a number of babies were born during the festivities.
Locally, Woodstock attracted plenty of criticism from the residents of Bethel, whose lives had been uprooted by the event. But the festival itself would go down in history as one of the greatest ever held. In fact, it’s still remembered today as a crucial moment for the counterculture in the 1960s – and the pinnacle of a movement that espoused peace, music and love, to boot.
Yet in the years since the festival took place, the land which housed this iconic event has undergone many changes. And while the community of Bethel initially attempted to deter Woodstock tourists, they now welcome them with open arms. The land were Yasgur’s farm once stood has even been purchased for posterity, too: some 27 years after that famous weekend, American billionaire Alan Gerry snapped up the real estate.
In July 2006 the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened on the site. Two years later, it was joined by the Museum at Bethel Woods – an attraction dedicated to Woodstock as well as the spirit of the 1960s more widely. Then in 2009 the 40th anniversary of Woodstock arrived, and many of the original acts returned to the farm to play a commemorative event.
And a decade later, with the 50th anniversary approaching, plans were made to commemorate Woodstock in an even grander way. In January 2019 one of the festival’s original organizers announced plans for Woodstock 50 – a three-day concert scheduled to take place in August that year. Initially, the event was to feature a number of contemporary artists such as The Killers and JAY-Z.
However, problems plagued the anniversary event. And so in July organizers were forced to relocate – and ultimately cancel – the festival. But back at Bethel Woods, plans were underway to celebrate the occasion in an entirely different way.
Yes, in August 2019 the community of Bethel also hosted a series of concerts to mark the festival’s 50th anniversary. But the teams at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and the Museum at Bethel Woods both sought to memorialize Woodstock in a more permanent way. And in preparation for the semi-centennial, they decided to develop a network of trails across the festival site.
In order to signpost these trails, however, museum officials needed to develop a better understanding of the Woodstock site. At first, this must have seemed like a relatively simple task. After all, multiple aerial photos still exist from August 1969, and they show the festival in all of its chaotic glory.
Yet according to museum director Wade Lawrence, these photographs were not enough to accurately reconstruct the layout of the site. So, he turned to the Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton University, which is some 80 miles northwest of Bethel. And in 2018 a team of experts began work at the historic location.
Over the course of five days, archaeologists from Binghamton University combed the Woodstock site. And before long, they had uncovered a number of relics from the famous festival. Unfortunately, these were a little underwhelming in nature – consisting mostly of broken bottles and bits of aluminum cans.
The main objective of this dig, however, was to pinpoint the exact location of the stage where Hendrix, Joplin and their fellow musicians made history. Back in 1969 the construction was an impressive feat of engineering and covered an area some 60 feet long by 45 feet wide. And on either side, two giant speaker towers – one of which was as tall as a seven-story building – had blared music out across the crowds.
Yet despite its size, Woodstock’s main stage had had little in the way of foundations. So today, it’s impossible to tell precisely where the platform once stood. And the area was also developed to accommodate a temporary structure at some point in the 1990s, making it even more difficult for experts to reconstruct the original layout.
But over the course of the archaeologists’ investigation, they made a fascinating discovery. You see, in one location, they uncovered evidence that a post had once stood there, marking the spot where a fence ran around the stage. Then, using photographs and maps of the festival, the experts were able to construct a picture of how the site had once looked.
Elsewhere, archaeologists peeled back the grass that had since grown on the site in order to study the layers beneath. And using artifacts such as ring pulls, they were able to determine what level the ground had been at back in 1969. Experts studied disturbances in the soil and other anomalies, too, in order to learn even more about the site.
By the end of the five-day excavation, then, archaeologists had built up a much clearer picture of exactly how the Bethel Woods site had looked during Woodstock. And as well as locating the stage and towers, they’d also determined where a footbridge for the musicians had once stood. So, armed with this information, museum officials then set about developing the trails.
“We can use this as a reference point,” Josh Anderson – the co-director of the project – told Metro in 2018. “People can stand on that and look up at the hill and say, ‘Oh, this is where the performers were. Jimi Hendrix stood here and played his guitar at 8:30 in the morning.’”
But locating the spot where the musicians once took to the stage was not enough for the custodians of the Woodstock site. And in June 2019 the team from Binghamton University made another announcement. Fascinatingly, they claimed to have learned even more about how the famous festival had unfolded upon their return to Bethel Woods.
This time, the archaeologists’ task had been to excavate an area of the festival that was known as the Bindy Bazaar. This part of the site was named after a store in the Indian city of Mumbai, and it was initially intended as a spot where traders could come and sell their wares. And according to Maria O’Donovan, who took charge of the project, it also became a testament to the era itself.
“The Bindi Bazaar was a meeting place where transactions – which included trading and bartering in addition to selling – and cultural interactions took place,” O’Donovan explained in a June 2019 press release from Binghamton University. “It exemplifies the informal, free-wheeling spirit of the counterculture.”
During Woodstock, the Bindy Bazaar was a bustling hub of booths and other activity. According to aerial photos of the site, it was set between two of the festival’s camping areas and was crisscrossed by trails to lead punters through the chaos. And after the sun had set, twinkling fairy lights lit the way.
Unlike the area where the stage once stood, though, the site where the Bindy Bazaar was erected has changed little over the years. However, new vegetation had grown over it – making it harder for researchers to spot traces of the original booths. But despite the challenge, the team from Binghamton University were soon able to uncover some fascinating details.
You see, according to festival maps, there were supposed to be some 25 booths in the Bindy Bazaar area. And these booths – constructed from natural materials such as wood and rock – would have been built around the site on an ad hoc basis. But archaeologists soon realized that, in reality, the section had veered significantly off-plan once the festival began.
O’Donovan told Gizmodo in June 2019, “In the Bindy Bazaar area, we were able to locate traces of the individual vendor’s booths. [They] consisted of lines of rock that formed the base for relatively ephemeral booths of wood, tarps, and so on.” But rather than matching up with the festival plans, the location of these structures differed from what researchers might have expected.
“Our research demonstrated that the reality of what occurred at Woodstock was not captured by the preliminary plans,” O’Donovan explained in the press release. “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.”
Additionally, archaeologists also identified 13 further points of interest where the Bindy Bazaar once stood. According to reports, these were elements which appeared to be man-made – even if their purpose was not clear. And despite the lack of information, these locations were designated as culturally important.
But doubtless to the surprise of many, researchers failed to discover any significant relics of the illegal activity that the festival has become famous for. O’Donovan told Gizmodo, “This may seem a bit counter-intuitive given the reputation of Woodstock, but we found very little evidence of drug-related paraphernalia.”
O’Donovan noted that the absence of these artifacts may have been down to the methods used. Apparently, the investigation focused on a compact sample area and there was limited digging. If the excavation had gone further underground, she reasoned, archaeologists may well have discovered even more about the site.
So should we be surprised that archaeologists are now studying events that happened within living memory? Well, according to O’Donovan, it’s an increasingly relevant field. She told Gizmodo, “Contemporary archaeology is a very big thing right now. Archaeologists study the past through the material things that people leave behind – things they lose or throw out.”
“Our methods are just as applicable to material discarded ten years ago as thousands of years ago, and our interpretations [are] just as applicable to contemporary issues, such as migration and refugees, human impacts on the environment, how we use urban spaces and so on,” O’Donovan continued. “What we produce is an interpretation of daily life and activities which is not often covered in historical documents or contemporary news reporting.”
Today, the results of the project are clear to see. In May 2019 museum officials launched the new trails, allowing visitors a glimpse into the hectic life of Woodstock’s trading zone. During the opening ceremony, assistant curator Julia Fell said, “[It] was a whimsical place where all manner of vendors and other attendees bartered for goods, met up with lost friends, made new friends and attempted to stay out of the rain. With all this in mind, The Museum at Bethel Woods set out to bring the Bindy Bazaar back into its former glory.”