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


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). My investigation was undertaken with Bikinian hosts who are living actors in Bikini Atoll's ongoing nuclear story. Finally, I reflect on the future heritage management of the material traces of Bikini Atoll's cultural heritage, with a particular focus on World Heritage listing.

The World Heritage listed Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site is simultaneously represented as wasteland (a landscape ravaged and made dangerous by technologies of the modern era) and wonderland (a remote landscape conceptualised as deserted, exotic and an earthly paradise); to Bikinian people it is homeland. It is a subversive space --a space coopted by both global and local actors. The UNESCO World Heritage project, driven by a credible and representative world heritage ethos, has sought out the remote atoll of Bikini for listing. The global attention that listing brings has in turn been conscripted by Bikinians to further their goals of being heard, recognised and supported in order to address some of the "terrible loss" that Wilson Note described to me on Aoemen Island.


Nuclear testing in the Pacific took place almost continuously between 1946 and 1996. The United States (USA) conducted tests in the Marshall Islands (1946-1958) and on Johnston Atoll and Christmas (Kiritimati) Island (1962), while the United Kingdom tested bombs in remote inland Australia (1952-1963) and on Christmas and Malden Islands (1957-1958), and the French at Moruroa and Fangataufa (1966-1992, 1995-1996). The test sites lay far from Western "homeland" populations and within nations subordinate to colonial powers (von Strokirch & Firth 1997: 324-5). They were constructed as remote and empty (Gorman 2007: 164). At each test location, Indigenous populations have been displaced.

The historical scholarship on US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 is relatively limited, as is the scholarship on nuclear testing more generally across the Pacific (Smith 2007: 52). For example, the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War (Leffler & Westad 2010) devotes little more than a paragraph to the "... series of thermonuclear tests in the South Pacific" (Holloway 2010: 383). Anita Smith has described the Pacific landscapes of nuclear testing in order to provide "... a context in which the archaeological evidence--the material remains--of nuclear testing in the Pacific have regional as well as global meaning" (Smith 2007: 52). Alice Gorman (2005, 2007) offers a broader comparative context for nuclear testing that links remoteness from the industrial nations of Europe and North America with the technology of space exploration, penitentiaries, detention and labour camps and military installations. Gorman shows how global technology interacts with specific local situations with regard to space exploration (Gorman 2007: 155), a situation mirrored in the history of nuclear testing.

There are a number of descriptive narratives of the Marshall Islands tests (Barker 2004; Carucci 1997; de Groot 2006; Kiste 1974; Simon 1997; Weisgall 1994), several outstanding documentaries (Academy Award nominated Radio Bikini 1988 (Stone 1988); Nuclear Exiles 1987; Bikini: Forbidden Paradise 1992; The Bikini Atoll 1997), and contemporary published accounts (e.g. Bradley 1946) as well as newspaper coverage analysis (Keever 2004) and popular magazine stories (Davis 2005a). There is a huge archive of primary source material on the testing, including declassified US government documents (e.g. Progressive Management 2007) and film. For example, it is estimated that more than 700 film and still cameras, comprising 18 tons of cinematography equipment and more than half the world's supply of motion picture film (Niedenthal 2001: 3), operated by over 500 photographers and 170 journalists plus international observers, witnessed the Operation Crossroads Able Test on 1 July 1946 (de Groot 2006: 119), creating a vast public record used to report the event throughout the world.

When bomb testing took place on Bikini Atoll, the Indigenous inhabitants of Bikini had been shipped out. There are a number of accounts of the Bikinians' relocation and forced migration story (Niedenthal 1997; Weisgall 1980), including oral histories with Bikinian Elders (Niedenthal 2001), anthropological studies (Mason 1950, 1954; Tobin 1953) and recent articles that contextualise the Bikinians' historical experience read from different perspectives, including geographical and folkloric (Davis 2005a,b; McArthur 2008).

Today, the Bikinian population, which numbers some 4500 people, live on the islands of Kili (1200 people), Majuro (1965) and Ejit (275), other Marshall Island atolls (360) as well as in the USA and other countries (700) ( No Bikinian people live permanently on Bikini Atoll because of high radiation levels--the atoll is generally considered to be not "really safe", a phrase used by geographer Jeffrey Sasha Davis (2005b: 213) to refer to ways in which scientific studies of risk and a lack of dialogue with local populations create an expert/lay knowledge divide and for Bikinians confuse discussions about the dangers involved in reoccupying the atoll.

Bikini Atoll is the northernmost atoll in the western, Ralik (sunset) chain of atolls--one of 29 low-lying coral atolls that rise over 6000 metres from the abyssal plain to no more than a couple of metres above sea level, and comprise the Marshall Islands. The atolls consist of biotic limestone on a deep basalt core, built over millions of years by living coral organisms that grew as the basalt core slowly subsided, creating an extremely diverse and complex marine and terrestrial environment (Scott & Rotondo 1983). The atolls of the Marshall Islands are believed to have formed approximately 3000 years ago and required another 1000 years to make them viable for human habitation (Weisler 2001 in Rainbird 2004: 225).

Bikini's 23 islands, a total land area of 720 hectares (Bikini Island is the largest, with an area of 212 ha), encircle an elongated and irregular lagoon, 60 metres at its deepest, which extends 40 kilometres from east to west and 22 kilometres from north to south (Figure 1). Most of the islands are joined by a shallow reef, with several deep channels on the southern side of the lagoon.

The Marshall Islands, including Bikini Atoll, appear to have been settled from before 2000 years ago by people moving northwards from Solomon Islands through Kiribati (Rainbird 2004: 225). Modern-day Bikinians trace their descent to Larkelon, from Wotje Atoll, who displaced a former group on the atoll led by Laninbit. King Juda, the iroij ("chief") on Bikini Atoll in 1946, was the 14th iroij after Larkelon (Kilon Buano in Niedenthal 2001: 16-20).

Between 1526 and 1569, at least nine Spanish expeditions, travelling the route from "New Spain" in Central America and the spice islands (especially the Philippines) of South-East Asia, sailed through the northern and central Marshall Islands (Spennemann 2004: 3-6). Alvaro de Saavedra stayed at an atoll (possibly Enewetak or Bikini) for eight days in 1529 (Hezel 1983 in Rainbird 2004: 14; Spennemann 2004: 3). However, Bikini Atoll was probably first seen by Europeans in 1825, when Russian Otto von Kotzebue sighted the atoll and named it Eschscholtz Atoll after the ship's scientist and doctor (von Kotzebue 1830).

Over the past 150 years, Marshall Islanders have experienced a series of colonial incursions, "... each resulting in profound effects on Marshallese culture" (McArthur 2008: 271). Christian missionaries arrived in the islands in 1857, German copra traders in the 1860s (the Marshall Islands became a German Protectorate in 1885), the Japanese from 1914 (Japan was awarded the Marshall Islands as a class "C" Mandate by the League of Nations in 1919) and the Americans from February 1945 (the Marshall Islands became a Trust Territory of the USA in 1947).

Throughout most of this period, Bikinians retained relative isolation, though some people did become Christians and some learnt Japanese. It was not until the early 1940s that Bikini Atoll's isolation ended. First settlement by outsiders took place when the Japanese built and maintained a watchtower on Bikini Island, manned by six soldiers, to guard against American invasion (Rubon Juda & Biamon Lewis in Niedenthal 2001: 40-50). The USA "captured" the atoll in February 1945.

On 16 July 1945, the first atomic bomb test, Trinity, took place at White Sands, New Mexico (USA). Subsequently, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August), killing 140 000 and 80 000 people respectively. On 24 January 1946, Vice Admiral Blandy, appointed as commander of Joint Task Force One, announced to the US Congress that Bikini Atoll was to be the site of major atomic experiments. Ironically, on this same day, 24 January 1946, the first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly during its first session called for the "... elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction" (http://

In February 1946, Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls, travelled to Bikini Atoll, and on 7 March 1946, the 167 Bikinians living on the atoll, after placing flowers on their ancestor's graves and bidding the ancestors farewell (Figure 2), were removed from their homeland at the behest of Wyatt. The Indigenous inhabitants of Bikini were initially relocated to Rongerik Atoll (locally believed to be inhabited by evil spirits), and following considerable suffering and near starvation, were transported in March 1948 to Kwajalein Atoll and six months afterwards to Kili Island (Niedenthal 1997).

On 1 July 1946 as part of Operation Crossroads, the first atomic test (Able), the fourth ever exploded atomic bomb after those at Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took place at Bikini Atoll. Over 42 000 US military and civilian personnel, some 242 naval ships (of which 88 were experimental target vessels), 156 aircraft, 25 000 radiation recording devices and 5400 experimental rats, goats and pigs were involved in the test program (Niedenthal 2001: 2). King Juda was brought back to his homeland by the US to witness the explosion of the second and larger atom bomb test, the Baker Atomic Test on 25 July 1946 (Niedenthal 2001: 3) (Figure 3). Operation Crossroads was a global event, intended as a spectacle, an "extravaganza" (Weisgall 1994: 117), and a demonstration of the military supremacy, power and technological advancement of the USA.

Four days after the Able Atomic Test, car engineer Louis Reard introduced le bikini at a public pool in Paris. The first version of this fashion icon featured a g-string with newspaper type printed across it. It was modelled by Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. Reard's shockingly scanty le bikini had followed closely on from the introduction of a similar bathing suit, the atome (French for atom), some three weeks earlier. This costume was by Jacques Heim, and it was launched by him in his beach shop in the French resort town of Cannes. The atome, named after the smallest then-known particle of matter, was proclaimed to be "the world's smallest bathing suit": Atome, le plus petit maillot de bain du monde. To trump Heim's advertising, Reard broadcast the bikini as "smaller than the smallest bathing suite in the world": Plus petit le plus petit maillot du monde. It was said that the bikini "split the atome" (Acton et al. 2006: 31). Le bikini, by some accounts, represented the vestiges (meaning traces, remnants or relics in French) of clothing that would remain after experiencing an atomic explosion (Cameron 1970:26 in Davis 2005a: 615-16): "atomic" invoked sensational, perhaps even archaeological (vestige archeologique). Le bikini has proved more enduring in popular culture (Alac 2002) than has knowledge of Bikini Atoll's atomic test history and, I suggest, has trivialised and downplayed the reality of nuclear testing.

Following the two bomb tests of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll was not reused for nuclear testing until 1954, although the US undertook radiation surveys--for example, the US Bikini Scientific Resurvey undertaken between 15 July and the end of August 1947 (Bradley 1946). On 1 March 1954 (by which time most Bikinians had been cast out onto the remote solitary island of Kili), the Castle Bravo test, the first deliverable hydrogen bomb in the world and the second largest nuclear device ever detonated, decimated three of Bikini's islands and created a crater 2 kilometres wide and 80 metres deep. Nuclear fallout affected 64 people living on Rongelap Atoll, 18 people residing on Ailinginae Atoll and the 23-member crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu-Maru, Lucky Dragon #5. A further 20 nuclear (hydrogen bomb) tests were carried out on Bikini Atoll between 1954 and 1958. In addition, the USA tested 43 nuclear devices on Enewetak Atoll, 350 kilometres west of Bikini Atoll, between 1948 and 1958. A legacy of the bomb testing has been ill-health effects for people exposed to radiation a crew member of the Japanese fishing boat died soon after the Bravo test and many Marshallese and Americans have suffered over a long period (e.g. leukaemia, thyroid growths and stillbirths (von Strokirch & Firth 1997: 326-32).

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson promised 540 Bikinians living on Kill and other islands that they could return to their homelands (Time 1968: 17). However, in 1978, the 139 repatriated Bikinians living on the atoll were evacuated after tests showed that they had radiation levels, mostly caesium (137Cs) and strontium (9St), well above the US maximum permissible levels (Simon 1997). The atoll has been regularly visited by Bikinians after 1978, but has not been permanently occupied.

From 1996 until 2008, a successful deep-sea recreational diving operation operated on Bikini Atoll, focused on the experimental target ships sunk by nuclear weapons in 1946 (described below). The tourism diving enterprise, established and managed by Bikinian people, had an important role both in raising revenue and in enabling Bikinian people to spend periods of time living back at their homeland. The diving venture resumed in May 2011.

In January 2009, Bikini Atoll was nominated by the Republic of the Marshall Islands for inscription on the World Heritage List as an outstanding example of a nuclear test site. In August 2010, Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site, Republic of Marshall Islands, was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The nomination document included a worldwide comparative assessment of nuclear test sites (Republic of the Marshall Islands 2009: 56-60), including Trinity and Nevada (USA), Enewetak Atoll (Marshall Islands), Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan), Christmas (Kiritimati) Island (Kiribati), Maralinga and Emu Fields (Australia) and Moruroa and Fangatuafa (French Polynesia). The comparative assessment argued that Bikini Atoll is uniquely positioned "... to stand testament to all the nuclear test sites of the world" and stands "as a testimony to all victims of nuclear colonialism", thus differentiating Bikini Atoll from, for example, the World Heritage listed Hiroshima Genbaku Dome memorial site. The nomination document also noted that other nuclear test sites might be added to the World Heritage List at a future date because they express different values of the nuclear age (e.g. technological achievement).

There is no escaping the fact that the atomic bomb testing between 1946 and 1958 was a humanly willed catastrophe wrought on Bikini Atoll, its Indigenous inhabitants and those Marshallese, American and Japanese individuals who either died or suffered health effects from the testing. The testing was controversial at the time in the context of the history of the Cold War and colonialism. These wider historical associations, along with the role of the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the development of a global anti-nuclear peace movement, are not discussed here.


On my visit to Bikini Atoll, I was accompanied by five Bikinians and hosted by the Kili--Bikini--Ejit Local Government (KBE LG). At the time, there were five people living on Bikini Island; three maintenance crew and two US Department of Energy employees involved with radioactive monitoring. During my one-week stay on the atoll, I made a preliminary documentation of the material evidence of past human occupation and activity on Bikini Atoll (Brown 2010). My focus was on prominent historical traces from the nuclear test period, 1946-1958. In the following section I focus on this period, but also summarise evidence from before and after this time (a fuller account is available in Brown 2010).

The Historic Preservation Office (HPO), Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), has the primary responsibility for identification, recording, protecting and preserving the tangible and intangible cultural properties of the Marshall Islands, and administers the Historic Preservation Act 1991 and five regulations relating to this Act (largely based on USA laws). No "cultural and historic property" for Bikini Atoll is currently included in the HPO's National Register of Historic Places.

The approach of the HPO is one that focuses on preservation of "historic sites" through education rather than legislation. Indigenous customary land tenure on Bikini Atoll and throughout the Marshall Islands, like much of the Pacific, is "extremely privatised" and, archaeologist Richard Williamson argues, "(w)ith few exceptions, the landowners, and not the government, have absolute control of land" (Williamson 2001: 44). Thus the work of the HPO aims to preserve the material evidence of historic sites by first protecting culture more generally. By working to preserve the intangible heritage of the RMI, it is intended by the HPO that the groundwork is being laid to "preserve the physical past" (Williamson 2001: 45). Needless to say, the Bikinian customary land tenure system (mapped in Holmes and Narver, Inc. 1989) does not provide protective mechanisms for USA-created nuclear test features; heritage features that have not been created or operated by Bikinians. Nevertheless, many of these features are well-known landmarks and the impact of nuclear testing is ever-present for Bikinian people.

Previous archaeological studies at Bikini Atoll

US Army archaeologist Charles F. Streck undertook excavations at Bikini Atoll in 1985, as part of a planned resettlement program for Bikinian people (Streck 1990). Streck's test excavations covered some 30 [m.sup.2] on Eneu and Bikini Islands (Streck 1990: figs 2, 3) and Nam Island. He recovered an artefact assemblage of over 300 items, including shell ornaments, shell and coral tools and pearl shell fishhooks, and found earth ovens to be relatively common. Streck (1990: 258) concluded that there is a dense occurrence of domestic subsurface cultural features over many parts of Bikini and Eneu islands. He obtained 35 radiocarbon dates extending back to 3500 years ago (Streck 1990: 255). The earliest dates are considered problematic (e.g. Kirch & Weisler 1994: 292) and Geoff Irwin (1992: 126) suggests that the oldest dated samples might be contaminated by modern radioactivity. Initial occupation of Bikini Atoll is currently believed to date back, as on the atolls of Majuro and Kwajalein, to approximately 2000 years ago (Rainbird 2004: 80, 227, 229).

Inventory recording and research relating to the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site has focused on the sunken vessels in Bikini lagoon as a result of Operation Crossroads in July 1946. Eighty-eight experimental "target" vessels had been laid out across Bikini's central lagoon for Operation Crossroads, of which 21 were sunk by the Able and Baker atomic tests. The US National Park Service (NPS) undertook an archaeological assessment of nine vessels in 1989-1990, focusing on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, although documentation of the battleships HIJMS Nagato (Japan) and USS Arkansas and the US submarines Pilotfish and Apogon also occurred (Delgado 1996; Delgado et al. 1991: 4). All vessels were assessed to be historically and archaeologically significant (Delgado et al. 1991: 4). The report by Delgado et al. (1991) on the underwater survey includes ship histories, site descriptions, an assessment of significance, "nuclear park potential" and site record forms.

Bikinian occupation prior to March 1946

Two places are known that relate to the pre-Christian belief system of Bikinian people. One of these is the grassy reef head in the lagoon, which is associated with the "most powerful god" Worejabato, who created many of the islets of the atoll (Niedenthal 2001: 22-8). The sea grass from this reef continues to be used by Bikinians for its medicinal power. The second place is the two exposed rocks, situated on the reef on the northern ocean side of Bikini Island, that represent the male Siamese twins Kwelik and Kweiar hurled to this location by Worejabato.

The features relating to Bikinian occupation of Bikini Island prior to their departure on 7 March 1946 are documented in photographs from February/March 1946 that depict houses, the church, other buildings and the cemetery (Figure 2). Few of these structures survive. Most were destroyed by the USA in and after 1946, but those that survive include the "ancestral cemetery" and a well or water source in the centre of the island (possibly the one associated with the story of Kwelik and Kweiar). Streck (1990: 252) records the location of a second well, labelled a "Sacred Well", on the south-west side of Bikini Island.

A "Japanese Monument", located at the west end of the Bikini Island village, dates to about 1939 and commemorates the death of several people killed in an air crash in the lagoon (Bikini Backtalk 1947: 3).

Heritage items associated with nuclear testing, 1946-1958

The physical evidence of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll comprises extensive landscape and seascape modification as well as surviving material evidence. Table 1 is a summary list of heritage items associated with the nuclear tests in 1946 and between 1954 and 1958. However, I argue that the heritage of this period and activity is not simply the obvious material remains and landscape/ seascape modifications but, rather, is a cultural landscape comprising the whole of the atoll, the atoll lagoon as well as seas immediately surrounding the atoll (see discussion below).

The most evident landscape and seascape modification is the Bravo Crater, approximately 2 kilometres in diameter and 80 metres deep, created on 1 March 1954. However, there are craters associated with all of the nuclear bomb tests within Bikini Lagoon. The landscapes of the atoll islands and surrounding coral reefs were irreparably altered by the test program. First, the construction of extensive land bases and infrastructure, particularly for the 1954 tests, resulted in the almost complete removal of all vegetation from the islands of Eneu, Bikini, Aoemon and Nam, graphically shown in a 1954 movie produced by the US Air Force (Joint Task Force 7 (US Air Force) 1954). Second, the nuclear tests further altered the pre-1946 landforms, surviving vegetation and marine life through the deposition of radioactive fallout on the atoll islands, lagoon and surrounding seas.

Surviving material evidence from the nuclear tests includes the 21 experimental target vessels sunk in Bikini Atoll's lagoon during Operation Crossroads, the remains of built structures (e.g. "bunkers", airstrip, jetties, Camp Blandy, causeways, antennae anchors) and submarine and land-based cables. The sunken ships and built structures are particularly powerful, even haunting, reminders of an exceptionally violent episode in the human history of Bikini Atoll and the world.

The most obvious surviving terrestrial evidence of the nuclear testing is a series of concrete structures. Although a number of the islands were cleared and large numbers of buildings erected for the test program, most were temporary structures. The most durable were of concrete construction and of these 12 large building complexes survive, with four on Eneu Island (Streck 1990: 253 shows two additional buildings--an "Eroded Concrete Building" and a "Sheet Metal Building"), two on Bikini Island, one to the south of the Bravo Crater, and one each on the islands of Nam (Figures 4 and 5), Bakor, Aoemen (Figure 6), Aerkoj and Jabej. In addition, three small concrete structures remain on Bikini Island (Table 1). Basic outline plans of all but one of these buildings (the complex on the south side of the Bravo Crater, which I did not visit), along with photographs, were prepared as part of the preliminary survey of the atoll (Brown 2010: app. 1, figs 1-12).

The bunkers of raw concrete and angular geometries (brutal in the sense used by Virilio 1994: 19) at Bikini Atoll are strange things. Some of the bunkers are situated on coral-sand shores and are visible over great distances across the horizon of the lagoon, and in turn gaze out over the water. Inland bunkers are enveloped by vegetation, some partially buried in artificial sand dunes--a montage of grey cement, violently green plant foliage and glaring white sand. It is one thing to map and photograph these fortresses (Figure 4), but quite another to feel them; to be aware of grey cement as witness to peace/war and devastation.

There is no denying a "wow" factor on first seeing these things (for a comparable emotive response to the concrete bunkers making up the Third Reich's Atlantic Wall, see Virilio 1994). Their solid mass is imposing, their colour and sharp angular outlines violent within their atoll setting. On closer inspection, the bunkers have an abandoned, decrepit appearance and the few small openings hint at danger lurking within. The internal spaces can be very shadowy, empty yet littered with debris. Delicate straw stalactites (icicle-shaped mineral deposits formed on concrete, with a different chemistry than those that form in limestone caves) hang from many of the poorly lit ceilings. Massive iron armour-plated doors with hefty locking systems, set fast in rust, are unsettling. In one of the large bunkers I saw pools of green and red water, sinister lingering proof of radioactive contamination, I imagined, on the inside as well as outside.

Three of the bunkers on Eneu Island were central to the nuclear testing project: the "Assembly Bunker" (a wood-framed, metal-clad structure demolished in the early 1990s) was where the final assembly of some of the bombs took place; the "Communications Bunker" is said to be the building from which calls were made to US President Truman prior to the two 1946 bomb explosions; and the "Firing (Control) Bunker" contained a "bomb switch". The way in which these structures functioned will require detailed research because, as Colleen Beck (2002) recognises, nuclear technology in the 1940s and 1950s was a new and rapidly changing field of scientific endeavour, and therefore sites of nuclear experiments are often both unique, and hard to describe, as there are no correlates today for some of the activities and technologies involved.

Bikini Atoll is an ideal location for such technological studies because there is a vast array of material remains that survive from the nuclear test period. These include the following:

* submarine and land-based cables, comprising cable casings (lead, iron), copper cable and telegraph line, snake across the island foreshores. Some cabling is buried beneath concrete on rock platforms and marked by low concrete pillars (e.g. on Nam Island). The extent of submarine signal and telephone cable systems has been previously mapped (Holmes and Narver, Inc. 1988: app. 3) and cable routes are visible in some places in the lagoon using Google Earth, such as between Nam and Bakor Islands;

* concrete weights to which guy wires were attached to support antennae or camera/monitoring towers and to hold cabling in position on the reefs (e.g. four huge concrete blocks on a reef off the west end of Jabej Island). Some of these substantial weights have been moved considerable distances by wave action;

* jetties built on a number of islands (e.g. Eneu, Bikini and Nam), including substantial cuttings into the reefs to facilitate boat access;

* roads and causeways constructed on the islands and on reefs between the islands;

* the airstrip and curtain constructed on Eneu Island;

* Camp Blandy, Eneu Island, for which the most visible surviving feature is a stone and mortar perimeter wall over 150 metres in length. Streck (1990: 252, fig. 2) indicates the presence of an "Old Military Camp" and "Graves" (possibly of US military personnel who died at the time of the tests) at the east end of Bikini Island. Fosberg (1988: fig. 4) maps a "Concrete Bldg" in this area also.

The extent of landscape modification and construction suggests that substantial surviving buried (archaeological) evidence of test period features survives on the atoll islands.

Rehabilitation and resettlement, 1968-1978

In August, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson promised the 540 Bikinians living on Kili and other islands that they would be able to return to their homeland, and ordered the atoll to be rehabilitated and resettled. A substantial rehabilitation and building program was undertaken on Bikini and Eneu Islands as part of this project. This included:

* the planting of coconut palms on Bikini and Enue Islands on a 30 foot (10 m) grid completed in 1972 (Niedenthal 2001:11), graphically illustrated on Google Earth;

* the construction of housing and infrastructure--much of which is clearly visible in aerial photographs taken in the 1970s (see also maps in Fosberg 1988: fig. 4; Streck 1990: 252). Most of these buildings were bulldozed after September 1978, following the evacuation of people from the atoll. The bulldozed remains were dumped at the east side of Bikini Island;

* evidence of monitoring of radiation levels undertaken by the US Department of Energy since 1973, including test plot locations, cultural plantings (e.g. citrus trees) and equipment;

* the reuse of some nuclear-period building complexes for storage (e.g. for machinery, potassium).

Rehabilitation and tourism, 1980s to present

Under the Compact of Free Association 1986 between the USA and RMI, the Bikinians were given compensation payments and payments for clean-ups of Bikini and Eneu Islands (Niedenthal 2001: 13-14, 158). These payments, along with reports of improved radiation levels, prompted renewed efforts to rehabilitate Bikini and Eneu Islands in advance of resettlement. Eneu Island was the focus of rehabilitation and, by 1985, the island had been entirely gridded into 5-metre long backhoe trenches (Streck 1990: 253). Topsoil (up to 40 cm in depth--Fosberg 1988: 23) with the highest levels of radioactivity was removed and dumped along the eastern shoreline, after which potassium (K) was spread across the whole of the island. The purpose of the use of potassium is to counteract the effect of [sup.137]Cs; potassium dissolved by rainfall is taken up in terrestrial plants (such as coconut, Pandanus and breadfruit) in preference to residual [sup.137]Cs fallout contamination (Robison et al. 2009).

Development of the infrastructure to support resettlement started in early 1991 (Niedenthal 2001: 173-4) and items associated with the work include a construction camp ("Eneu Field Station"), guest houses/ visitor quarters on Eneu Island, jetties on Eneu and Bikini Islands, a transmission line and a tourism "Dive Program Support Base" (1996) infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, construction activity on Eneu Island was halted and Bikini Island became the focus for future resettlement.

After the mid-1990s, major construction activity was undertaken in the Bikini "village" to provide a base for scientific research regarding radiation levels and to provide a base for the diving operation "Bikini Atoll Divers", a tourism business owned and operated by the KBE LG. The focus of the diving operation is the sunken "nuclear fleet", considered one of the premier diving experiences in the world ( The total number of participants per year was between 200 and 250, with no more than 12 tourists on Bikini at any one time. The world-class diving venture closed in 2008 due to domestic airline problems and budget constraints, but recommenced in May 2011.


Every centimetre of the landscape and seascape of Bikini Atoll is affected by nuclear testing. The heritage of the period 1946-1958 is not simply the obvious material traces and landscape/seascape modifications (Table 1), but includes the dispersal of radioactive elements via nuclear testing across (and beyond) the lands and seas of the atoll (as well as in the bodies of the Americans, Marshall Islanders and Japanese directly exposed to radiation). Similarly, the nuclear test period heritage comprises both the evidence of the period of tests, but also the time after 1958 during which the effects of nuclear testing--radioactivity and loss of homeland--continued (and continues) to have a powerful presence.

Article 1 of The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage ("World Heritage Convention") (UNESCO 1972) recognises cultural landscapes as the "combined works of nature and of man [sic]", illustrative of the co-evolution of human society and landscape over time. The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention categorise cultural landscapes as designed, organically evolved (relict and continuing) and associative (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2008: annex 3). The Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site comprises features of each of these World Heritage cultural landscape categories (cf. Gorman 2005, on how the cultural landscape of interplanetary space is also simultaneously each of the three World Heritage categories).

Bikini Atoll is a relict landscape because it evidences nuclear testing in 1946 and between 1954 and 1958. The profound impacts of testing are visible in the landscape modifications and material traces from this period. The atoll is a continuing landscape because the effects of radioactivity are still in progress, as shown by ongoing studies of the radioactivity (Simon & Vetter 1997; Robison & Hamilton 2010) and monitoring of ecological responses to fallout (e.g. Richards et al. 2008). The relationship of the Bikinian people to their homeland is also the story of the atoll as a continuing landscape.

Bikini Atoll is recognised as an associative cultural landscape because the place and events have inspired globally significant cultural symbols and icons, including le bikini, the mushroom cloud (Kirsch 1997; Rosenthal 1991), the Japanese nuclear monster Godzilla (Ryfle 2005), the American animated television character SpongeBob SquarePants from Bikini Bottom, the location of Moby Dick in the 1956 film, as well as numerous works of art, including Salvador Dali's 1947 painting The Three Sphinxes of Bikini.

Finally, the 1946-1958 test landscape, intentionally planned and created by the Americans, was a designed landscape of built structures and infrastructure (Joint Task Force 7 (US Air Force) 1954), as was the landscape of rehabilitation, and in particular the early 1970s planting of coconut trees on a 10 metre grid on Eneu and Bikini Islands.

Applying the World Heritage cultural landscape categories to the description of Bikini Atoll shows how Bikini Atoll is on a number of levels a cultural landscape/ seascape, both in a physical sense but also in imagined ways--constructed, for example, as a deserted and dangerous place (Davis 2005a,b). I argue that the property should be inscribed on the World Heritage List as a cultural landscape, also foreshadowed in the nomination (Republic of the Marshall Islands 2009); a renomination incorporating "natural" criteria (ix) would recognise the Bravo Crater in particular as a rare example of early succession and development of reef structure.


The World Heritage Convention was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1972. There are currently 187 signatory countries ("State Parties") to the convention and the UNESCO World Heritage List comprises 936 properties.

The property, Bikini Atoll, was nominated by the State Party, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), as a cultural site, an "outstanding example of a nuclear test site", under criteria (iv) and (vi) of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2008: paragraph 77).

The nomination of Bikini Atoll is in large part a consequence of a process to address the under-representation of properties in the Pacific Islands Region on the World Heritage List. A series of World Heritage Global Strategy meetings for the Pacific Islands Region, commencing in 1997 (Smith & Jones 2007: 6-13), have been undertaken as part of a process to develop a representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2004, 2008).

In 2007, ICOMOS published a thematic study, Cultural Landscapes of the Pacific Islands (Smith & Jones 2007). The publication was prepared to support possible nominations for World Heritage status through a summary of available evidence. Bikini Atoll is presented as a case study, emphasising the nuclear testing history and in particular the ships sunk in the lagoon as part of the 1946 atomic bomb tests (Smith & Jones 2007: 86-7). The January 2009 Nomination Dossier (Republic of the Marshall Islands 2009) and a draft Conservation Management Plan for Bikini Atoll (the nomination documents) were prepared with the support of an "International Preparatory Assistance Grant" from the World Heritage Centre.

As indicated earlier, Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site was inscribed on the World Heritage List as an outstanding technological ensemble and because of its association with outstanding artistic and literary works. Alson Kelen, the Mayor of Bikini Atoll, travelled to Brasilia to present at the World Heritage Committee meeting in 2010, where he made the following statement:

   We left [in 1946] reluctantly and with great sadness--as
   our beautiful island became the location of the
   greatest destruction humankind is capable of, and we
   lost our way of life. Inscription of Bikini Atoll Nuclear
   Test Site is an opportunity for the dramatic events that
   occurred to be remembered. The experience of nuclear
   testing, the displacement of our people from our
   homeland and the devastating contamination of our
   country is a story that has been repeated in many places
   around the world. As a World Heritage site, Bikini Atoll
   will forever tell the story of this period for human
   history. (Niedenthal & Kelen 2010)

World Heritage listing has (re)materialised and (re)imagined Bikini Atoll by privileging 12 years of the atoll's history (1946-1958). The world heritage metanarrative fixes the account of the nuclear age within the World Heritage framework of outstanding universal value (OUV) and reduces the Bikinian people's story to a subplot. The materiality of history--the sunken fleet, the Bravo bomb crater, the bunkers and the cables as well as the documentary record, evidences a global-scale nuclear narrative, constructed in the universal imaginary as "dark" or "negative heritage" (meaning a conflictual place that is a repository of negative memory; Meskell 2002: 558). The intangible values supporting outstanding universal value are also global, as outlined above, rather than local.

For Bikinians, World Heritage listing is not about criteria (iv) (the outstanding materiality of the technological ensemble of nuclear testing), or criteria (vi) (the association with artistic and literary works of outstanding significance) or even the development of the global peace movement. For present-day Bikinians, a significant part of the global act of World Heritage listing is keeping their story alive--the story of dispossession and promises unfulfilled ("for the good of mankind [sic] and to end all world wars") and to honour and never forget the Bikinian people's sacrifice (Niedenthal 2011). It is a story of multiple relocations via Rongelap Atoll and Kwajalein to the solitary coral island of Kili, less than 1 square kilometre in area and without a central lagoon. It is a David and Goliath story--a tiny population seeking recompense and compensation from a global superpower.

The Bikinian story has been documented on several occasions. Senior Bikinians are well travelled, visiting the USA from the 1970s to meet with administrators, lawyers and politicians in relation to seeking, negotiating and administering compensation packages. Bikinians have also engaged with other Indigenous groups around the world impacted by nuclear testing--for example, a delegation of Bikinians visited Aboriginal groups impacted by British-Australian testing at Maralinga, Australia, in 1988 (Figure 7). Bikinians recognise that they are a part of a global category of displaced Indigenous people, evacuated to enable nuclear testing (cf. Gorman 2007).

A further reason why Bikinians support and are apparently pleased by the World Heritage listing of Bikini Atoll relates to their position within the Marshall Islands. The anthropologist J.A. Tobin (1953: 47) was told at a Bikinian Council meeting on Kili Island in 1953 that: "The Marshallese always make fun of the Bikini people. They say that the Bikini people are crazy, pagan, don't work, sit around and wait for a handout. This is a real lie!" The ways in which Bikinian people are thought of by other Marshallese have changed since 1953, particularly because their stature has risen as a result of US financial compensation packages. However, Bikinians still feel that they are treated as "second-rate" in a number of respects. For example, the dialect spoken by Bikinians is at times denigrated as unsophisticated, as southern US accents might be to US East Coast speakers. The listing of Bikini Atoll, the first World Heritage area in the Marshall Islands and in Micronesia, gives added status to native Bikinians in both a local and regional context because of the world-level recognition.

Thus Bikini Atoll in 2010, simultaneously imagined as a wasteland, wonderland and homeland, is a subversive space--a space coopted by both global and local actors. The UNESCO World Heritage project, driven by a credible and representative world heritage ethos, has sought out the remote atoll of Bikini for listing. The global attention listing brings has been conscripted by Bikinians to further their goals of being heard, recognised and supported.

There is a cultural engagement between global and local in World Heritage listing that comprises complex processes of creative cooptation in political, economic and administrative practices (Herzfeld 1997: 3). There is an element of social poetics, a term used by the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, in the way in which local Bikinian people find advantage through engaging with the World Heritage project and global heritage practice. The loss of homeland through nuclear testing is at the heart of a struggle to be heard, recognised and supported; a struggle that has become central to Bikinian identity. Bikini Atoll has not been abandoned, disserted or disowned, but remains a powerful material and spiritual force in the lives of its people. World Heritage listing of Bikini Atoll offers a global forum through which Bikinians such as Mayor Alson Kelen and Councilmen Wilson Note and Banjo Joel position the local narrative of "terrible loss" alongside global value (wasteland and wonderland), and thus reclaim the atoll as living heritage and homeland rather than a place historically recognised for its association with a fashion icon, le bikini.

DOI: 10.1002/arco.5000


My visit to Bikini Atoll was undertaken as part of an ICOMOS technical evaluation mission, which was organised and supported by the KBE LG. I am especially grateful to Deputy Mayor Wilson Note, Councillor Banjo Joel, Jack Niedenthal, Lani Kramer, Edward Maddison and Jim McNutt, who were my hosts, guides and companions on Bikini Atoll and were generous in their patient explanations of the story of Bikini. I also thank the Bikini Projects Development staff on Bikini Island for supporting my visit in a variety of ways. I should like to single out Jack Niedenthal and Lani Kramer for organising the visit, travel and meetings, and for their willingness to share at length their expert knowledge of the atoll. I thank Mayor Alson Kelen and the KBE LG Council for meeting with me in Majuro, and also Josepha Maddison and Ingrid Ahlgren, RMI HPO, for meeting with me and providing documents at short notice. I express my gratitude to all.

I thank Gwenaelle Bourdin and Regina Durighello at the ICOMOS World Heritage Unit, Paris, for their support in the organisation and administration of the visit to Bikini Atoll. I also express my gratitude to Nicole Baker for discussion on the nomination documents and to William (Bill) Robison for providing information on issues relating to radiation at Bikini Atoll. I also acknowledge valuable discussions with Olwen Beazley, Denis Byrne, Juliet Ramsay and Kristal Buckley with regard to broad issues relating to the cultural heritage of Bikini Atoll. Xavier Babboneau assisted with locating original French phrases relating to the history of the bikini. Finally, I thank my employer, the Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW), for their support with regard to my undertaking the visit to Bikini Atoll.

Early versions of this paper were presented at the Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference 2010, at La Trobe University and at the University of Sydney. My thinking for this paper has benefited from comments received from participants at those events, and in particular Anita Smith, Robert Maxwell, Annie Clarke and Ursula Frederick. I thank the referees for this paper, Alice Gorman and Jane Lydon, as well as editor Annie Ross, for their generous and thoughtful feedback and very helpful references.


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Office of Environment and Heritage

Correspondence: Steve Brown, Office of Environment and Heritage, PO Box 1967, Hurstville BC, NSW 1481, Australia. Email:

Table 1. Bikini Atoll: Heritage items associated with nuclear testing,

Heritage item                   Description

Operation Crossroads:
Location of Able Atomic         Underwater crater within Bikini
  Test (1 July 1946)              lagoon.

Operation Crossroads:
Sunken vessels (Able Test)      USS Anderson DD-411 (destroyer); USS
                                  Carlisle AA-69 (merchant craft); USS
                                  Lamson DD-367 (destroyer); HUMS
                                  Sakawa (Japan).

Operation Crossroads:
Location of Baker Atomic        Underwater crater within Bikini
  Test (25 July 1946)             lagoon.

Operation Crossroads:
Sunken vessels (Baker Test)     USS Apogon SS-308 (submarine); USS
                                  Arkansas BB-33 (battleship); HUMS
                                  Nagato (Japanese flagship); USS
                                  Pilotfish SS-386 (submarine); USS
                                  Saratoga (aircraft carrier); as well
                                  as ten landing craft, a merchant
                                  vessel, repair dock and concrete oil
                                  barge (Niedenthal 2001: 191). Prinz
                                  Eugen (German heavy cruiser) and USS
                                  Pennsvlvania scuttled at Kwajalein

Operation Crossroads:
Terrestrial structures (1946)   Bikini and Eneu Islands cleared of
                                  much vegetation and extensive
                                  military camps established. Film and
                                  antennae towers constructed around

Operation Castle:
Location of test sites (1954)   Castle involved refinement of large
                                  H-bombs into smaller and more
                                  efficient thermonuclear weapons.
                                  Five of the six Castle tests took
                                  place at Bikini Atoll--Bravo, Romeo,
                                  Koon, Union and Yankee. The Bravo
                                  test was a 15 megaton device
                                  detonated on I March 1954, which
                                  vaporised three islets and created a
                                  crater 2 km in diameter and 80 m

Operation Redwing:
Location of test sites (1956)   The locations of six nuclear tests
                                  in Bikini lagoon--Cherokee, Zuni,
                                  Flathead, Dayota, Navajo and Tewa.

Operation Hardtack 1:
Location of test sites (1958)   The locations of ten nuclear tests
                                  in lagoon--Fir, Nutmeg, Sycamore,
                                  Maple, Aspen, Redwood, Hickory,
                                  Cedar, Poplar and Juniper.

Bikini Island structures:
  Building complex 1            19 m x 15 m. Concrete. Four internal
                                  spaces. Flat roof.
  Buildings 2-4 (small)         B2: 8 m x 3.5 m. Concrete. Doorway.
                                  Two openings.
                                B3: 4 m x 4 m. Concrete. Doorway.
                                B4: 4 m x 2.5 m. Concrete. Doorway.
  Building 5                    B5: 40 m x 16 m. Concrete floor
                                  slab with two sets of rail tracks.

Eneu Island structures:
  Communication Bunker          27 m x 25 m. Concrete. L-shaped. Two

  Firing Bunker                 33 m x 20 m. Concrete. Four internal
                                  spaces and courtyard.

  Assembly Building             Concrete slab 32 m x 15 m. Iron-clad
                                  wood frame demolished in the 1990s.
                                  Small concrete building adjacent
                                  (20 m x 10 m).

  Generator Bunker              GB: 21 m x 12 m. Concrete. Courtyard
                                  and single internal space. Three
                                  generator bases.

  Camp Blandy                   CampB: 130 m perimeter wall. Jetty.
                                  Little surviving surface evidence of

  Airstrip                      Crushed coral runway and bitumen

  Sea walls/jetties

Bravo Crater structures         Two concrete structures on sand
                                  islets on south edge of crater.

Nam Island
  Building complex 1            Large (57 m x 22 m) concrete
                                  structure with enclosed spaces and
                                  vehicle embayment. Surrounded by
                                  artificial sand ridge (Figures 4 and

  Jetty                         Jetty: two linear stone features
                                  extending from the western

  Cable                         Cable: cabling scattered along the
                                  west/south/east shoreline. Some
                                  concreted in situ.

Bakor Island
  Building complex 1            Single concrete structure (30 m x 24
                                  m), largely buried under artificial
                                  sand mound. Single entrance in
                                  eastern wall. Multiple internal

Aoemen Island                   Large (26 m x 25 m x 8 m)
  Building complex 1              two-level concrete structure with
                                  multiple internal spaces (Figure 6).
                                  Smaller concrete structure (8 m x 5
                                  m) to south-east of main building.

Aerkoj Island                   Concrete structure (30 m x 10 m)
  Building complex 1              comprising platform (12 m x 10 m),
                                  single-storey space and
                                  double-storey west end. Iron post
                                  and timber rail fence enclosure.

Jabej Island                    Large concrete structure (44 m x 26
  Building complex 1              m) comprising two main spaces linked
                                  by corridors. Five generator bases
                                  in large northern space. Graffiti:
                                  "Dutch 1958".

Causeway remains                Parallel rows of iron posts over
                                  -150 m across channel between two

Antennae base weights           Various locations, including the
                                  western side of Jabej Island; the
                                  west side of Lukoj Island; on the
                                  reef between Nam and Bakor Islands;
                                  on Bikini Island near building
                                  complex 1.

Submarine and land-             Extensive network of cables and
  based cables                    lead/iron cable-casings connecting
                                  atoll islands.
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