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Digging the Age of Aquarius Volume 62 Number 4, July/August 2009
by Matthew Brunwasser

Why trash from a hippie commune is worth preserving


Archaeologist Victor Bjelajac mulls over the remains of the hippie commune that thrived in Olompali State Historic Park between 1967 and 1969. (Matthew Brunwasser)

Melted sneakers, scorched fabric, broken plates, a tube of 40-year-old face cream, red plastic Monopoly hotels, and other chunks of debris fill cardboard cartons on a conference table at the Olompali State Historic Park Visitors Center in northern California. Some might call these artifacts--the remains of a hippie commune that called the park its home between 1967 and 1969--junk. But California state archaeologist E. Breck Parkman disagrees. Believing that his job managing the state's historical resources gives him a responsibility not only to interpret the past, but also to plan for the future, Parkman is working to make sure that these seemingly mundane items aren't just thrown away. He's convinced that sorting, identifying, and storing some of these artifacts will enable future generations of archaeologists to create their own interpretations of the years between the Summer of Love and Woodstock--a period of political turbulence, generational conflict, and cultural experimentation that shaped modern America.

On a rainy day in February, I listen as Parkman explains his vision of how to preserve the history of the commune that existed here before a fire destroyed its rented home, a 22-room, 19th-century house called the Burdell Mansion, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. In the face of resistance to using the funds of a state with a $42-billion budget deficit to go through "hippie trash," Parkman has enlisted several museum curators and two former commune residents to help him figure out what to keep and what to throw away. "Are we honoring the hippie period [by keeping these artifacts]?" asks 56-year-old Parkman with the slight southern accent he brought with him from his native Georgia. "No. We are saying that it's significant. What's important is that we want to curate the artifacts so that 50, 100, or 200 years in the future, people will be able to pull them out and do scientific study."

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.