Jon Mooallem on Star Wars archaeology
From “Raiders of the Lost R2: Excavating a galaxy far, far away,” by Jon Mooallem, in the March 2009 Harper’s
It was just before six in the morning when we stopped at a rest area off Interstate 8, near where California, Arizona, and Mexico meet in the desert. A line of U.S. Border Patrol dune buggies with flat tires slumped at one end of the parking lot. Across the road, a mobile watchtower with dark windows loomed over an SUV. Jad Bean flipped open a three-ring binder on the hood of our rented Trailblazer to reveal a satellite map, most of which was taken up by a waxen emptiness that crinkled like the surface of a brain. The Imperial Sand Dunes cover forty miles, with some dunes reaching heights of more than three hundred feet. A few have earned proper names, like mountains. Jad pointed at the center of the map, to a tear-shaped depression identified as Buttercup Valley. A black-and-red icon was printed near the valley’s edge—the proverbial x marking the spot—alongside the words sail barge set.
It was on this particular tract of sand that a fragment of another world’s landscape temporarily took up residence. Over thirty-eight days in the spring of 1982, a crew from Lucasfilm erected a 30,000-square-foot wooden platform and built atop it sand dunes that rose five stories above the actual desert floor. On top of the ersatz dunes, they then built a yacht-like structure, 90 feet long and 60 feet tall; the color of weathered tree bark, it was overhung with jagged, orange polyester sails. The craft would appear in an early scene of Return of the Jedi as the hovering pleasure barge of the blubbery crime boss Jabba the Hutt and would shuttle his cadre of bounty hunters and hangers-on across the desert planet Tatooine to watch the execution of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Each prisoner was to be walked off a plank into something called the “al mighty Sarlacc,” a kind of belching vagina dentata in the dunes, which, it was said, would digest them over many anguishing millennia. A quarter of a century later, remnants of the set were apparently littered across the valley or buried in the sand. We would be excavating whatever authentic artifacts of that fictitious universe remained.
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