First Impressions on the Atari E.T. Excavations in Alamogordo, New Mexico

After three hectic days in the New Mexico desert, I’m ready to go home and finish up the semester. We have hard drives full of images, notebooks full of description, and audio and video files to come to describe and transcribe. (We also have piles of stinky clothing and a fear that we’ll never lose the smell of the landfill from our skin and hair!).

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In the interest of capturing the moment, I can offer a few quick impressions here.

1. Real archaeology was possible. The strangest thing about the project was that the archaeology team did not direct the excavation of the exploration. We did manage to make ourselves present throughout the entire process, however. The first day(s) involved taking a series of bucket auger cores from various places in the landfill. We arrived a bit late on Thursday so we didn’t see all this work, but we did manage to catch the last few holes and get a clear sense of the fill’s stratigraphy. On Friday, we observed the excavator dig several 5.5-7.5 m deep holes and then on Saturday we were present for the extraction of the final levels in the landfill which contained the Atari games. The trying weather conditions (including 50 mph winds) made it impossible to document the finds on site except in a very superficial way. On Sunday, however, we were able to process artifacts and take study photographs before turning the collection over to the city of Alamogordo.

2. Stratigraphy was present and visible. There was clear stratigraphy present in the landfill and we were able to document it reasonably well. There were clear layers of soil on the top of the fill which covered a later layer of trash that we understand to have been a single dumping episode. It covered another layer of soil, which was the soil cover for the major landfill episode at the site. The major landfill at the site came up black both with decomposition and evidence for ash and burning. This level was a distinct depositional process that involved vertical columns of trash and it rested immediately atop the deposit of Atari games, which were, apparently, layered horizontally along the bottom of the cut made for the trash and covered with a thin and irregular layer of concrete.

3. The problems with abundance. Once the material started to come out from the fill, we discovered that most of the layers atop the Atari deposit consisted of domestic trash. This is not surprising. We did quick reads of these levels, but the pace of excavation and the quantity of material (as well as the safety concerns and the production company’s priorities) made it impossible to perform any formal garbagology on the non-Atari landfill levels. The quantity of trash was overwhelming and even the more homogenous Atari deposit was too much to quantify in the time that we had. As a result, we can talk fairly confidently about what was present in the deposit and coarsely about the relative proportion of the material. Our sample was random, in that it reflected the location of the trench excavated rather than the deposition process itself, but it may or may not be representative of the entire assemblage. The size of the sample which probably represented less than 10% of the entire assemblage provided us with enough material to make some good observations on the processes that formed this group of material.   

4. Multiple narratives. The most interesting thing about our experience here is the different narratives that have emerged surrounding the excavation. Some narratives are local and involve the validation of stories circulated by local residents for years. Some are global and involve the conclusion of a romantic quest for a fragment of a shared (albeit consumerist) past. Even within the archaeological team, there are various narrative ranging from an interest in confirming an video game legend to critiques of late capitalism, questions of disciplinary boundaries, and the history of the American west. At the same time, being part of a documentary, our position within the project remained dependent on a kind of overarching narrative that embraced (and authorized in a practical sense!) our work. Finally, there was the media that ranged from the new and social media to myriad marketing groups who attempted to embed our activities within their stories. It’ll take a while to figure out how these things all interact.

5. The uncertain end. As we pack up our clothes to head home, I can’t get the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc out of my mind. The artifacts are property of the city of Alamogordo and they have plans to store and distribute the artifacts from the excavation. The production company will get some and we hope that some come to our team for further study, conservation (if necessary), and archiving. At the same time, it seems likely that some copies of the game have “wandered off” and will soon appear for sale. It’ll be interesting to think about the ethical implications of selling these objects and the role of archaeologists (as well as the media) in creating market value for these artifacts.

My thoughts these issues will continue to develop over the next few weeks especially as we begin to process the myriad of data collected and write up the preliminary report. Stay tuned. 

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