The aftershocks of this week’s Atari E.T. excavation continue to ripple through my humble existence. The most significant recent event, however, was that the production company has asked us to be selective with what we report and write about. The amount of press coverage of the excavation, the flurry of activity in the social media, and the presence of three or four official, but separate crews documenting the event for Microsoft and related entities created a perfect storm of publicity that we might describe as hyperreal. The intersection of the press, the documentary film team, and our own interest as “real” archaeologists intersect at a request for secrecy that is, from what I understand, completely devoid of irony.
It makes sense, of course, that they want us to be selective about what we reveal. The funding for the excavation was not meant to support scientific inquiry, but rather a successful documentary film. If we told the world what happened before the film appeared, we would blunt the impact of the movie and undermine the value of their investment. Moreover, archaeologists are familiar with various kinds of embargoes on information from permit restrictions, to ethical considerations and the slow pace of publishing, we understand that knowledge is a commodity.
I decided, however, that I can tell the secret. I am going to reveal what happened this weekend on the Atari E.T. excavations.
The signs were all there: Ernie Cline’s Delorean for example. It was made in Northern Ireland, designed by an Italian studio, engineered (belatedly) by Colin Chapman, powered by a French engine, and built by a former GM executive who ultimately is arrested for drug trafficking (that most 1980s drug cocaine). The unfinished cars were purchases by Big Lots.
We were given Microsoft Surface tablets to use in documenting our work.
These things were all harbingers.
The secret of the Atari E.T. excavation was that it revealed, for just a few moments, the end of the world.
It happened late Saturday afternoon. The wind whipped the desert sand across our faces. The deep rumble of the excavator had gone silent. The piles of mangled, damp, and discarded Atari games flanked the gaping hole torn through the heart of the Alamogordo landfill. That hole released, just for a moment, something so horrible that the producers, directors, archaeologists, and onlookers have been asked to be silent in an effort to suppress this event.
The fencing that separated the assembled crowd of onlookers from the work of the excavator came down and they descended on the piles of excavated games rabidly. They were gleaning the games from the pile. Then the grey water truck came by spreading its miasma in an effort to keep the scouring dust at bay. The gleaners kept going through the piles of games even as the grey water covered them as they continued to pick through the piles.
The excavation pushed humanity to cross the barrier between us and our own waste. It started with the landfill and culminated with the grey water. It was the end of the world.
Nostalgia for the 1980s fueled the search for Atari’s E.T. burial ground, but it wasn’t just an innocent nostalgia for a particular decade and particular values. The nostalgia for a “simpler time” opened the doors to a deeper, more anarchic past at the very edge of what makes us human.