Auctioning Atari: Archaeology, Ethics, and Contemporary Practice

This week my social media inbox has filled with news on two auctions. The first auction involves the “Treasure of Harageh” being auctioned at Bonhams for the Archaeological Institute of America’s St. Louis chapter. Auctioning antiquities is, needless to say, an issue of concern for both the national body of the Archaeological Institute of America and archaeologists everywhere.  The AIA seems to have been caught off guard about this and we can hope, formulating a response. Many archaeologists are dismayed and disappointed.  

At the same time, I’ve been receiving daily updates on the impending auction of Atari games excavated this past spring from the Alamogordo landfill. As readers of this blog know, I was involved as an observer and consultant (in the broadest sense of the word) on these excavation which were funded and seemingly directed as part of a documentary film. The excavated games are property of the City of Alamogordo and it had been their intention from the start to sell some of the 1200 games excavated from the landfill to defray the costs associated with hosting the documentary crew and opening a long-closed landfill. The auction of priceless Egyptian antiquities has caused more alarm than the auctioning of some Atari games. Perhaps it is because the city of Alamogordo has pledged 400 games or so to museums. While we were onsite we set aside an assemblage of important artifacts for the city under the guidance of video game expert Raiford Guins and marked them as potential museum worthy artifacts. 


These two events bring to the fore issues of archaeological ethics. I’ve generally considered ethical debates in archaeology, at their best, a kind of benign parlor game. The big picture of bad things to do and good things to do is pretty well much familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the discipline. It is not good for a group associated with the Archaeological Institute of America to be auctioning off antiquities. That much is clear. The grey area around the fringes, however, where serious ethical work needs to happen, tends to realm of bombast and handwringing. For example, it is bad that large parts of Syria’s archaeological heritage is under threat, but it is far worse that over 50% of the country’s population is now refugees. Complaining about the former is fine from a professional standpoint, as long as it never threatens to drown out the latter. Or worse, in our rush to decry the evils of looting, we somehow blame the victims of this country’s horrible civil war. It’s fine to criticize Indian Jones as a bad archaeologist because he obviously ran-roughshod over the German excavation permit in Egypt, but we shouldn’t forget that he did so in order to save the world from evils of Nazi domination. I was not comfortable with the decision to deny Dr. Jones tenure, in part, on the basis of his ethical decision making, and I recognize that pressures to forfeit his finds to “top men” made it very difficult for him to publish promptly.

Fortunately, the auctioning of Atari games relates neither to the massive displacement of innocent civilians or global domination by a genocidal fascist regime. It does, however, dance, albeit more merrily, along the borders of archaeological ethics. Over the last week, I’ve made a list of things that concern me about the the auctioning of Atari games by the city of Alamogordo. 

1. Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in archaeology of the contemporary world. This sub-discipline has focused on applying archaeological methods to contemporary contexts. As a result, we have expanded the definition of archaeological artifact to the point where it exceeds any legally recognized status in the world. Atari games buried in the 1980s are now archaeological artifacts not because of their age, but because of the systematic scrutiny that defined their contemporary context. If publishing an artifact without proper archaeological provenience or an object for sale runs the risk of using our disciplinary knowledge to imparting value in the antiquities market, then the presence of archaeologists at the Atari dig and our documentation of those finds serves a similar purpose for the upcoming auction. This is something that I’ve worried about a good bit. Whether we like it or not, the academic publication of objects and object types affects their value, contributes to their desirability, and fuels the market. An Atari game is pretty mundane and common, but they are limited commodities just like Roman lamps, amphoras, and black figure vases. By participating in the excavation of objects that will go to auction, we have used our disciplinary knowledge to stimulate and expand the market for a finite resource.

2. Archaeology and Corporate World. Hardly a month goes by without some country demanding the repatriation on an artifact legally or illegally removed from its territory or the territory of some predecessor state. In my reading of the ethical issues surrounding these disputes, archaeologists are generally less interested in the specific legal arguments related to the rights of a particular nation state, and more interested in the role that objects play in the preserving evidence for the past at a particular site or in a  particular context. In other words, it is the cultural situation of objects proximate to their place of discovery that fuels archaeological calls for repatriation. As for the countries calling for repatriation, I get the sense that the calls remains a post-colonial “weapon of the weak” that seeks to redress wrongs conducted and perpetuated by colonialist powers. The archaeologist, in many cases, is a representative of these colonialist powers, and our willingness to sanction the sometimes arbitrary demands of states calling for repatriation relates as much to guilt over past asymmetries of power as a genuine belief that objects deserve to be in a particular place or context.

The excavation and auction of Atari games represents an interesting case study in that the context for the games – a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico – was mediated by a series of corporate contexts that include the original production of the games by Atari, their shipment to New Mexico, and their burial at a private landfill. More than that, the excavation was funded, at least in large part, by Microsoft, and the most interested parties had histories and contacts with all these companies. While Atari as a company barely exists, it did make me wonder whether in the near future, as companies rapidly displace nation states as both global legal powers and sources of culture and identity, then will they have a genuine claim as custodians of our collective past?

3. Data and Objects. It is heartening to know that many of the excavated games will find their way to museum collections. It is a bit odd, however, that no one has asked us for a formal report on the excavations. In other words, the excavated status of these objects and their archaeological context is assumed. This got me thinking about the relationship between finds and data in general. Every summer, when I depart the Mediterranean, I leave behind a dusty storeroom full of pot sherds with a hard drive full of images, descriptions, and descriptions of context. We do our best to make sure that the local archaeological authorities have copies of both our data and any analysis that we conducted. It made me realize, however, that the objects as objects have very little value to my work once we’ve squeezed the necessary information from the artifacts and stored them safely away. 

The rise of New Archaeology and the shift from an art historical fetishization of the artifact to data driven analysis has slowly eroded the value of the artifact itself and shifted the significance to the methods used in analysis. I got to wondering whether this perpetuated colonial practices where archaeologists arrive in a place, take what they need (in this case data rather than objects), and leave the desiccated remains behind for the host country to curate. As the film company and the hardy team of archaeologists left New Mexico with the footage and data that they wanted, the town of Alamogordo was left with a assemblage of artifacts.

While it doesn’t make me happy to know that the city will auction these excavated artifacts, I wonder whether this archaeological grey areas will continue to grow as our definition of the past and the discipline of archaeology changes.

One Comment

  1. Regarding the corporate point, there’s the recent account of the corporate marketing folklorist from the Harvard Business Review. Note the different inflection from yours. Not how will we deal with corporate overlords, but can the multinational corporation save our humanities?


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