This past week, folks from the city of Alamogordo announced that they were going to sell about 100 Atari cartridges from the excavations conducted last spring in a local landfill. If this was a typical excavation, my professional standing as an archaeologist would require me to be outraged that a community would so quickly profit by selling their irreplaceable cultural heritage.
Making matters more complex was my participation in the excavation, albeit as an observer. It is interesting that our notes, reports, or standing as archaeologists in no way contributed to the value of these objects. We’ve never been consulted nor have we ever provided any information that established the context for these objects, although we have no reason to think that the context is another less than secure.
Nevertheless, in the strange world of archaeology of the contemporary past, ethical positions become more difficult and confusing. After all, the Atari games are not, by any traditional standard, officially recognized historical artifact. They are neither 50 years old, nor were they excavated under rigorous scientific conditions. They are not associated with a particular historical person and they events that led to their deposition have, at best, a symbolic relationship with the decline of the gaming industry. The discard of hundreds of thousands of Atari games in the New Mexico desert was almost routine in the company’s history as it liquidated returned stock and unsold inventory, but the urban legend that developed around these games is what gave this assemblage particular value. As with so many urban legends, the conspiracies and complications that lurk below the surface provided the leaven for the legend’s rise, and the desert town of Alamogordo provided a semi-exotic and appropriately mysterious location for the story. The media frenzy surround the excavation was largely manufactured by the documentary film crew who paid for and arranged the excavation. This isn’t to say that the excitement over the excavation wasn’t real or that these Atari games don’t have historical significance within the context of an urban legend and the historical practices of American consumer culture and the video game industry. They obviously do and we’ll see how this interest will correlate to value over the course of the Ebay auction today. (I’ll post an update to this later today when the Ebay auction for “Atari Dig Cartridges” starts.)
As an archaeologist, we’ve become hyper sensitized to the buying and selling of antiquities and recognize how such practices works to encourage looting and destruction of archaeological sites as well as the commercialization of our shared cultural heritage. For objects associated with more recent history, archaeologists have been a bit less vocal in their concern. For example, we have not railed against the selling of stadium seats or bricks from demolished ball parks or the world wide market for rare, valuable, and significant baseball cards. In fact, the experience of buying, selling, and trading sports memorabilia is as much of the part of this industry as owning and displaying it (although the same might be said about the sale of art and antiquities in some people’s minds). In other words, the value of the objects comes purely from the commercial practices associated with its acquisition. Baseball cards, for example, were trading cards meant to be swapped, collected, and exchanged.
Perhaps equating the Atari games with sports memorabilia sales in not a useful way to think about these objects. On the other hand, most institutions, whether cities like Alamogordo or universities, have processes where they liquidate unneeded assets or surplus. Archaeologists are unlikely to protest the sale of 1964 Selectric typewriters from a university or municipal warehouse even though these objects are 50 years old and, even if they constitute an assemblage. In this way, the city of Alamogordo is simply selling off surplus inventory which they do not have the space to store or any interest in conserving.
That the games dug out of the ground and the project was at least partially documented by archaeologists lends them the patina of antiquity without having to be old. The appearance of some of the games in an Italian museum of video games provides them with some cultural validation, but the Ebay auction today will give us an idea about how much these objects will fetch on the open market. If the market for artifacts, to some extent, dictates their significance and the value of artifacts on the market dictates their appeal to looters and the potential risk to archaeological sites, then today’s auction will give us an idea about whether the public sees these objects as just more cast offs from our consumer society.