Atari Game as Artifact

To commemorate my participation the famous Atari excavation last spring, I decided to bid on one of the Atari cartridges being sold by the city of Alamogordo on Ebay. After a few false starts, I managed to secure a Centipede game for $60 which I think was the reserve set for the game.

The game arrived promptly in a well-padded priority mail box. The game itself was packaged in a ziplock bag of probably of 6 mil thickness. These are more or less the same bags that my project on Cyprus used for artifacts both in the store rooms and in the field (although if I recall ours were 8 mil). It’s substantial. 


The artifact was identified with a metal tag taped to the interior of the bag:


This did not represent the most secure method for labeling an artifact ever invented. The game itself is not labeled in any way and it is only ever identified by its inventory number rather than a formal description.

The game that I purchased was in its plastic “blister pack” package and labeled for sale at Target for $32.99.


The unopened blister pack suggests that the game was probably returned after going unsold at the store rather than defective or returned after the initial sale (although that is possible). We found whole cartons of games priced for retail in the landfill and I hope that at least some of these “assemblages” of games were preserved intact rather than being (once again) separated for resale.

Opening the ziplock bag was a mistake. The odor released suggests that the sweet and dusty smell of the landfill had fermented into something indescribable. It caused our beloved family dog (who had spent a good bit of time earlier in the day frolicking with a piece of his frozen poo) to shudder and immediately ask to be let out of the house into sub-zero temperatures. If there is any doubt that this particular game originated in the Alamogordo landfill, the odor alone might authenticate its provenience. 

The game did not appear to be cleaned in any way or modified. The blister pack had ruptured probably during its time in the landfill and I was starting to photograph the artifact, the the odor was sufficiently intense I thought it best to do someplace other than in my home. It is notable that Centipede is one of the games released in silver boxes; it was released, I think, in 1982, to generally positive reviews. (See the Atari Age page on Centipede here with links to reviews.)


The game came with a certificate of authenticity, but nothing on the certificate related to the specific game beyond including the identification number. It was attractive if generic printed on 40 weight paper and decorated with photographs from the excavation. The certificate was signed by the mayor of Alamogordo, Susie Galea, the game’s famous designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, and Joe Lewandowski. This is a nice touch, but they don’t authenticate the particular game; they authenticate a serial number associated with a plastic bag in which the game was placed. Interestingly, the Centipede was not designed by Howard Scott Warshaw, but by Ed Logg and Donna Bailey, one of the only female Atari engineers, and it was subsequently ported to the Atari 2600 VCS. In other words, the history of the Centipede game is really quite different from the history of the E.T. game, but the two games are conflated by their ultimate fate.


The game also came with a little history of the Atari dump and it recovery by none other than Joe Lewendowski. It’s a nice general overview of the Atari “tomb,” its discovery, and a recovery.


And some photocopied newspaper articles most likely from microfilm:


The entire package was well done to contextualize the object within a particular sequence of events and ensure the game’s transition from returned and discarded merchandise to historical artifact. 

The most interesting gap in this transmission is the absence of any link between the particular game and the historical record. The game itself is not marked in any permanent way (although I suspect the smell will not easily disappear) nor marked as associated with the other games from this particular excavation. For example, there is no register identifying this game as one of a number of similar types nor is there any formal archaeological record (e.g. a description of the object, its archaeological context, or relationship to the larger assemblage). The buyer is required to piece that together if possible – for example, this game was probably an unsold return from Target – or just enjoy the object as a souvenir from a rather unusual media event.

Fortunately, for this little orphan object, it will go to live at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Special Collections where it will be joined by various bits of archaeological information recorded from the site (by the “punk archaeology team”) and, in time, some interpretative material written up over the next year.  

UPDATE: So, I’ve been chatting with my buddy, Paul Worley, on Twitter all morning about how strange it must be for me to purchase an artifact that acquired some (all?) of its value because I participated in its excavation as a “real archaeologist.” In other words, my presence at the dig validated the archaeological legitimacy and authenticity of these artifacts. 

I responded that I was not entire convinced that these were archaeological artifacts, but rather “media artifacts.” Their value is less bound up in our legitimizing presence and more bound up in the production of a documentary and a rapid online community who promoted the urban legend, excavation, and its results. My argument undermining their validity as archaeological artifacts derives from both how they are presented and how they were produced. As my post points out, they’re not presented archaeologically at all. They lack any unique identifiers (except probably smell) that makes them archaeological. They methods that produced these artifacts were likewise only marginally archaeological. Their context was pretty simple and documented superficially, but because of the requirements of documentary filming, safety regulations, and city policies and practices, we were not able to guarantee their unbroken continuity from the bottom of the trench to the storeroom to Ebay. I’m not suggesting that these are fraudulent in any way, but the performance of archaeology involves the systematic excavation, documentation, presentation, and ordering of the  artifacts (and the world). Our work only fulfilled a few of these roles in New Mexico, and the presentation of these artifacts on Ebay and in the flesh reveal the limits of their archaeological character.

The Centipede game presented to UND this morning will have the additional benefit of eventually being housed with my notes from the dig, copies of publications, media coverage, and presumably the Zak Penn movie. My hope is these efforts will allow me to perform (some) archaeology and to recontextualize the object in a way that increases its value as both a media and cultural artifact. I’m skeptical if it will even be regarded as truly archaeological, but like 19th century curios, we can at least use it to pose questions about how we produce value in our capitalist age. 

UPDATE 2: Here’s the official press release on this:

UND adds to its digital artifacts collection an ‘old’ Atari gaming system cartridge part of recent archaeology dig

The University of North Dakota Department of Special Collections in the Chester Fritz Library got an unusual addition this week: an Atari game cartridge once buried in a New Mexico landfill.

Special Collections is best known for housing collections associated with important national figures like former North Dakota politicians William Langer and Byron Dorgan, and documents related to the history of the Red River Valley, North Dakota and the University. Special Collections also accepts documents related to faculty research.

The Atari cartridge, a Centipede game for the Atari 2600, was among the thousands excavated from the famous Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, N.M., in April 2014. Bill Caraher, UND associate professor of history; and Bret Weber, UND assistant professor of social work; participated in the excavation that was funded as part of a documentary film. Caraher purchased a game from the excavation, which was made available by the City of Alamogordo, and has donated it to the University.

“While I usually do not condone purchasing archaeological artifacts of any kind,” Caraher said. “These artifacts are somewhat different because they represent our very recent past. When I saw that the Smithsonian had received a game and several other major cultural institutions as well, I had to acquire one for UND to commemorate the University’s participation in this unusual excavation.”

Curt Hanson, director of UND Special Collections, went on to say, “This is definitely the first artifact from a landfill in our collection, and also the first video game, although with UND’s growing status as a university on the cutting edge of the digital innovation, we would not be surprised to see more digital artifacts coming into Special Collections.

“I grew up playing Atari and to see my childhood treated as an archaeological artifact and preserved in our collection, as well as places like the Smithsonian, is really exciting!”

The UND Working Group in Digital and New Media will host a showing of the documentary Atari: Game Over this spring and bring in the “punk archaeology” team who participated on the excavation for a round table conversation on archaeology, the media, and video games as artifacts of our times.

UND Special Collections also houses notebooks and documents related to Caraher’s longstanding, and more conventional, field work projects on Cyprus.

UND Special Collections Atari cartridge donation  1280x850Curt Hanson (left), director of UND’s Department of Special Collections, holds sealed bag containing an Atari 2600 gaming system cartridge for the 1980s era game Centipede. The cartridge was unearthed recently during an archaeological dig in an old New Mexico landfill. UND history professor Bill Caraher (right), who was part of that excavation and an associated documentary film about the dig, purchased the cartridge from the city of Alamogordo, N.M., and handed it over to UND Special Collections this week.

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