Articulating Atari

This week, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, and I met for a day to discuss a publication plan for the Atari Excavation project. While we all agreed that there is enough intellectual substance from this experience to warrant an edited volume, we also thought that the best way forward was to produce a traditional archaeological report which could provide a basic description of our work and an introduction to the challenges that we faced working on a rather unusual salvage excavation.

The main point of this article, it seems to me, is that the archaeology of the contemporary world represents an awkward challenge to traditional archaeological methods and methodologies. As a result, it provides us with a chance to explore the border between real and “fake” archaeology and consider practices and questions that frame authentic archaeological engagements with the world.

1. Excavation. As an academic archaeologist, I’m used to being very involved in the excavation process. While it is not uncommon for a project to use a bulldozer to remove the top levels of sediment or surface debris from a site, generally we break ground, by hand, starting with the plow zone. At the Atari dig, all of the excavation was done by a huge excavator. Making matters worse, the landfill was remarkably unstable making it dangerous the approach the sides of the trench and impossible to enter the trench. This made first hand observation of the stratigraphy difficult.

2. Stratigraphy. Fortunately, the stratigraphy of the site was rather simple. The excavated area was a trench cut into the desert which was then filled with a three levels of trash and two levels of soil. The levels were very obvious from the material in the excavator’s bucket and in the scarp when it was possible to approach and photograph the trench.

The deposit reflected 5 distinct depositional events with the earliest being the deposit of Atari games spread across the lowest level of the trench. Subsequent deposits involved two dumps of household trash both covered with top soil. Unlike excavations of pre-modern sites, our stratigraphic observations could be confirmed by first hand observation of the deposits themselves. The previous operator of the landfill confirmed the levels of trash and topsoil and photographs existed for the dump of Atari games.

3. Artifacts. The goal of our dig was to confirm the presence of the Atari deposit and to sample the content of this deposit. We were aware from the start that the games would attract interest from collectors and museums. In fact, members of the team had contact with museums prior to the start of excavation and we prepared collections for the city of Alamogordo, which owned the games, for distribution to cultural institutions with an eye toward preserving representative and meaningful assemblages.

At the same time, we knew that the city and the local historical society would sells some of the games on Ebay to raise money for the community and to offset costs of storing and inventorying the games. We caught some flack in social media circles for participating in a project where we knew that some of the artifacts collected would be sold. To be honest, I’m still a bit ambivalent about this, but only because considering the role of “real” archaeology in fortifying the market of excavated objects is tricky business when the artifacts do not qualify under any existing law as protected. You can buy a used Atari game on Ebay without – as far as I am concerned – ethical compromise. Moreover, objects of greater significance and older vintage discovered in other archaeological contexts – from farmer’s fields to suburban garages – regularly circulate in the market without much protest from the archaeological community. As an archaeology of the contemporary world develops over time, archaeologists who participate in this kind of research must come to a more clear understanding of how their work influences the market for the goods that they study. As for the Atari Excavation, I’ll stand by my earlier argument that the games gained value as much because of the media frenzy around the documentary film as our work as archaeologists.    

4. Time, Toxicity, and the Media. Our time at the site was extremely limited and in this way our work paralleled the experience of salvage archaeology projects that operate in conjunction with contractors working on a deadline. Likewise, the media company had budgetary limits and deadlines. Moreover, landfills are toxic and opening a landfill involves a certain amount of environmental risks. As a result, it is never wise to leave a landfill open for longer than necessary. These variable constrained our access to the site and the scope of the excavation.

During our time in the field, these limits were frustrating. We would have liked to have greater access to the trench, to material removed from the trench (other than the games), and have witnessed a more deliberate pace of excavation. After reflecting more, however, I am not as convinced that a slower pace or more extended time on site would have produced more knowledge. The limited complexity of the stratigraphy, the instability of the trench itself, and the very clear goals of the excavation would not have rewarded a significant greater time (and risks) spent with the trench open.

5. Authenticity. The issues summarized in the points above play a key role in determining whether our engagement with this project had archaeological authenticity. All archaeology involves compromises dictated by the environment, political, social, and economic circumstances, and research questions, but archaeologists tend to instinctively recognize authentic archaeological research. The growing interest in archaeology of the contemporary world, however, complicates this as archaeologists have come to recognize all contexts as potentially archaeological and all artifacts as potential objects of study. The abundance of contexts and material encountered in every day life requires both tremendously flexible methods as well as a willingness to filter objects and practices that do not advance a clear research question.

In some ways, archaeology of the contemporary world has the potential to sketch out the limits of archaeological practice and disciplinary knowledge. I’ve received some negative reaction from archaeologists to both the North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Atari excavation. While some of it is typical disciplinary sniping, other critiques at least feel more substantial and complex. Our hope with this article is to attempt to respond and to anticipate some of the critique of what remains a very new approach to archaeology. 

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