This past week, I’ve been twisting and tweaking an article documenting our work at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation. The article was primarily authored by Andrew Reinhard and represents a formal, (we hope) publishable report on our work over a few days in Alamogordo at what was probably the most publicized excavation of 2014.
Here’s a fragment of my revised conclusion. Since I’m not sure whether it’ll appear in the article, I’m posting it here with very little comment:
(Also this is what happens when you try to write during a field season):
Atari Archaeology Conclusions
Archaeology of the contemporary world has often relied on special pleading to justify its practices, methods, and relevance. The excavation of Atari games in the Alamogordo desert is no exception to this tendency. The hyper-abundance of modern material has led to challenges in managing and documenting artifacts. The potentially toxic character of assemblages extracted from landfills, disaster sites, and industrial contexts require specialized handling skills that are rarely possessed by archaeologists and rules and regulations that may not be suited to traditional forms of archaeological investigation. As a result, the documentation of modern period assemblages often requires special accommodations. In the New Mexico desert, we were not able to enter the trench, manually excavate, or handle large quantities of material for extended periods.
As in both contract and academic archaeology, time represents a key limiting factor in the methods employed in the field. Generally speaking, ethical responsibilities serve as a counterweight to time pressures with archaeologists seeking to collect as much information as time pressures will allow. In the archaeology of the contemporary would, however, our ethical obligations are complicated by the uncertain status of material present in the Alamogordo landfill. If this material is genuinely archaeological, it is only because we documented it according to archaeological field procedures. According to most standards in our discipline and common sense, household and corporate discard do not and should not automatically command the levels of ethical care as objects and contexts of greater antiquity. Many of the challenges facing archaeologists of the contemporary world go well beyond procedures established to ensure the careful documentation of fragile or scarce archaeological resources.
Finally, the Atari excavations presented a unique opportunity for archaeologists to inform, document, and, in subtle ways, subvert the narrative produced by a media company. The goal of this report was to provide a more typical professionalized narrative of the Atari excavation. The documentary film, Atari: Game Over featured only about 10 minutes of footage on the excavation itself. This article expands and reframes these scenes with additional information collected through our participation in the production. While the story we tell does not contradict that told in the documentary, it does reveal that the halting flow of information between the production team and archaeologist limited genuine collaboration during the hectic two days of field work. At the same time, the production company supported various requests by the archaeologist that did not contribute directly to their production goals. We were able to cross the safety cordon to document the excavator’s progress, were given space to document buckets of trash from the landfill, and given brief time to sort and study the Atari cartridges. These opportunities made this article possible and demonstrate that potential of collaboration between media companies and archaeologists moving forward.