Writing Week: More Chapter 1

For those of you who don’t know what this is, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Enjoy the fragments and fruits of my labor all week, fresh from the tips of my fingers, and thanks to everyone who has kept returning to my blog despite its recent myopic focus!

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past (continued)

Using archaeology to document and analyze the modern world has required archaeologists to adapt their practices and methods. Issues of toxicity, complexity, and sheer abundance have pushed archaeologists to work more quickly, at a distance, and at a smaller scale. At the Atari excavation in Alamogordo, there was a strictly maintained safety cordon around the trench owing both to the instability of scarps cut through the loosely-packed landfill and the operation of the massive excavator. Moreover, the trench could only be open for a limited amount of time owing to concerns about the release of toxic chemicals associated with household waste in the landfill and the real fear of the wind blowing exposed trash into the nearby town. Finally, the excavated landfill material had to be quickly moved to another landfill and dumped again offering almost no opportunity to the careful scrutiny of upper strata of the landfill. Entering the trench for the careful documentation of the levels present and any material visible in the scarp was obviously out of the question. Backfilling of the trench began the day after excavations were complete as per New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) guidelines. As a result of these limitation, we had to document the progress of the excavation from a safe distance that fortunately provided a satisfactory view of progress which we then confirmed by occasional visits to the side of the trench. Only once levels near the Atari deposit were reached did we have access to the material being removed from the trench, and we have very limited time to document this assemblage.

The archaeology of the modern world offers new opportunities and challenges the discipline. On the one hand, archaeological methods offers a new perspective on how we interact with the complex assemblage of objects that constitutes modern life. An emphasis on the relationship between objects and object and individuals has demonstrated that the human interaction with objects constitutes a key facet in how we understand our world. On the other hand, modern objects offer particular challenges for archaeologists and have pushed us to move beyond both the conventional method and metaphor of excavation as well as practices originally developed to manage the scarcity of material culture from past. Archaeologists of the contemporary world now must deal with a sometimes seething mass of toxic artifacts, present in hyper abundant quantities, and often set in complex networks of relationships with other objects, living people, and newly-developed and ephemeral media forms.

Archaeology and the Media

The Alamogordo Atari Expedition was media project. Our access to the site was made possible because we were playing a role in a documentary about the search for the famous dump of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. The reason this kind of venture received funding likewise had to do with the circulation of various urban legends and conspiracy theories across the internet. This same connected web of computers was also positioned to disseminate the documentary via Microsoft’s X-Box 1 gaming and media platform. At the same time, we digging in the Alamogordo desert in search of objects best known not for their physical form, but for what that form contained. The recognition that archaeology and the media have deep interconnection has garnered recent attention from scholars who have explored the relationship between various media, from photography and drawing, to television and documentaries, and the objects of archaeological investigation. There are also scholars, often from the fields cultural studies, who have offered a broadly construed “archaeological” critique of media that ranges from the careful examination of now outmoded or obsolete media to the considerations for how technology has shaped the production and consumption of media over time. While practitioners of “media archaeology” have been quick to distinguish what they do from disciplinary archaeological practice, the shared in the relationships between objects and concepts like the assemblage has led to a growing convergence in methods and arguments (Piccini 2015).

Raiford Guins’ Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) typifies the growing convergence between media archaeology and disciplinary archaeological practice. Guins’ followed the tracks of video games from objects of desire to obsolete, and typically disposable, commodities and then back to being collectable items that often confound the efforts of conservators to keep them operational. He emphasized the materiality of cabinet arcade games contributed significantly to the experience of game play and argued that even the more modest and mass-produced console video games for home use sought to blend the aesthetic of cabinet gaming with the character of domestic space. The elaborate labels evoking the art on cabinet games and contrasted with the faux woodgrain present on the classic Atari 2600 console designed to fit into the cosy paneled family room with wood-paneled television.

For Guins, who was present at the Atari excavation, the excavating of the game cartridges was more than just the exhuming of obsolete media on which a video game was inscribed, but the recovery of part of the domestic gaming experience for those present. While the game cartridges recovered from the landfill were, in some ways, the equivalent of ancient transport vessels which derive significance largely because they reflect the trade in wine, olive oil, fish sauce, or some other typically liquid commodity, they were also inseparable from process of domesticating the arcade experience and the fabric of the late 20th century family room. The games were both the material trace the digital game, but also part of the larger experience. This interpretation was seemingly sustained by the willingness of hundreds of people to pay money for games that, as far as we know, do not work.

If the excavated games are fragments of both the experience of playing the game and represent the digital game itself, our own work as archaeologists likewise operated at the intersection of representation and practice. There is no doubt that our presence at the dig and the remarkable access that we were allowed reflected our status as props in the documentary (for archaeology and the media see Holtorf 2007; Clack and Brittain 2007). In many ways, Joe Lewandowski did more of the archaeological heavy-lifting through his creative efforts to identify the general site of the Atari dump and his appropriate use of bucket augur to locate the deposit of games itself. The Alamogordo Atari Expedition team, in contrast, largely worked around the documentary film crews and general media frenzy to document the excavation of the landfill and the context of the games themselves. Our formal place within the film, particular Andrew Reinhard who embraced his role as the public face of the archaeology team and its director, represented our role as archaeologists, which at times had to skirt the frantic work of the documentary filmmakers to coordinate both the filming and the public spectacle that surrounded the excavation of the games. Our credentials as archaeologists legitimized the recovery of the games and gave us the access necessary to attempt archaeological documentation.

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