Writing Week: Final Bits of Chapter 1

Writing was brutal this morning, but I think I’ve correctly assessed the edge of my understanding (but like a good archaeologist, I’m sure that I’ve over-dug into less helpful levels). 

The best stuff today comes at the end of the second paragraph. 

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

Archaeology and Media (cont.)

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. The peripheral status of any real archaeological work hindered the consistent flow of information from the filmmakers to our team and frequently left us guessing about whether we were witnessing actual excavations or staged challenges, strategies, and discoveries meant to heighten the sense of triumph when the games where ultimately discovered. At the same time, we did what we could to play our role and to deploy our credentials as “real archaeologists” to legitimize the recovery of the games and to leverage our status as props to attempt legitimate archaeological documentation.

The vibrant intersection of media and archaeology framed the entire Alamogordo Atari Excavation and documentary project. The urban legends surrounding the deposition of the Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert initially gained a foothold on the internet in forums populated with fans of Atari games. The story’s popularity certainly benefited from the location of the Atari dump in a “remote” New Mexico town mere miles from the White Sands Missile range where some of the first atomic weapons were tested. Moreover, the New Mexico desert is part of a sparse, Western landscape populated with strange and secret places ranging Area 51 to Roswell. It is only a slight exaggeration to understand the New Mexico desert as the place where the Frederick Jackson Turner’s Western Frontier intersects with “the final frontier.” A landscape filled with alien encounters, top secret projects, and technological experiments presented a perfect setting for a narrative featuring a technology company, a remote dumping ground, and a game based on a movie featuring a lovable and hapless E.T. While many of the key narratives shaping this fantastic Western landscape existed in traditional print media and films decades before the emergence of the internet, communities interested in the various narratives converging in this landscape coalesced on the world wide web and developed more intricate and detailed arguments. As we will argue elsewhere in this book, the presence of archaeologists at the dig represented an effort by the filmmakers to appeal to standards of truth present in forums where conspiracy theories, myth-busting, and suppressed evidence tend to provide significant fodder for debate. Ironically, parts of the excavation process at the Alamogordo landfill appeared to drew upon practices spoofed by the director, Zak Penn, in an earlier mockumentary, The Incident at Loch Ness. In this film, Penn casts himself as a bumbling producer who seeks to add drama to an otherwise earnest documentary film directed by Werner Herzog by staging the appearance of the Loch Ness Monster during the film. This fictional film about a film played upon Herzog’s reputation for an earnest lack of irony even in the face of relentless absurdity (Cronin 2014). Our appeals to archaeological standards and efforts to document the excavation and recovery of the Atari games formed a similarly earnest foil against the frantic bustle of stage-managed days at the Alamogordo landfill. It was never clear where the film ended the dirty work of production began. In other words, the presence of archaeologists at this project was both the product of our role of archaeology in documentary film, as well as the discourse and media in which conversations about the Atari dump took place.

Conclusion

Archaeology of the contemporary world brings to the fore the challenges of archaeology in the contemporary world. As such, archaeology and archaeologists form part of a dynamic assemblage of objects, ideas, practices, and media that shape our everyday and academic life. The excavation of contemporary trash carries on the tradition of archaeological work that recognizes both discard practices and discarded objects as important parts of human life. Archaeological mediation represents just one method by which discarded things acquire new value and enter into new relations and forms of circulation. By locating these objects in larger assemblages of practices, individuals, and objects, archaeologists are able to trace the impact of things on how we engage the world.

The use of archaeological methods to document the contemporary world is not without complications derived from the interplay between modern objects and disciplinary, material, and institutional limits. As we noted, the potential toxicity of the Alamogordo dump prompted the New Mexico Environmental Department to limit the amount of time the trench was open. The instability of the landfill itself, which is the product of both the objects in the fill and dumping practices common at older and smaller landfills around the US, made entering the trench impossible. These limitations, in turn, challenged traditional archaeological practice and required us to document the excavations in unorthodox ways as will be more clear in subsequent chapters. Finally, the sheer abundance of objects in a landfill made exhaustive recording impossible and even statistically meaningful sampling a challenge. Archaeology of the contemporary world cannot escape or ignore our profoundly entangled relationship with materials and objects.

The web of relations that made our archaeological work possible is not limited to institutions and objects that intersected on a windy day at the Alamogordo landfill. In fact, objects at the center of the excavation drew their significance from a expansive network of media encounters ranging from the experience of playing the E.T. video game to the film that inspired the game, the internet forums that incubated a provocative landscape of the American West, and the documentary filmmakers themselves who sought to control the narrative of discovery and the process of work at the site. Penn’s previous work ensured that any conscious efforts on our part to document the excavation according to disciplinary standards ran the risk of making us the same straight-man dupes as played by Herzog in the Incident of Loch Ness. Beyond the immediate opportunity provided by the documentary film crew, the Alamogordo excavation relied upon the convergence of new and old media far more than any dispassionate scholarly discourse (Jenkins 2008). The web of relations that made the Atari games significant includes the physical character of the games themselves, the experience of playing the games, the highly critical reception of the E.T. game when it was released, the commitment of an online Atari fan base as well as views of the desert West as the realm of conspiracies, aliens, and fantastic encounters at the margins of the American society. In the case of the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, our work was deeply entangled in media which were simultaneously the object of our archaeological documentation and a crucial element of the assemblage in which our work took place.

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