Atari Artifacts and Assemblage

Over the last month or so, I’ve been continuing to work on an excavation report, of sorts, for the Atari dig in 2014 in New Mexico (or as I’m calling it the Alamogordo Atari Expedition). The task has been challenging. First, I’ve had to pull apart the intersection of our work documenting the site and our role in the documentary. I also had to produce some kind of narrative surrounding the work planning the excavations, which started in 2011, if not earlier. Finally, I had to try to unpack and organize what we saw, recorded, and documented on the two days of excavation. 

As I have blogged about in the past, the hyper-abundance of modern material makes any effort to document a modern period assemblage overwhelming if we rely on traditional, fine-grain, archaeological documentation practices. Bill Rathje’ famous “Garbage Project” contracted the assemblages that they studied through rigorous sampling practices and did most of their documentation in “laboratory” conditions rather than on site. They sampled discard primarily at the level of household and prior to the trash being moved to a sanitary landfill. Their work documenting the discard was done not at the curbside, but at an on-campus site where the analyzed household trash could be sorted, documented, and discarded. This takes nothing away from the important of their work, both to the discipline and to how we understand garbage, but they structured their work to accommodate the challenge of modern abundance. 

Compared to the Garbage Project, the landfill excavation at Alamogordo was chaos. On the first day of work at the site, the excavators removed a vast quantity of material from the site, but it was done very quickly. Safety concerns prevented us from having direct access to the material being removed from the landfill, but we had an observation point close enough to the trench that we could easily see the type of materials being removed. For example, we were able to recognize that the landfill contained but domestic discard – ranging from movie posters, lawn clippings, and coffee grounds – as well as objects that spoke to the distinct character of the region’s economy. At one point, the excavator struggled with a parachute that billowed in the wind when removed from the trench to remind us of the local aerospace and military installation in the area.


On day two, we were able to examine more closely material from the lowest levels of the landfill which were primarily domestic in character. We used a 5-gallon bucket to sample loads removed from the trench by the excavator and recorded our observations on a digital audio recorder. The trash from these samples included well-preserved paper documents, Christmas decorations, cardboard boxes, beer cans, magazines, lawn clippings, and diapers. These samples, however, were neither large enough nor systematic enough to produce distinct observations on the character of the Alamogordo landfill. 

Finally, we recognized that not all of the assemblage present at the Alamogordo landfill was visible. As we dug through the documents leading up to the 2014 dig, we came across the reports from air and soil testing at the landfill. These tests demonstrated that the decomposition of organic material and discharges from potentially toxic chemicals in the landfill produced measurable quantities of various compounds. These compounds are not naturally occurring, but the direct result of human discard patterns in the area.

Waste Excavation Plan Amendment Ltr Apr14 copy

As archaeologists, we typically regard the visible, material artifacts from a site as constituting the site’s assemblage. The more technologically and scientific of us might sample artifacts for residue or do some thin sections or petrology of ceramic objects from a site, but I can’t recall the chemical compounds that constitute either objects or evidence for use being generalized on the scale of air and soil testing at a landfill. The modern archaeological assemblage includes more than what we can see.

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