Authenticity in (Atari) Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a bit about authenticity in archaeology lately. I know I should be thinking about the 7th century, Early Christian archaeology, Late Roman and Hellenistic Cyprus, or the Bakken oil patch, but on a leisurely bike ride yesterday afternoon, I let myself think about the Atari excavations. 

To my mind, the key issue that the Atari excavations allow us to explore is the issue of authenticity in archaeological work. From the first encounter with the documentary team who invited us to participate in the project, there was a tension between the goals of the filmmakers (who had the funding to pull this kind of project off) and our interests as archaeologists. In some cases, these interests overlapped; for example, it is clear that the filmmakers saw us as validating – to some extent – the results of the project, at least within the context of the documentary narrative. To this end, they offered us limited, but not insignificant access to the planning, the excavation process, and the finds.

The limitations of this access, however, demonstrate the ragged edge of filmmaker’s trust as they sought both to ensure that their investment produced results, but also to preserve and capture the moment of discovery. The narrative arc of the performance of excavation required some doubt over whether the games would be found, the gradual building of tension as the excavations proceeded without results, and the sensational moment when the archaeologists and filmmakers could present the finds the assembled crowds. The desire for this experience and this performance shaped the archaeological processes to a very real extent, but at the same time, the opening of the landfill, the assemblage associated with the Atari games, and our efforts to document the excavations were not inauthentic, even if the pace of work and the moment of discovery had more to do with a dramatic climax than the actual uncovering of the games. 

The finds themselves likewise have a story that depends on their authenticity. The games themselves were not particularly rare, and even the famously unsuccessful E.T. game sold over a million copies and these regularly appeared on Ebay and other auction sites. The relative rarity of the excavated examples, however, made the E.T. (and other games excavated) far more valuable and desirable. As a result, they fetched prices of well over $100 and sometimes over $500 on Ebay and came accompanies with a City of Alamogordo inventory tag and a certificate of authenticity. This established the origins of the game in the Alamogordo landfill and tied the game itself to the narrative of excavation.

Ancient artifacts similarly acquire authenticity through their provenience which is often grounded in the authority of prominent collectors, documentation, and sometimes archaeologists. Knowing an object is “real” and that it comes from a particular region or even site authorized the object to contribute to archaeological knowledge making. In the best instances, archaeological methods offer an authenticating narrative for objects. In worst scenarios, careful examination and familiarity with similar artifacts and typologies will authenticate the antiquity of an object, and it is sometimes possible use comparisons to establish the provenience of an object even when excavated contexts are not available (as in the case of looting).

The degree to which the Atari games, modern artifacts, relied upon archaeological context for their value is complex. On the one hand, their associated with the Alamogordo landfill was important for assigning both economic and cultural value to the objects. On the other hand, just because the objects were excavated and have provenience does not necessarily make them valuable. A game excavated from a landfill in Fargo or excavated from a collapsed split-level house has the same claim to archaeological integrity, but would not have the same value. The value assigned to these games was partly created through the urban legends associated with the “Atari burial ground” that circulated widely on the internet for years prior to the excavations in Alamogordo. (This recognizes, of course, that not all excavated objects have the same value and that complex networks of cultural and social meaning inform the value assigned to ancient artifacts as well. A course amphora sherd has less cultural value than a well-preserved black-glazed pot.)

The relationship between authenticity and value, of course, is complicated and needs to be unpacked especially in the case of the Atari games which have both clearly documented monetary value and cultural value. This examination also opens the door to some critical reflection on the role of archaeology in moving an object from the realm of commodity to cultural artifact. As this week’s news has shown, it’s not cool or good to buy and sell antiquities, in large part because it encourages the destruction of archaeological sites by looters, but also because it makes our shared past a matter from private exchange rather than public edification. Objects like the Atari games may be exempt from the concerns of archaeologists in part because the enthusiasm to start looting landfills looking for similar deposits seems pretty muted. At the same time, these games do represent a particular confluence of processes – from the rise of the Internet to the decline and fall the Atari empire – that warranted their inclusion in museum collections around the world. Whether these same objects should be available for sale remains an interesting question to consider.

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