The Alamogordo Atari Expedition and Archaeology of the Contemporary World

This summer I’ve been spinning around a good bit lately with various projects occupying my attention for a moment and then drifting off as another project pops to mind. This seems to be problem that I encounter when confronted with uninterrupted stretches of time. 

Over the last few weeks, for example, I’ve worked on mid-century housing in Grand Forks, on fortifications and an unpublished assemblage of ceramics from the Argolid, the small area of E.F1 at Polis on Cyprus, and my book on the archaeology of contemporary America. I’ve also puttered around with census data from Grand Forks, photography from the Bakken oil patch, and some bits and bobs from Pyla-Koutsopetria

It would be a mistake to think that I haven’t been doing work almost every day, but it would also be a mistake to think that I’ve gotten anything done.

That all being said, here’s the latest thing that I’m working on. It’s the first part of a chapter on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation which will be the first chapter in part 1 of my book. I tried to strike a breezy note, but I’m not entire sure that I succeeded!

In April 2014, I found myself standing in the Alamogordo desert watching a massive backhoe excavate the town’s landfill. The purpose of this stinky undertaking was to expose a deposit of Atari video games dumped there in 1983. I was with a kind of dream-team of archaeologists who hoped to document the excavations. The team included Andrew Reinhard, who would popularize the concept of “archaeogaming” via his blog, articles, book, and, ultimately, in his 2019 dissertation which drew upon his experiences with the Alamogordo excavation. Raiford Guins was also there. He was the leading scholar on the material culture of video gaming who had just published book on the history and after life of video games and gaming consoles. Richard Rothaus and Bret Weber accompanied us as well. The former was an experienced contract archaeologist in the US, a proficient and critical digital archaeologist, and a the field director of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The latter was the co-director of that project and a historian of the 20th century American West who had field work experience in Cyprus. The team brought together years of archaeological field experience, a detailed understanding of video games and digital media, and historical perspectives on the American West. Our team also had experience documenting modern material culture, the archaeology of the contemporary world, and critical attention to digital practices in our field.

The story of the Alamogordo dump of Atari games had acquired the status of an urban legend which expanded widely in the early days of the internet. Despite contemporary media coverage of the dump of Atari games, including a story in the New York Times, Atari fans composed a shadowy alternate narrative. The majority of the dump, they reasoned was the poorly received game based on the Steven Spielberg film, E.T. Atari executives had rushed a video game version of the plot through development so that they game debuted in time for Christmas 1982. The game’s developer Howard Scott Warshaw was a highly regarded programmer who had earlier in the year adapted another Speilberg film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, as a well-received video game. The E.T. game, in contrast, received mixed reviews by critics and gamers found it frustrating particularly because of the difficulty in extricating E.T. from pits which were a common feature of the game. Despite selling over a million copies, the game started to appear in lists of the worst game ever released. This, in turn, fueled speculation that Atari dumped tens of thousands of games in the Alamogordo landfill to hide the game’s poor sales. The burial also coincided with the beginning of the early-1980s “video game crash“ which not only crippled the industry but also forced Atari itself in bankruptcy. The location of the dump surely added to its legendary status. Alamogordo itself was associated with the Trinity nuclear test in 1945 at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, the nearby town of Roswell with its history of UFO sightings, and the 1969 Huckleby mercury poisoning when a local farmer accidentally fed his family pork from mercury poisoned hogs with tragic results that garnered national media attention. In other words, Alamogordo already had a reputation for secret events, mystery, and tragedy that undoubtedly informed how Atari fans understood the dumping of the games.

The confluence of popular culture and contemporary archaeology forms a further context for the Alamogordo excavation. Rather than being a systematic and scientific excavation, such as those carried out by as part of William Rathje’s Garbage Project in neighboring Arizona, the excavation was organized by a documentary film crew funded by Microsoft to make a film for their X-Box accessibly via their gaming console. The film Atari: Game Over would use the footage of the excavations in the final part of the documentary which would reconnect the game’s celebrated developer, Howard Scott Warshaw, with his creation. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) set most of the conditions and methods governing the excavation. As archaeologists we were consulted on before the project and interviewed during and after the excavations. As the backhoe reached closer to the levels known to contain the Atari games, we were let under the safety tape to sort the trash removed by the excavator and to identify any video game cartridges. Andrew Reinhard and Richard Rothaus made the triumphant first identification of an Atari games. The moment offered the film makers an opportunity for archaeological theater as the crowds assembled to watch the final day of excavation cheered on each new discovery.

The commingling of narrative, objects, media, and practices in the excavation at the Alamogordo landfill provides a compelling view of archaeology’s place in the contemporary world. This chapter will present a traditional view of the excavation of the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. It will attend to the planning, stratigraphy, and dating and context of the landfill and the deposit of Atari games. The dirt archaeology of this chapter introduces the first part of the book which traces three major themes important to archaeology of the contemporary world. The next chapter focused on the unique roles that the archaeology of modern trash has in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Chapter 3 connects the Atari excavations to the recent turn to things, materiality, and agency as part of both a larger critical concern for consumer culture and and a reconsideration of the role of things in archaeological thought. The final chapter in this section turns to media archaeology and offers a context for the Atari games as media artifacts which opens onto conversations about the archaeology of the digital world, and ultimately archaeology in digital worlds, such as Andrew Reinhard’s archaeogaming.

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