The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.

 

 

 

 

Contemplating Contemporaneity

I’ve been thinking much more systematically about contemporaneity lately. This is in part because I’ve sent off a proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. While I have no idea whether it’ll be accepted, writing it, and my long-paused Atari article, stimulated me to think a try to wrap my head around recent work on contemporaneity.

What has intrigued me the most is how clearly debates about the nature of a contemporary archaeology represent a critique of modernity. In many cases, the archaeology of the present or the contemporary offers a counter method and narrative challenge to the persistent authority of periodization schemes which tend to fortify narratives of progress. These narratives of progress, of course, are intimately bound up with our modern understanding of capital and, as a generation of postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars have shown, colonialism.

The insistence on a gap or a “break in tradition” between the present and the past grounds archaeology in the modern era which sought to replace arguments for tradition (and the political baggages associated with them) with a new source of authority. Excavation was a particularly apt metaphor and method for revealing a past that past practices sought to overwrite and obscure. Layers of tradition, legend, and other “tainted” views, were pealed back by specialists in a performance that both produced new authority and grounded it in new knowledge. Modern geology developed stratigraphy to argue for an Earth that was much older than religious traditional would allow. Historians culled archives to produce new narratives that undermined (literally) the authority of the ancien regime. Psychology, as Julian Thomas has expertly shown, likewise looked to excavation and stratigraphy to articulate both the layers of the mind that create the individual, and ultimately, the interleaving of individual and societies. Similar efforts and metaphors appeared in the work of ethnographers who demonstrated that traditional folk tales often preserved truths about both specific pasts and universal pasts that later accretions have obscured. 

While it is easy enough to see the significance and value of insisting on barrier separating the present and the past, it likewise reasonable to understand how this divide provided a significant impetus for narratives of progress in which the contemporary authority overwrites tradition. Projected globally, the chronological divide translated to a spatial and political divide with the present of the West being represented as the ultimate future for “traditional” societies whose present will, in turn, be overwritten by a more rational, “advanced,” capitalist, and democratic future.  

Recent interest in contemporaneity between the present and the past looks to complicate and critique the relationship between archaeological work and modernity. As Rodney Harrison and others have observed, scholars have recently appreciated how incomplete or “unfinished” the project of modernity is, or to put it in less teleological terms, how uneven the surface of modernity is. As part of the effort to recognize and survey this unevenness in archaeology, archaeologists have increasingly sought to produce an archaeology of and in the present. In this way of thinking, the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology challenges the view of the past as something “out there” to be uncovered but rather something co-created in the relationships between the archaeologist and the objects and situations and narratives that they organize as knowledge.

By drawing attention to the contemporaneity in archaeology, archaeologists of the present are in a place to trace the surface of the modern world and through the metaphor of the surface assemblage to understand how the interplay of the past and the present produces meanings that have distinctive meaning to the present. By doing this, an archaeology of the contemporary or, perhaps better, an archaeology of contemporaneity, offers two opportunities for the discipline (and, I’d suggested for society). First, it resists the practice of seeing the past a series of presents that invariably and inevitably led to our own world. By recognizing that a wider range of pasts can lead to a wider range of potential futures, it shifts our attention as archaeologists to the complexities of formation processes that embrace both past and present events, values, expectations, and narratives. Second, to understand the complexities of these assemblages, archaeologists have to move beyond disciplinary epistemologies, methods, and practices and to embrace a wider view of what constitutes archaeological knowledge. 

As I work to complete a draft of an article based on my experiences at the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, I’m increasingly struck by how our contemporaneity with both the objects of study (and their excavated context) and their larger cultural context revealed new narratives enmeshed at the intersection of popular views of archaeology and our own disciplinary biases.    

Three Things Thursday: A Wesley College Coda, Reviewing Poetry, and Narrating Atari

I have three little things today that are swirling around in my head like the projected snowfall for later this morning. None of them are particularly profound, but they all might be something later. Ya heard it here first, folks.

1. Abiding and Corwin/Larimore Halls. This is coda for my post yesterday on the current status of the Wesley College Documentation Project. Over spring break we cajoled Mike Wittgraf to perform a little concert and recording in Corwin and Larimore Halls. The songs we selected were somber in tone and included the well-known hymn “Abide with Me.” The title of this hymn, of course, come from John 15:4-6 which is the start of the Passion.

Yesterday in a faculty meeting, I was fumbling for a word to describe an individual who stays with the dying, and a colleague suggested the word “abider” (our faculty meetings can go to some dark places). I wasn’t familiar with this term, but a few Googles later, it indeed shows that it has some modest currency in contemporary language. This got me thinking about our roles as archaeologists in documenting Wesley College.

Are we working as abiders allowing the buildings to tell their stories before they’re gone? I know this sounds hopeless sentimental, but I’ve been struck how even my short time around these buildings has allowed me a much greater appreciation for not only their architecture and spaces, but also the stories of the individuals whose lives intersected with these buildings over the century of their existence. 

“Change and Decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.” 

2. Poetry and Slow Reading. As editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I get books for review on a weekly basis. As a publisher of my own small press, I know the important role of circulating books for review. At the same time, not all works that come across our desk at NDQ are equally worthy of review, and it is another challenge entirely to match the book with an appropriate reviewer. As a result, we usually have a little pile of books that have not gone out for review yet and this pile has only grown larger as NDQ has shifted its attention to reorganizing and preparing for our shift from in-house publishing to being published by University of Nebraska Press. 

On Wednesday, I hang out in the NDQ office and during little breaks the back issues of NDQ and the pile of books to review beckon to me. So I’ve taken to picking up books of poetry or short fiction and … gasp… just reading them. Mostly I feel not qualified to judge their quality, but recently I’ve started to think that maybe I can speak about this material from a distinctive perspective. After all, as a non-poet, non-poetry reader, and never-taken-a-college-level-English-class perhaps I could offer an “everyperson” view of various little books.

It’s tempting to start to write a little review series on the books that we receive. They’d be less critical review and more impressionistic and spontaneous. They might be fun to write and at least a little entertaining to read.

3. Contemporaneity and Archaeology. Over the last few days, I’ve returned to long gestating (marinating?) article on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. The article was clumsy and poorly positioned, I think, but as I’ve let it rest for a bit, I do think that it has one thing to offer and that is a meditation on the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology (and particular in the work of archaeology of the contemporary world). As I have noted before, the assumption of the “broken tradition” between our world today and the world that we’re studying has, for centuries, allowed both history and archaeology to position the past in a place susceptible for study. By assuming the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology, however, we disrupt this tidy arrangement and make space to recognize that the archaeologist and the archaeology are both enmeshed (or entangled) in a dense web of common relationships. Rodney Harrison has argued that these relationships produce what he has called surface assemblages. I’d like to add that understanding contemporaneity in surface assemblages and between surface assemblages and the archaeologist, opens and maybe even requires new forms of narration that accommodates the various overlapping webs of meaning making that such contemporaneity recognizes. For example, it will be increasingly difficult to approach archaeological knowledge making as an impersonal enterprise removed – through either a broken tradition or an objective scientific lens – from the person of the archaeologist and the larger culture. How do we embrace this freedom from conventional practices?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Book Tuesday: Atari Age and Artifacts in Silicon Valley

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of reading casually just a bit in two books. First, I’ve read most of Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017), and at the same time, I discovered Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001). Both books offer distinctive impressions of late 20th century digital culture and contribute in some way to my long term research trajectories.

The utility of Newman’s book is more immediate. He frames the emergency of video game in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the video arcade with its seedy reputation inherited from gaming parlors of the early 20th century. (In my own experience, I never really understood why my parents did not let me go to the Silver Ball Arcade as a kid. There was something seedy about it in my parents’ mind (and a waste of money) that placed that space out of bounds for me and my brothers). Atari’s success involved translating the thrill of arcade games while domesticating them. The early advertisements for Atari, then, emphasized their domestic setting and showed families playing the games together. By the mid-1980s, however, the idyllic family setting had taken on a more male slant as mothers and daughters disappear and fathers, sons, and brothers remained, but still in the relative comfort of the domestic environment. The domestication of the arcade took place in two stages with the first locating the games at home among the entire family and the second returning game play to a male realm while still safely ensconced in the home. The final stage involved transporting the players from the home to the fantasy world of the game which almost alway was encoded male. Sports, war, and adventure outside the home (in space, in fantastic worlds, or as the protagonist of a feature film) remained the male domain for most of the 1980s (and perhaps today) as the safely domesticated games invited players to engage in less mundane adventures in fantastic landscapes. 

Finn’s book was one of this books that I should have read earlier. Finn, an Oxford trained archaeologist who had a career as a journalist, traveled to Silicon Valley in 2000 to experience the most talked about landscape in late-20th century American geography. While the book isn’t exactly a tourist guide, like that offered by Forrest Mims Siliconnections (1986), Finn is clear that her work “is a kind of Cook’s tour of my own, a brief one, and from the perspective of an archaeologist as foreign correspondent” (xiii).

As someone who just wrote a tourist guide to a 21st century landscape, I was thrilled to find that someone else had had this idea before me. Finn is a better writer than I am, but she also views Silicon Valley less through the lens of the tourist and more as a journalist. In particular, she focused on the characters whom she met during her travels. More than that, though, she demonstrates a keen eye for history and change in the Silicon Valley landscape and the often ironic efforts to reclaim some of the historical landscape of the Valley, but in a way that does not disrupt development and a sense of progress. A historic cherry farm gives way to high end shopping that includes a shop that sells imported cherries and cherry themed gifts. A retired computer engineer recreates a rustic garden in his backyard including a writing shed to escape from the very bustle that allowed him this luxury. Historic buildings are celebrated and moved to more convenient locations for visitors coming to the region for technology related business or travel. The landscapes that Finn creates demonstrates the deep ambivalence toward the changes in our late-20th century world. Her book bridged the gap between William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map), which is filled with compelling characters, and my own book, The Bakken, where I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to push the changing Bakken landscape to the fore.  

Archaeology of the Contemporary World

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a little book on archaeology of the contemporary world lately (actually, I’ve been thinking about this book for some time now). I’ve been collecting bibliography for the last few months, and this weekend, between grant applications, I read Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint).

The article demonstrates the complexity, diversity, and expansiveness of the field which ranges from well-established and methodologically-defined sub-disciplines like forensic archaeology to small and distinctive studies involving objects, political, social, or economic situations, or marginal groups. There are a series of ideas that I extracted from this article that could help shape any future work on my part in this area.

Here they are:

1. Historical Archaeology. The relationship between archaeology of the contemporary world and the long-standing discipline of historical archaeology varies widely. On the one hand, the division is more or less chronological with historical archaeology typically involving material that has recognized heritage status (often 50 years before the present) or clear connections to figures or events of conventional historical significance (i.e. not every day life). On the other hand, the line between the contemporary and the historical is indeed a blurry one. Industrial sites, for example, may have long functional lives meaning that they are both conventionally historical and contemporary in use. The persistence of ruins, for example, in the contemporary world further complicates the line between historical and contemporary in the thinking of both contemporary and historical archaeologists drawing them both into one another’s methodological and experiential space. 

2. Time. I’ve recently thought a bit about the issue of contemporaneity on the blog and how it shapes both our encounter with the Atari excavation in Alamogordo and the way that we narrate it. The archaeology of the contemporary pushes us to think not only about time but about how temporality and chronology locates us as archaeologist in relation to what we study. For example, the tension between (a) our desire to isolate archaeological objects by removing them from our own temporal frame and locating them as part of a broken tradition, and (b) the basic familiarity with the objects that we study as part of the same modern world as the intellectual (and literal) tools that we use to document and analyze these objects. This ambivalent attitude toward the idea of contemporaneity represents a major epistemological challenge as well as a practical one. On the one hand, archaeology of the contemporary world insists on the archaeologist’s contemporaneity with their objects of study complicating the potential for the kind of empirical observations that have proven foundational to historical archaeological practice and the “new archaeology.” On the other hand, it has remained challenging to establish disciplinary metrics of rigor for archaeological practices grounded in experiential, phenomenological, or less formally empirical engagements with the past without eroding ties to the fundamental expectations of the archaeology as a discipline.       

3. Politics. There is a remarkably explicit political dimension to archaeology of the contemporary world. By this, I don’t mean political in a broadly theoretic way, but in a practical way. For example, Jason DeLeon’s recent work on migrants on the U.S. – Mexico border has an overt political dimension. Work emphasizing the role of archaeology in defining and understanding of climate change and the anthropocene in the contemporary world fits neatly and explicitly into a political narrative. Work in forensic archaeology and the archaeology of war is never without obvious political dimensions and the archaeology of homelessness and other projects that emphasize the marginal and hidden in western society represent clearly political commitments toward social justice, peace, and democratic ideals. Even when projects are somewhat more removed from the politics of the national headlines, there are commitments at the center of the archaeology of the contemporary world that frequently involve critiques of late capitalism and late modernity and the threat to the individual.

4. Theory. The political and chronological tensions in the archaeology of the contemporary are deeply embedded in the concerns of contemporary theory even if they are not articulated in this way. From the critical theory of the 1970s and phenomenological (and post-processual) approaches pioneered by Tilley and Shanks to crucial perspectives offered on science and technology by folks like Bruno Latour and Tim Ingold, archaeologists have almost universally assumed the grounding of archaeological practice in the contemporary would. This, in turn, opened the door to applying archaeology to the contemporary world in explicit ways. The acknowledgement of explicitly theoretical perspectives is, as one might expect, uneven as (see point 1) practitioners have varying degrees of investment in less overtly theoretical discourses (such as historical archaeology in the Anglo-American tradition), but the theory is there just below the surface. In fact, it is impossible to read archaeology of the contemporary world as existing outside a late-20th century (or at very least modern) theoretical context.

5. Method. Finally (and perhaps in some vague way, most importantly), there is the issue of method. As someone who has attempted to practice an archaeology of the contemporary world, the complexities of documenting the contemporary world in all of its contingency and dynamism remains a consistent challenge. Digital tools from video to photography, audio recordings, remote sensing, and various data collecting tools produce avalanches of data that contribute to an impressive and growing archive. The rise of crowd sourcing practices and platforms extends the culture and methods of data collecting from skilled practitioners to much broader audiences. Ethnoarchaeology, archaeological ethnography, and the reflexive ethnography of archaeological practice pollinated archaeology of the contemporary world with methods and practices from cultural anthropology, sociology, and oral history. The complexity and challenges facing an archaeology of the contemporary world is part of what gives this field its potential for both transforming more conventional archaeological practice and how we see ourselves. 

How these five themes would appear in a little book remains a bit hard to understand, but pulling these themes from the Harrison and Briethoff article feels like a meaningful start.

Contemporaneity, Objectivity, and Narrative

Over the last few weeks I’ve been letting my first draft of an article on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation simmer in the back of my head, and it has really benefited from the comments of my colleagues and friends! The article had some problems, including a bit of a weak focus which made it read like I was trying to do and say everything at once. Like a squirrel on a treadmill, I flailed about making a little progress and then being flicked this way and that without much in the way of control or a plan. 

Over the weekend, I was churning the ideas around in my head and realized that one of the problems with this article is that I was struggling to wrap my head around the concept of contemporaneity in archaeology. I suggest that one of the intriguing aspects of working on the Atari excavation is that we were essentially contemporary with the objects that we were excavating. This created an interesting tension between our tendency in archaeology of the contemporary world to de-familiarize the objects of our study and the tendency to recognize that archaeology of the contemporary world should and does speak directly to the personal experiences of the archaeologist. In the Atari excavations this was on display as the excavator ripped through the layers of the landfill to produce a clearly defined stratigraphic context for the Atari games and thereby transforming familiar fragments of our childhood to the unfamiliar status as archaeological artifacts. At the same time, our interest in the games and almost giddy fascination with being on site during this historic dig was tied to our shared experiences with Atari games and this familiarity was shared by the filmmakers who funded and produced the story of the excavations.

Fortunately, there has been some really good work on this over the past decade on the challenge of contemporaneity from smart people: Gavin Lucas, Rodney Harrison, and Michael Shanks. As Gavin Lucas has noted, archaeology developed its current view of the past as being non-contemporary with the present in the 19th century as part of its development of archaeology as a modern discipline and a distinctly modern way of viewing the world. For archaeologist, the study of the past became the study of periods, places, objects, and traditions that are distinct from modernity. Lucas connects this to a parallel development by anthropologists like Edward Tyler who documented traditional folk practices that persisted into the contemporary world and dubbed them “survivals.” Archaeology, in this context, became the study of objects that are in our world, but not of our world. 

Giorgio Buccellati, in a rather different context, referred to archaeology as the study of “broken traditions.” In other words, our unfamiliarity with archaeological artifacts is what allows for the archaeological process to construct meaning. For Buccellati, the first step in resolving this unfamiliarity is distinguishing between the objects emplacement and deposition. The former includes the physical context of an object, its relationship to other archaeological and natural objects and requires careful description. The latter involves the analysis of the object’s emplacement in terms of site formation. In short, the former treats the object as contemporary with the archaeologists, and yet unfamiliar, whereas the latter recognizes the object as part of a broken tradition that requires inference and argument to restore. 

Contemporaneity in archaeology, in various ways, plays a role in our ability to perform archaeological analysis. The contemporaneity of an object allows for us to describe its emplacement in detail, but at the same time, this description produces archaeological knowledge only when the object is part of a broken tradition that renders it outside our contemporary world. Archaeological objectivity, in this context, then, requires this bifurcated view: the object is both familiar and unfamiliar, contemporary and disconnected. 

Archaeology has tended to resolve this tension by appeals to comic modes of emplotment (and here I’m relying on Hayden White’s famous study of history, Metahistory). In comic modes of emplotment, fragmented and disrupted situations find ultimate integration and resolution. We tend to rely on organicist arguments that sees the fragments of the past as generating meaning from their restoration into a larger, more complex, whole (and as a result tends to rely on synechoche as the dominant trope). To be more specific, most archaeological monographs start with some kind of overview of the history, topography, or landscape of the site. They often take into account the contemporary situation of the area or site under study. Describing and analyzing the site involves the “destructive” aspects of archaeological work such as excavation, violent acts of mapping, and even breaking the landscape into pixels, bits, and bytes, but lest we despair that the initial (and contemporary) landscape is lost for good, archaeological monographs almost always conclude with a chapter that restores the fragmented landscape to a new, better, more complete whole.

To return then at the Atari excavation, by understanding the tensions between contemporaneity and narrative, the various ways of seeing the excavation of the Alamogordo landfill come into alignment. The traditional forms of archaeological narration require this tension between the objects presence in our contemporary gaze and a parallel recognition of the broken tradition that defines archaeological practice. These ways of seeing are resolved by appeals to comic forms of emplotment which produces landscapes that restore continuity between the past and present. For the Atari excavations, this involved both the recovery of the Atari games and affirming of the urban legend as well as the offering a sense of closure to the story of Howard Scott Warshall, the designer of the oft-critiqued E.T. game, who, like the lovable alien in the film finds his ways home.

Objects, Media, and Moviemaking: Narrating the Alamogordo Atari Expedition

It took me much longer than I imagined to get to this point, but I finally have something scholarly to show for my adventures at the Atari Expedition in Alamogordo, New Mexico. For something less than scholarly, you can read this.

This is not a final product, nor will it be the last word, but I feel like I have finally wrangled the maelstrom of ideas and experiences into a cohesive (if not coherent), presentation. The paper linked below represents my efforts to bring together five areas of thinking. First, I wanted to present a formal, archaeological description of the excavation of Atari Games from the Alamogordo landfill. Second, I wanted to do this in a way that explicitly references the complexities of both academic and popular archaeological narration. Third, I wanted to acknowledge the influence of the archaeology of the contemporary world on how we document 20th century archaeological work and the complicated and complicating concept of contemporaneity in understanding our recent past. Fourth, I want to recognize the materiality of the games themselves and demonstrate that this materiality influenced the way in which we narrated their discovery. Finally, I wanted at least to reference the growing and sophisticated field of media archaeology and demonstrate that the media, message, and materiality all contributed to our view of the Atari Alamogordo excavations.

This is too much to do in a single paper, but in the spirit of “always leave them wanting less,” I attempt to tell a compelling story amid a dense and complicate analysis. And I wrote this all in about 3 weeks.

This article would not have come into existence if not for the persistence and infectious enthusiasm of Andrew Reinhard and that Archaeogaming crowd. Richard Rothaus’s good humor, experience, and inventiveness ensured that we documented things “on the ground.” Bret Weber provided all sorts of intellectual and “social” support. And Raiford Guins provided an academic framework for the understanding of these artifacts in their material and cultural history. None of these people are to blame for this jalopy of an article draft. 

What I desperately need now is feedback. The citations in this article are minimalist and the argument is tangled. I recognize that I need to include figures. The conclusions is more of a concession of defeat than a brilliant synthesis and the introduction serves as a christening in which the ceremonial bottle of champagne fails to break. That all being said, I do think that this is salvageable, but not without help.

Please help. 

Here’s a link to the paper in Hypothes.is so you can comment on it. Or, if you’d rather, feel free to download it and shoot me feedback (or despair that I have a Ph.D.).  

Finally, where should I send this? 

Writing Wednesday: Atari Excavations, Narrative, and Media Archaeology

I’ve had a terrible time putting words on the page this fall and summer, so I decided to invest the next month or so in finishing an article that has been lingering around my hard drive for the past few years. In April 2014, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I made our way down to Alamogordo, New Mexico to contribute to the excavation of a dump of Atari games at the local landfill there. The games included numerous examples of the (in)famous E.T. game and our presence there gave us a chance to work a bit with the well-known Hollywood director and screenwriter Zak Penn. 

Our work in Alamogordo allowed us to collect a good bit of empirical data about the excavation of the landfill and the Atari games, but it also encouraged me to think a good bit about how archaeological work, objects, and popular perceptions shape the kinds of narratives possible in our discipline. So instead of a rather boring article that presented the results of our work there, I decided to put together three different narratives grounded in three different forms of analysis designed to demonstrate the complexities of archaeological story telling. 

Since I already have a draft of the basic description of the Atari excavation, this week I decided to work on a study of the Atari excavations from the perspective of media archaeology (and archaeology of media). 

ETGame

Here’s what I have so far:

The excavation of the Atari dump at Alamogordo confirmed the presence of the Atari games long-thought to have been dumped there. This excavation also located the games within a particular context that extended stratigraphically starting with their immediate context, and then digging down into the nature of the game play, particular of the E.T. Game, and their place within the history of video gaming. The goal of this section is not to explore all the possibilities of these games as either media objects in an archaeological context or as objects of media archaeology, but to colocate the narrative structured by the games themselves within a broader archaeological narrative.

The recovery of the E.T. Games, along with a range of other titles and Atari paraphernalia in the Alamogordo landfill confirmed shadowy story from 1983 that the Atari Corporation transported thousands of returned, remaindered, and unsold games from their El Paso distribution center for burial in a small town landfill (Guins 2014). The rational for this was perhaps no more sinister than a cost saving move by a cash strapped company that found the dumping rates cheaper for corporate waste in a small, desert city. Whatever the reason, by dumping the games amid a post-consumer, late 20th-century domestic assemblage ironically returned these games to their intended, but largely unrealized place alongside the objects of everyday life in the mid-1980s American home. Movie posters, video and audio tape, magazines and newspapers, represented both common objects in the Alamogordo and staples of late-20th-century American media consumption. In fact, that dates on newspapers and media provided chronological markers for the various levels present in the dump. The presence of the Atari games alongside other contemporary media objects simultaneously displaced and restored the games to a discarded version of their intended domestic context.

The dumping of these games in a rather remote, small-town landfill demonstrated that the relative banality of domestic discard in the 1980s had allowed for these games to be hidden in plain sight. For archaeologists, however, the work of the archaeologist William Rathje and his team at the Tuscon Garbage Project (Rathje 1992) had begun to reveal the patterns of domestic consumption in post-consumer waste through their systematic study of both curbside trash and landfills. This work has had a formative influence on more recent efforts to study the social context of late modern discard (Ferrell 2006; Lucas 2002) and production of landfills (Reno 2009) as well as historical roots in the earliest era of archaeological practice (Schmidt 2001). In other words, archaeologists have both a contemporary investment and historical commitments to unpacking the complexity of domestic discard through the study of middens, discard practices, and even modern dumps. By revealing Atari dump amidst domestic discard through documenting the excavation of the landfill, as opposed to only the assemblage of Atari games, we located contemporary media within disciplinary practice as well.

The disciplinary practice of revealing the complexities of domestic discard and documenting patterns hidden in plain sight has intriguing parallels to certain features present in the E.T. video game. In the video game itself, the player had to bring E.T. home while avoiding a number of perils including difficult to escape pits. Like many Atari games of this era, the E.T. game also contained an “Easter egg.” Easter eggs are hidden features in the game that only a complex set of typically obscure moves reveal. The earliest such feature revealed the name of game designer in the game Adventure (Monfort and Bogost 2009). The game designer for the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw, included an Easter egg that transformed the plucky E.T. first into “Yar,” the title character, in the game Yar’s Revenge, then into Indiana Jones from the movie-themed, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atari game. Warshaw designed E.T., Yar’s Revenge, and Raiders, making the Easter egg a kind of personal signature. It also formed a narrative parallel to the search for the burial of E.T. games in the New Mexico dessert as the games served as a kind of Easter egg under the detritus of contemporary life at the Alamogordo landfill.

The interplay of the expected and the hidden that make video game Easter eggs so appealing to early Atari gamers likewise reflected the genre bending character of the E.T. video game (and its contemporary release of Raiders of the Lost Arc). The 1982 E.T. film involved the efforts of a suburban kid, Eliot, to keep hidden the affection extra-terrestrial until he is able to find his way home. Set in the American suburbs, the film in punctuated by the adorable E.T. being hidden in plain sight, like the assemblage of video games. In fact, the history of the film itself contains a kind of Easter egg in a deleted scene that featured Harrison Ford as Eliot’s principal. While this scene never appeared in the film itself, it was sufficient well know to garner comment from director Steven Spielberg who had a history of having Harrison Ford and other favorite actors make cameo appearances in his movies.

To return to media archaeology and archaeology of the media, the intended domestic context for Atari games belied their unexpected appearance in the post-consumer discards in the Alamogordo landfill. At the same time, the appearance of this deposit echoed the presence of Easter eggs in Atari game play and in the E.T. game, in particular, where the author of the game made his presence known through a series of secret moves. Like Eliot in the film, one goal of the excavation and the game play was to return the Atari cartridges and the extraterrestrial to their familiar domestic contexts, home, while simultaneously revealing a hidden meaning. For an observer familiar with the games, the film, and with popular depictions of archaeology, such as that presented in the contemporary film (and game designed by Howard Scott Warshaw) Raiders of the Lost Ark the interplay between hidden and known, domestic and displaced, was a familiar theme.  

Atari, Archaeology, and Authenticity

As Andrew Reinhard is giving a talk on punk archaeology and Atari, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be writing up our experiences in Alamogordo in 2014 (despite having far more pressing things to deal with). Last week, I suggested that our article could focus on issues of authenticity in the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Here’s a rough outline:

Introduction. This is where I need to do the most work in setting up this article and introducing the three ways of engaging and authenticating the Atari excavation. The first section relies on a conventional archaeological discourse. The second section considers the role of the excavations as a transmedia encounter that weaves together the game, the work of excavation, and the documentary film being produced. The third section of the paper will consider the documentary, Atari: Game Over, and reflect on the unpacking 1980s Atari experience – both as game players and through the perspectives of the film director, Zak Penn, and the designer of E.T. Howard Scott Warshaw – as a kind of excavation of childhood (in a Freudian sense). The conclusion will reflect on the Ebay auction of the games from the Alamogordo landfill and  

1. Describing the Dig. As this article comes a bit more into focus, I can envision the first part of the article presenting a modern archaeological narrative that contributes to creating authenticity in the discipline of archaeology. The nice thing about this, is that I basically already have a draft done. You can check it out here (pdf).

2. Atari, Archaeology, and the Media. I think the most interesting thing about the Atari excavation is watching the film crew – who funded and organized the dig – deal with the contingencies of an active archaeological excavation while at the same time promoting their work as a media event (in the broadest possible sense of excavating media, producing excavation for the media, and mediating the experience of visitors to the dig). I’ve started drafting some of this section here (pdf).

3. Atari, Adulthood, and Archaeology. One of the most remarkably things in Zak Penn’s documentary is that he took the work of archaeology quite literally. Not only was his film about digging up E.T. cartridges in New Mexico, but it was also about excavating the 1980s as an experience both for the user of these games and for the folks involved in their production. In many ways, Penn excavated his childhood and the extended childhood of Howard Scott Warshaw who designed the E.T. game. The fall of Atari and the failure of the E.T. game was more than just an economic or financial outcome of mismanagement or changing tastes, but it trapped the experience of the film, the game, and the making of the game in a dreamlike place that excavation revealed. I have parts of this section worked out here and you can watch the documentary here.

Conclusion: Auctioning and Authenticating Atari. The conclusion will look at the auction of the Atari games on Ebay and consider how the prices and packaging of these games legitimated the various authenticating narratives. This would bring in some of the Ebay data that Andrew Reinhard acquired for us and consider the ethical issues surrounding selling games authenticated, in part, through archaeological methods.

When I look at what I have already, it is pretty clear that I have the first draft of the article almost done. I just need to revise everything into a more coherent argument and narrative, and, of course, add a bit of a literature review, some historiography, and a bit of an edge. 

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.