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). 


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.

More on the Atari Expedition

Things continue to simmer away on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition writing project. While other things are at a rolling boil in the front burner, the incomparable (in a good way) Andrew Reinhard continues to keep the Atari writing project on lock down. Among his most notable achievements is secure the eBay auction data from the sale of the games. It’s pretty cool data and I’ll let Prof. Reinhard unpack the significance of this stuff.

But as a teaser (and because I can’t resist raw data… it’s like raw cookie dough except with less salmonella!). I ran a few little analyses on a slightly-tidied up data set. I can’t emphasize enough how provisional these analyses are. They were literally done between classes and meetings on a very hectic Wednesday, but it’s too fun not to post them. For more serious thinking about the Atari excavation go to the end of the post and read the article by Raiford Guins and Co. in the most recent Reconstruction.

The first chart shows the number of bids per game arranged according to the auction close-date. I tidied the data a bit so a few things were left out of this calculation, but not enough to cause any major data shift. The number of bids was 7413 with almost 1/3 of them coming in the first auction (31.4%) during which there was a ton of action on E.T. games (and over 12% of all the games were released for that auction). There were only two other auctions which closed with more than 5% of the action: one in April which did not feature E.T. games but saw a good bit of bidding on 39 examples of Asteroid, Phoenix, and Air Sea Battle. Some of the last auctions also saw over 5% of the action with 39 games at an auction ending in late July seeing over 300 bids. E.T. games average over 25 bids per game while the rest of the assemblage produced under 12.


This impossible to read chart gives an idea of how many games were released on each auction and the kinds of games in each auction.


This chart shows the average price per game in each auction with the grey line showing the average of all games in a particular auction. The late spike was largely the product of a single bid on a single E.T. game. E.T. games in boxes attracted the highest price with the 10 games released in the first auction fetching an average price of over $1200 and assorted E.T. games without boxes averaging over $500. Asteroids and Centipede games were the only other titles to average more then $100 per sale. The 11 examples of Haunted House fetched only $43 per sale.


Anyway, this provides some interesting data to think about and numbers to crunch. For example, it should be possible to parse out the difference between prices driven up because of auction action, and those driven by the perceived value of the games.

For some real Alamogordo Atari Expedition related brilliance, be sure to check out Judd Ethan Ruggill, Ken S. McAllister, Carly A. Kocurek, and Raiford Guins, ” Dig? Dug!: Field Notes from the Microsoft-sponsored Excavation of the Alamogordo, NM Atari Dump Sit” Reconstruction 15.3 (2016). Good stuff there!

Words, words, words

I’ve spent three days making maps for my Tourist Guide to the Bakken (brace yourself for a two-for-Tuesday blog post), so I work up this morning with my head filled with words.

Over the past two months, I’ve avoided working on a book project to which I’m a pretty minor contributor, but thanks to a late evening email, I started thinking about it again. I’m fascinated with the idea of the American West as this kind of national hinterland filled with all sorts of fascinating stuff begging for me to juxtapose it in random ways.

I was thinking of the Atari Excavations and the concept of “fake archaeology” once again, and my mind drifted to sites like the Manitou Cliff Dwelling museum near Colorado Springs were a cliff dwelling from the Four Corners area was reassembled in the early-20th century. While I don’t mean to suggest that a similar method of presentation could not be used “back East” (and, indeed, sites like The Cloisters in New York repurposed the European ecclesiastical architecture to create a space for the Rockefeller art collection), a degree of dissimulation was possible at the Manitou site because of the remoteness of western cliff dwelling sites and the basic lack of familiarity with the archaeology of the region. No one likely believed that The Cloisters was an “authentic” site. It was possible to situate the excavation of Atari games from the Alamogordo landfill as “authentic” because it took place in the “hinterland.” In fact, media reports were reluctant to accept accounts from local residents, there was an absence of basic historical research (for example, we really don’t know whether the dumping of Atari games left a paper trail), and quick transformation of the event from a curiosity to an urban legend. 

The issue of authenticity and the American West intersects with some of the conversation about tourism and how it keys on the desire to experience the “frontier” or to experience “nature” or whatever. Again, this is not a distinctly or exclusively “Western” phenomenon. Places like Colonial Williamsburg (once again a Rockefeller connection), offered authentic experiences “back East” at least as mediated through various reconstructions. Williamsburg may offer a colonial Deadwood or Medora, but it pales in comparison with Yosemite or Yellowstone which were set aside to preserve nature in its “primordial” state. The Atari excavation, then, depended on a suspension of disbelief and perhaps benefited from a view that the American West preserves a palpable authenticity long ago deemed improbable among the cynical cities of the “the east.” 

Finally, I got to thinking about excavation in the American West. I’m not sure how this will fit into something that I write up for this little book, but excavation in the American West is pretty broad topic. First, I thought about the excavation of mountain sites like Yucca Mountain or the WIPP in New Mexico for depositing radioactive waste. Of course these sites draw upon a long tradition of mining in the west, which both pocked the region with pits and tunnels, none more famous, perhaps than the Berkeley Pit near Butte, Montana, but has also fueled a thriving cottage industry of mining archaeology. Finally, there are the massive craters of the Nevada Test Site where detonations of nuclear and conventional bombs excavated tons of earth. 

Sedan Plowshare Crater

Somehow I want to weave these themes together in a short chapter on excavating contemporary trash in the West with a focus on the Atari excavations. 


I’m totally enamored by the little series from Bloomsbury Press titled Object Lessons. The books are small (and I have a thing for well done, small books). The feature eye-catching covers with relatively simple graphic designs. The name of the series is printed at the top of each cover in all caps, in a simple sans serif font with the word “Object” in white and “Lessons” in grey and no gap between the words. The title of the individual books appears in a different sans-serif font, lower-case letters below the graphic in bold white against the cover’s black background.  The authors name is below the title and shares the primary colors of the cover graphic. 

9781628924367 707x1024

Brian Thill’s book, Waste, is beautiful little essay on the role of waste in our lives. He documents through vivid case studies some of the physical, digital, and chemical waste that we produce every day and that infiltrates our lives. The chapter titled “Million Year Panic” caught my attention because I’m thinking a bit about a short chapter on the American West for our little book on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Thill makes explicit the link between sites like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico and the dump of Atari games in Alamogordo. (His work echoes many of the sentiments in Lippard’s Undermining, which I discuss here).  

Thill locates WIPP and the Atari dump at the intersection of our desperate realization that when we’re gone, our waste may no longer have meaning. He recounts how the designers of the WIPP facility solicited suggestions from around the world on how to mark this site as dangerous and toxic for tens of millions of years. The result was the “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the WIPP” (.pdf) which produced numerous recommendations on how to mark out the site as deadly. Conversely, the excavation of the Atari games looked to recover our “wasted” youth and to determine whether it still held meaning. 

Both the WIPP and the Atari dump fall in part of the world which contemporary society has tended to see as a marginal. In the last 70 years, we have dropped atomic bombs, buried radioactive material, and dumped high tech waste in the deserts of the American West (not to mention mining, syphoning of water, and selling off of land), and this activity has generally neglected the delicate ecosystems and, more importantly, disregarded the rights of indigenous communities in this area. In other words, the discarding of waste in the southwest, reflects not just increasingly outdated views of the desert ecology, but also views of race and culture propelled forward by the seemingly inexorable pace and priorities of capitalism.

Undermining the Global in the American West

Over the long weekend, I relaxed a bit and read Lucy Lippard’s newest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press 2013). The book is quite wonderful and thought provoking and brings together art and argument in visually appealing ways. Lippard’s book considers the political ecology of the American West by focusing on the intersection of the local and global.

The book begins with gravel pits in New Mexico and considers the role these pits play in the production of roads. Road, in turn, open up the settlements, sacred landscapes, and delicate ecologies of New Mexico to development. At the same time, gravel provide a source of prosperity for isolated communities which frequently have limited resources, but also involves engaging those communities with a global economy that shows little interest in the local. Lippard’s use of gravel as her first case study evoked images of gravel pits across the Bakken and reminded me how important gravel has been to creating the infrastructure necessary for extractive industries in western North Dakota.

Lippard’s New Mexico shares many characteristics with the Bakken. Indigenous communities, small towns, and natural resources lace a sparsely populated and geographically and economically “marginal” landscape. Extractive industries, industrial development, and discard reflect patterns of use for marginal landscapes as local residents negotiate integration with the larger economy. Ironically the appeal of integration is that it can often provide access to resources necessary to preserve local ways of life. In New Mexico, gravel provides roads for the extraction of uranium, water, coal, and exploration for gas and oil.  

Lippard’s book also provided some parallels and local context for events like the dumping of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. Lippard discussed the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) near Carlsbad, New Mexico where radioactive waste from reactors around the US is deposited and ideally isolated for 10,000 years. The radioactive history of New Mexico extends to the earliest days of the nuclear warfare as the Trinity site at White Sands witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The radioactive plume from that detonation billowed northeast up the Tularose valley contaminating the air and the soil. The rural West with its isolated, poor, and minority communities seems particularly susceptible to dumping toxic material beyond the gaze of the urban world. In the documentary made about the dumping and excavation of the Atari games, Zak Penn, the director, asks the mayor of Alamogordo if he’d be willing to open the city’s landfill to another dump of video games. He answered in the affirmative, making explicit the link between local attitudes and global networks.

Lippard concludes her book with a meditation on the role that art can play in negotiating the fraught political ecology of New Mexico. While she recognizes that art also participates in the global market especially spectacular landscape works, she hints that local artists, embracing DIY approaches might find ways to leverage their access to specific landscapes, communities, and experiences to offer distinctly local solutions to global problems. 

Finding ways to mediate between the specific and the global remains a key challenge for articulating a political ecology that is simultaneously sensitive to the specific and generalizable to the global. My effort at writing a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch fits into this larger project of making a distinctive landscape part of the universal, modern experience of tourism.    

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.

The Present State of my Punk Archaeology

It’s only been a year since The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published Punk Archaeology. Since that time I haven’t given it much thought. In fact, I’ve relied on the relentless enthusiasm and energy of Andrew Reinhard to carry the punk archaeology touch forward toward new frontiers.

For some reason, I offered to give a lecture on punk archaeology in a couple of weeks at the University of Minnesota – Duluth in conjunction with a showing of the Atari: Game Over documentary. Fortunately, I’ve only been asked to give a 15 or 20 minute talk and to keep it informal, breezy, and accessible. This is good because I’m a bit at a loss for what to say.

I titled the talk: “The A, B, Cs of Punk Archaeology” and figured I’d talk about some of my work in the C(orinthia), the B(akken), and with the A(tari) project. So I have case studies, but I feel like I need to frame these case studies in a more meaningful and substantial way. 

In the eponymous edited volume, I noted that Punk Archaeology did five things: (1) It was reflective (and reflexive), (2) embraced the DIY, (3) expressed a commitment to place, (4) embraced destruction as a creative process, and (5) was spontaneous.  As I look back, though, I wonder how many of these things could be said for most archaeology. What makes these things worthy of a distinct definition?

In addition to the five dubious characteristics of punk archaeology, I got to think about three additional aspects of punk. First, I am becoming increasingly interested in thinking about archaeology as socially responsible practice. Our work in the Bakken has convinced me that the tools developed through archaeology can collect data that informs policy as well as documents our encounter with the contemporary world. Related to this is the interest of punk archaeology in the contemporary world. Punk rock merged traditional music forms (pop music, folk music, even the venerable waltz) with contemporary instruments, concerns, and observations. Archaeology can do the same. Finally, I think punk archaeology has a particular concern for archaeological practice that extends from the edge of the trench or the survey unit to the publication process. Since the publication of Punk Archaeology, I’ve begun to think more about how the systems we use to collect, analyze, and publish archaeological evidence (and arguments) and wonder whether we can be more critical of these practices and be more open to experimentation.

To return to my presentation for Duluth, I think I’ll start with a brief overview of the history of punk archaeology, “from Kourelis and Caraher to Reinhard,” with a brief stop in the Corinthia and my work with David Pettegrew (a proto-punk archaeologist if there ever was one) at the 20th century site of Lakka Skoutara. Here we confronted issues like the abundance of contemporary material, a site where rapid and constant changes occurred, and the presence of living memories at the site. These all required that we adapt our archaeological training to address the challenges of this site. 

Without a doubt, my experiences at Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia shaped my work on temporary housing in the Bakken where we were similarly confronted with a contemporary, dynamic, and hyper-abundant landscape. In the Bakken I also came to recognize that the practice of archaeology mattered to the communities and people who we were working to document. People in the Bakken boom recognized that it was a historical moment for the region, and saw in our efforts to understand and document it, affirmation that people cared about their experiences. This motivated us to work toward publishing the results of our work in the Bakken in free and open access (as much as this is possible) forms. 

Finally, there’s Atari. Not only do our efforts represent an effort to deal with hyper-abundance of the modern world, but also the explicitly performative character of punk archaeological work. We were simultaneously props for the films directors and researchers attempting to glean as much archaeological information as possible from the experience. This dual role of archaeologist and performer makes the performative element of our discipline explicit and situates our work both as archaeology of the contemporary world and within the contemporary world.

Now to transform this into a breezy and entertaining PowerPointer…