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…  

Writing Week: Final Bits of Chapter 1

Writing was brutal this morning, but I think I’ve correctly assessed the edge of my understanding (but like a good archaeologist, I’m sure that I’ve over-dug into less helpful levels). 

The best stuff today comes at the end of the second paragraph. 

For those of you who don’t know what is going on, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Archaeology and Media (cont.)

If the excavated games are fragments of both the experience of playing the game and represent the digital game itself, our own work as archaeologists likewise operated at the intersection of representation and practice. There is no doubt that our presence at the dig and the remarkable access that we were allowed reflected our status as props in the documentary (for archaeology and the media see Holtorf 2007; Clack and Brittain 2007). In many ways, Joe Lewandowski did more of the archaeological heavy-lifting through his creative efforts to identify the general site of the Atari dump and his appropriate use of bucket augur to locate the deposit of games itself. The Alamogordo Atari Expedition team, in contrast, largely worked around the documentary film crews and general media frenzy to document the excavation of the landfill and the context of the games themselves. Our formal place within the film, particular Andrew Reinhard who embraced his role as the public face of the archaeology team and its director, represented our role as archaeologists, which at times had to skirt the frantic work of the documentary filmmakers to coordinate both the filming and the public spectacle that surrounded the excavation of the games. The peripheral status of any real archaeological work hindered the consistent flow of information from the filmmakers to our team and frequently left us guessing about whether we were witnessing actual excavations or staged challenges, strategies, and discoveries meant to heighten the sense of triumph when the games where ultimately discovered. At the same time, we did what we could to play our role and to deploy our credentials as “real archaeologists” to legitimize the recovery of the games and to leverage our status as props to attempt legitimate archaeological documentation.

The vibrant intersection of media and archaeology framed the entire Alamogordo Atari Excavation and documentary project. The urban legends surrounding the deposition of the Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert initially gained a foothold on the internet in forums populated with fans of Atari games. The story’s popularity certainly benefited from the location of the Atari dump in a “remote” New Mexico town mere miles from the White Sands Missile range where some of the first atomic weapons were tested. Moreover, the New Mexico desert is part of a sparse, Western landscape populated with strange and secret places ranging Area 51 to Roswell. It is only a slight exaggeration to understand the New Mexico desert as the place where the Frederick Jackson Turner’s Western Frontier intersects with “the final frontier.” A landscape filled with alien encounters, top secret projects, and technological experiments presented a perfect setting for a narrative featuring a technology company, a remote dumping ground, and a game based on a movie featuring a lovable and hapless E.T. While many of the key narratives shaping this fantastic Western landscape existed in traditional print media and films decades before the emergence of the internet, communities interested in the various narratives converging in this landscape coalesced on the world wide web and developed more intricate and detailed arguments. As we will argue elsewhere in this book, the presence of archaeologists at the dig represented an effort by the filmmakers to appeal to standards of truth present in forums where conspiracy theories, myth-busting, and suppressed evidence tend to provide significant fodder for debate. Ironically, parts of the excavation process at the Alamogordo landfill appeared to drew upon practices spoofed by the director, Zak Penn, in an earlier mockumentary, The Incident at Loch Ness. In this film, Penn casts himself as a bumbling producer who seeks to add drama to an otherwise earnest documentary film directed by Werner Herzog by staging the appearance of the Loch Ness Monster during the film. This fictional film about a film played upon Herzog’s reputation for an earnest lack of irony even in the face of relentless absurdity (Cronin 2014). Our appeals to archaeological standards and efforts to document the excavation and recovery of the Atari games formed a similarly earnest foil against the frantic bustle of stage-managed days at the Alamogordo landfill. It was never clear where the film ended the dirty work of production began. In other words, the presence of archaeologists at this project was both the product of our role of archaeology in documentary film, as well as the discourse and media in which conversations about the Atari dump took place.


Archaeology of the contemporary world brings to the fore the challenges of archaeology in the contemporary world. As such, archaeology and archaeologists form part of a dynamic assemblage of objects, ideas, practices, and media that shape our everyday and academic life. The excavation of contemporary trash carries on the tradition of archaeological work that recognizes both discard practices and discarded objects as important parts of human life. Archaeological mediation represents just one method by which discarded things acquire new value and enter into new relations and forms of circulation. By locating these objects in larger assemblages of practices, individuals, and objects, archaeologists are able to trace the impact of things on how we engage the world.

The use of archaeological methods to document the contemporary world is not without complications derived from the interplay between modern objects and disciplinary, material, and institutional limits. As we noted, the potential toxicity of the Alamogordo dump prompted the New Mexico Environmental Department to limit the amount of time the trench was open. The instability of the landfill itself, which is the product of both the objects in the fill and dumping practices common at older and smaller landfills around the US, made entering the trench impossible. These limitations, in turn, challenged traditional archaeological practice and required us to document the excavations in unorthodox ways as will be more clear in subsequent chapters. Finally, the sheer abundance of objects in a landfill made exhaustive recording impossible and even statistically meaningful sampling a challenge. Archaeology of the contemporary world cannot escape or ignore our profoundly entangled relationship with materials and objects.

The web of relations that made our archaeological work possible is not limited to institutions and objects that intersected on a windy day at the Alamogordo landfill. In fact, objects at the center of the excavation drew their significance from a expansive network of media encounters ranging from the experience of playing the E.T. video game to the film that inspired the game, the internet forums that incubated a provocative landscape of the American West, and the documentary filmmakers themselves who sought to control the narrative of discovery and the process of work at the site. Penn’s previous work ensured that any conscious efforts on our part to document the excavation according to disciplinary standards ran the risk of making us the same straight-man dupes as played by Herzog in the Incident of Loch Ness. Beyond the immediate opportunity provided by the documentary film crew, the Alamogordo excavation relied upon the convergence of new and old media far more than any dispassionate scholarly discourse (Jenkins 2008). The web of relations that made the Atari games significant includes the physical character of the games themselves, the experience of playing the games, the highly critical reception of the E.T. game when it was released, the commitment of an online Atari fan base as well as views of the desert West as the realm of conspiracies, aliens, and fantastic encounters at the margins of the American society. In the case of the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, our work was deeply entangled in media which were simultaneously the object of our archaeological documentation and a crucial element of the assemblage in which our work took place.

Writing Week: More Chapter 1

For those of you who don’t know what this is, go and read this blog post. My typical blog is on hiatus this week as I work to catch up on some writing.

Enjoy the fragments and fruits of my labor all week, fresh from the tips of my fingers, and thanks to everyone who has kept returning to my blog despite its recent myopic focus!

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past (continued)

Using archaeology to document and analyze the modern world has required archaeologists to adapt their practices and methods. Issues of toxicity, complexity, and sheer abundance have pushed archaeologists to work more quickly, at a distance, and at a smaller scale. At the Atari excavation in Alamogordo, there was a strictly maintained safety cordon around the trench owing both to the instability of scarps cut through the loosely-packed landfill and the operation of the massive excavator. Moreover, the trench could only be open for a limited amount of time owing to concerns about the release of toxic chemicals associated with household waste in the landfill and the real fear of the wind blowing exposed trash into the nearby town. Finally, the excavated landfill material had to be quickly moved to another landfill and dumped again offering almost no opportunity to the careful scrutiny of upper strata of the landfill. Entering the trench for the careful documentation of the levels present and any material visible in the scarp was obviously out of the question. Backfilling of the trench began the day after excavations were complete as per New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) guidelines. As a result of these limitation, we had to document the progress of the excavation from a safe distance that fortunately provided a satisfactory view of progress which we then confirmed by occasional visits to the side of the trench. Only once levels near the Atari deposit were reached did we have access to the material being removed from the trench, and we have very limited time to document this assemblage.

The archaeology of the modern world offers new opportunities and challenges the discipline. On the one hand, archaeological methods offers a new perspective on how we interact with the complex assemblage of objects that constitutes modern life. An emphasis on the relationship between objects and object and individuals has demonstrated that the human interaction with objects constitutes a key facet in how we understand our world. On the other hand, modern objects offer particular challenges for archaeologists and have pushed us to move beyond both the conventional method and metaphor of excavation as well as practices originally developed to manage the scarcity of material culture from past. Archaeologists of the contemporary world now must deal with a sometimes seething mass of toxic artifacts, present in hyper abundant quantities, and often set in complex networks of relationships with other objects, living people, and newly-developed and ephemeral media forms.

Archaeology and the Media

The Alamogordo Atari Expedition was media project. Our access to the site was made possible because we were playing a role in a documentary about the search for the famous dump of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. The reason this kind of venture received funding likewise had to do with the circulation of various urban legends and conspiracy theories across the internet. This same connected web of computers was also positioned to disseminate the documentary via Microsoft’s X-Box 1 gaming and media platform. At the same time, we digging in the Alamogordo desert in search of objects best known not for their physical form, but for what that form contained. The recognition that archaeology and the media have deep interconnection has garnered recent attention from scholars who have explored the relationship between various media, from photography and drawing, to television and documentaries, and the objects of archaeological investigation. There are also scholars, often from the fields cultural studies, who have offered a broadly construed “archaeological” critique of media that ranges from the careful examination of now outmoded or obsolete media to the considerations for how technology has shaped the production and consumption of media over time. While practitioners of “media archaeology” have been quick to distinguish what they do from disciplinary archaeological practice, the shared in the relationships between objects and concepts like the assemblage has led to a growing convergence in methods and arguments (Piccini 2015).

Raiford Guins’ Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) typifies the growing convergence between media archaeology and disciplinary archaeological practice. Guins’ followed the tracks of video games from objects of desire to obsolete, and typically disposable, commodities and then back to being collectable items that often confound the efforts of conservators to keep them operational. He emphasized the materiality of cabinet arcade games contributed significantly to the experience of game play and argued that even the more modest and mass-produced console video games for home use sought to blend the aesthetic of cabinet gaming with the character of domestic space. The elaborate labels evoking the art on cabinet games and contrasted with the faux woodgrain present on the classic Atari 2600 console designed to fit into the cosy paneled family room with wood-paneled television.

For Guins, who was present at the Atari excavation, the excavating of the game cartridges was more than just the exhuming of obsolete media on which a video game was inscribed, but the recovery of part of the domestic gaming experience for those present. While the game cartridges recovered from the landfill were, in some ways, the equivalent of ancient transport vessels which derive significance largely because they reflect the trade in wine, olive oil, fish sauce, or some other typically liquid commodity, they were also inseparable from process of domesticating the arcade experience and the fabric of the late 20th century family room. The games were both the material trace the digital game, but also part of the larger experience. This interpretation was seemingly sustained by the willingness of hundreds of people to pay money for games that, as far as we know, do not work.

If the excavated games are fragments of both the experience of playing the game and represent the digital game itself, our own work as archaeologists likewise operated at the intersection of representation and practice. There is no doubt that our presence at the dig and the remarkable access that we were allowed reflected our status as props in the documentary (for archaeology and the media see Holtorf 2007; Clack and Brittain 2007). In many ways, Joe Lewandowski did more of the archaeological heavy-lifting through his creative efforts to identify the general site of the Atari dump and his appropriate use of bucket augur to locate the deposit of games itself. The Alamogordo Atari Expedition team, in contrast, largely worked around the documentary film crews and general media frenzy to document the excavation of the landfill and the context of the games themselves. Our formal place within the film, particular Andrew Reinhard who embraced his role as the public face of the archaeology team and its director, represented our role as archaeologists, which at times had to skirt the frantic work of the documentary filmmakers to coordinate both the filming and the public spectacle that surrounded the excavation of the games. Our credentials as archaeologists legitimized the recovery of the games and gave us the access necessary to attempt archaeological documentation.

Writing Week: Chapter 1 continued

I’m taking a week off from blogging and dedicated my morning time to working on a book project. Here’s a more substantial explanation of what’s going on with my blog here, and here’s part 1 of my writing week labors.

Archaeology and Trash (continued)

More recent work on our interaction with trash continues to make visible the complex way in which we engage with discard as a practice and discarded objects as thing. Scholars like Joshua Reno and Jeff Ferrell have explored the social dimension of discarded objects. Reno’s work (2009) explores scavenging practices among landfill workers at a landfill in Michigan and situates discarded objects as part of a larger discourse of value. In other words, the value of an object from a landfill is embedded in the social, economic, and even political of both the individual and the community. For Jeff Ferrell (2006), spending time as a scavenger on the streets of a Texas City reinforced the idea that discarded objects can easily regain value in the proper social and economic circumstances. He filled both his house, his shed, and his wallet (in some cases) with the rewards of cruising the streets in affluent suburbs looking through piles of discarded objects set out for trash removal. Like Reno, Ferrell recognized that the value of discarded goods is far from absolute and much more aligned with the way individuals and groups see these objects. For both scholars, discard and reuse practices rely upon complex networks of relationships defined by not only the objects themselves, but also social practices, economic status, and various political commitments.

Archaeologists have long regarded trash as a source for treasured information in the past, and have become increasingly aware of the various relationships that make archaeological objects valuable. The presence of archaeologists at the Alamogordo landfill contributed in some small way to the value of the Atari games located in this excavation’s lowest levels. Most of the value of these games, however, derived from the longstanding urban legend associated with their deposition and the interest of documentary filmmakers in their recovery and the story. The iconic status of Atari among “Generation X”res and a growing nostalgia for their childhood likewise added value to trash from the bottom of an Alamogordo landfill. The recovery and celebration of these broken, dirty, and discarded games granted everyday life in the 1980s a legitimizing, archaeological patina. Not only were these objects important to individual memory from the 1980s, but they also had larger cultural value. The disbursement of some of the recovered games to museums around the world further validated a generation’s nostalgia as more than simply personal memories, but landmark moments in the history of American culture.

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past

The discarded Atari games gained value from the intersection of the old and new media, archaeological interest, and generational memory and nostalgia. Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the way that artifacts produce meaning both in the past, but also in our world today. From this interest has emerged the “archaeology of the contemporary world” which focuses on the place of objects in contemporary society. Like our reflection of the value of trash, archaeologists of the contemporary world tend to view objects as existing within dense networks of relationships which include other objects, individuals, and larger social relationships, political commitments, economic forces, and even academic, interpretative paradigms. In other words, objects exist and have meaning only as part of a larger network of relationships.

The greatest challenge facing archaeologists, however, is not finding ways to appreciate the significance of objects in the contemporary world. After all, the fields ranging from material culture studies, to history, architecture, anthropology, and design have all explored how we use objects and buildings to produce meaning in the world. Archaeologists, for their part, have worked to consider how to approach the study of contemporary objects with methods grounded in rigorous archaeological practices. When objects are recovered from subsurface contexts, archaeologists can fall back on archaeological practices and methods to document the significance of modern objects, unfortunately, however, most modern objects do not derive from excavated contexts and do not lend themselves to longstanding and common archaeological approaches. In most cases, archaeology of the modern world does not involve documenting layers of historical deposition to produce a stratified understanding of the past.

In the place of excavation and stratigraphy, archaeologists have come to deploy another common archaeological term for their interrogation of the modern world: assemblage (Harrison 2011). For archaeology, an assemblage represents a body of objects associated with a single archaeological context. In excavation, assemblages are typically defined by chronology or a depositional event. In other words, objects dating to a particular period constitute an assemblage from a site, or objects found in the same deposit represent a bounded assemblage. In other forms of archaeology, such as surface survey, assemblages can represent all the objects found on the surface over a set area and the relationship between these objects constitutes a history of a region. In the modern world, a focus on the assemblage allows archaeologists to emphasize the relationships between these objects and individuals that interact to produce meaning. Exploring these relationships includes an expanded awareness of the role of the archaeologist in the produces of analysis and description.

Archaeology of the contemporary world and historical archaeologist focusing on recent times has also worked to emphasize methodological and procedural issues associated with the documentation of recent objects. For example, the excavation of damaged vinyl long-playing records from the commune famously associated with the Grateful Dead at Olompali encountered toxicity associated with the fire that destroyed the site (Parkman 2014). This not only limited access to the actual deposits associated with the finds, but efforts to decontaminate the records damaged the objects. David Yoder commented on the hyper abundance of modern objects that can be formally considered archaeological under federal archaeological policies has become a challenging obstacle for archaeologists who often developed their collection and documentation methods in the context of less materially abundant periods and groups (Yoder 2014). The abundance of modern material has had an obvious impact on archaeologists involved in managing and maintaining cultural heritage from the modern world (see Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2013) as they work with communities struggling to adjust their aesthetic values and historical narrative to accommodate objects associated with the recent past. Sites like the Berkeley Pitt in Butte, Montana, which is a dramatic, toxic, and colorful superfund site created from an abandoned open pit mine, push communities to reflect on how their historic and archaeological landscapes fit into their future (LeCain 2009). Despite these challenges, archaeologists have come to appreciate the ability of from the recent past to present insights into production, consumption, and discard practices, the changing pace of life in the 20th and 21st century, and the development of technology. Paul Graves-Brown documented a desk drawer full of audio connectors that highlight how much simple tools have changed in the last three decades (Graves-Brown 2014); Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry excavated an abandoned hard drive (Morgan and Perry 2015).