When the words Atari and archaeology appear together, one usually thinks of such iconic video games as Pitfall! or Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is almost impossible to think of the Atari console itself or games designed for it as archaeological artifacts. At the end of April, however, Prof. Bill Caraher from the Department of History, the Working Group in Digital and New Media, and the global Punk Archaeology Collective, headed to Alamogordo, N.M., to excavate the famous Atari graveyard from the city's old landfill.
According to the urban legend, the Atari corporation buried millions of returned, damaged, and even new games in the Alamogordo city landfill to hide massive losses incurred in 1982. The most famous object in this lot was the ill-fated E.T. game, which some critics have rated among the worst videogames ever. Atari dumped the games in Alamogordo both to hide poor selling, damaged, or returned games from investors, but also because the Alamogordo landfill owners offered the company a good deal not far from their El Paso distribution center.
"We landed in El Paso and checked out the completely nondescript building where the games originated. It's not a box factory, but in the early 1980s it was a distribution center for Atari. It reminded us straight away that culturally significant objects from the late 20th century will not necessarily originate in the hands of crafts people or exotic locales. These are consumer goods, made in anonymous factories, and shipped through box-like warehouses," Caraher noted. "We wanted to locate these objects in their social context from the start. These are not exotic."
For a shockingly large number of retro-video games enthusiasts and nostalgic 40-somethings, the games had meaning. The 2014 Atari Expedition was an extension of a documentary film directed by Zak Penn which sought to determine the fate of the Atari burial ground. The documentary is scheduled to appear this year on Microsoft's Xbox platform.
Caraher was part of an archaeological team coordinated by Andrew Reinhard and was joined by Bret Weber from the Department of Social Work, and North Dakota State University archaeologist Richard Rothaus. They were joined by Raiford Guins from Stony Brook University, one of the foremost video game experts in the world. They spent four days in the New Mexico desert offering archaeological perspectives to the documentary film and recording the finds and excavation process.
"Our goals," Caraher said, "were somewhat different from the guys making the documentary. We were there to record what was happening in as detailed way as possible. They were there to make a movie."
For Caraher and Weber, the work in New Mexico was an extension of their interest in the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken. Since 2012, they have co-directed the North Dakota Man Camp Project which explores the material and social environments of North Dakota's so-called man camps. Like the Atari dig, the NDMCP takes the material culture of the last 30 years seriously as a way to explore social, economic, and political relationships that traditional ethnographic and historical practices overlook. Both projects emphasized not only the recent past, but also privileged the production of large-scale photographic archives as the primary form of data collection.
"The Atari project was a great opportunity to see the excavation of a landfill which can tell us as much about an American community as the traditional texts of historians. So we were interested in documenting the landfill as much as finding the games," Caraher said. The games, however, told another story. While Caraher and the archaeology team will wait for the documentary to disclose all that they found, he can say that the Atari assemblage is unique in the history of archaeology. The rapid pace of life at the end of the 20th century moves objects from pride of place in our homes to archaeological contexts at an alarming rate. Just as oil companies have promised to leave the western North Dakota landscape as they found it, we purge our houses of outdated technology and send it to landfills at the edge of town and bury it away from human sight and memory.
The archaeological recovery of objects cast aside by consumers casts them in a new light and gives them new value. Caraher and the archaeological team were as interested in the way that archaeological excavation transformed these once discarded games into objects of desire.
"While most of what we excavated has become property of the city of Alamogordo and the production company, we have worked with the city to identify objects from the dig that would communicate the story effectively in a museum context," Caraher said.
The project also captures some of the spirit of Punk Archaeology. Caraher and Reinhard were key players in the formation of the Global Punk Archaeology Collective and both see the Atari dig as part of that movement. Punk Archaeology emerged as a movement that celebrates the flexible "Do It Yourself" spirit flourishing among archaeologists. It also emphasizes the process of taking everyday objects and placing them in new contexts.
"Punk rockers frequently challenged how we see the world by taking everyday objects — like safety pins— and turning them into jewelry or taking perfectly good blue jeans and ripping holes in them. These acts are senseless, but they show how the presentation and use of objects defines their meaning," Caraher explained.
The Atari E.T. excavation was covered widely in the media and the archaeologists had to work with documentary filmmakers, who funded the project, and contractors, city officials, and members of the media. The result was a complex web of priorities and activities at the dig site. At times, the archaeologists were excluded from observing excavations because of safety concerns. The landfill was unstable and posed challenges to the massive excavator used to dig over 20 feet below the surface to exhume the games.
To make matters more complicated, the entire crew was battered by 40-60 mph winds on the days of excavation that whipped desert sand across the landfill, making it nearly impossible to document finds in the field. The production team had its own priorities. At times, they withheld information from the archaeologists to create suspense in the documentary. Caraher's students were particularly eager to hear about the dig on his return.
"The students, of course, got the uncensored story, and it provided me with a chance to introduce students to the Punk Archaeology movement and make them more attuned to how our interactions with objects — even mundane ones like Atari games — create value in the world. If I can encourage students to think about their relationship with objects through the absurd example of the Atari dig, then I think I've started to get them to think about their world and how capitalism works in a bit of a different way."
The scholarly results of the Atari dig will appear over the next year or so while Caraher is on sabbatical, but he has already contributed to an article to appear on the website of The Atlantic and will contribute to an article for Archaeology Magazine as well as more scholarly publications.
"I've never worked in an environment like the Atari dig or on material like that which we found in our excavations. We're excited to prepare some academic publications that document both the results and our experiences on a project like this."