The Capitalism of Late Archaeology: Alamogordo’s Atari Games on Ebay

Boxed ET Game on Ebay

Boxed E.T. Game on Ebay

My friend, colleague, and fellow Punk Archaeologist Prof. Bill Caraher introduced me to what he calls the “archaeology of late capitalism”, and he wrote yesterday (Nov. 3, 2014 for those of you in the future) on his blog about Alamogordo’s Ebay auctions of Atari games excavated from the landfill back in April. (For those of you under-rock dwellers unfamiliar with the urban-legend-that-wasn’t-really-a-legend of Atari dumping hundreds of thousands of games in a New Mexico landfill in 1983, read the executive summary on Snopes). I’m calling this latest phase in the history of use of these games “the capitalism of late archaeology”, a turn of phrase suggested by Prof. Josh Reno of Binghamton University when I spoke there in October. I’ll talk more about the ethics of the sale of artifacts below.

The excavation of the Atari cartridges, brief as it was (two days of digging and another day to study and document the finds in a City of Alamogordo garage), recovered just over 1,300 games, most of which were still in boxes, some of which were still shrink-wrapped, along with broken 2600 consoles and controllers, as well as keypads for the Star Raiders game. E.T. was rumored to be the only game to be dumped, or perhaps make up the majority of the assemblage, but we found this not to be the case. Once the documentary Atari: Game Over premiers for Xbox Live subscribers on November 20th, I expect to detail exactly what we found and the methods we used.

Let’s talk about the auction first. Over the course of November 4th, 96 Atari games we listed for auction on Ebay, and can easily be found by clicking here or by searching for “Atari Dig Cartridges” on the Ebay site. These 96 games are broken down as follows, all in boxes unless otherwise noted:

  • Warlords (9 games)
  • Centipede (25 games)
  • Phoenix (9 games)
  • Swordquest (5 games)
  • Star Raiders (5 games that include the custom keypad)
  • Defender (10 games)
  • Asteroids (5 games)
  • Missile Command (9 games)
  • E.T., boxed (9 games)
  • E.T., cartridge only (10 games)

The starting bids for the boxed E.T. games was $100, while E.T. cartridges started at $75. All other games started at $50. As of this writing, only one day in to the auctions, about one-third of the games have met the minimum bid, and one boxed E.T. game is already beyond $400, with another bidding war on a separate copy boosting that one to over $350.

E.T. Cartridge on Ebay

E.T. Cartridge on Ebay

All of the games being auctioned belong to the City of Alamogordo and come with a certificate of authenticity from the city, which includes a numbered tag. The archaeological team touched all of these games at some point, counting, sorting, and photographing them as they were deposited trench-side by the excavator, and later in the garage. Our presence as archaeologists at what might otherwise have been a “smash-and-grab” lent some legitimacy to the operation (maybe) as we attempted to make sense of the deposition of trash, the stratigraphy of rubbish and sand, and the effects of the games on the environment, and of the environment on the games. We remain grateful to the City of Alamogordo, to the dig site’s manager Joe Lewandowsky, to the film’s director Zak Penn and his crew, and to Fuel Entertainment and Lightbox Entertainment for inviting us to participate in the project and to conduct some actual archaeological science. That being said, it’s difficult at least for me not to have mixed emotions about seeing artifacts posted for sale even if these games were/are trash buried only 31 years ago.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I am an archaeologist digging in Europe or the Americas 100 years ago. I am allowed by the local (or national) authorities to conduct my excavation, but only if I give a percentage of what I find to the government to do with as it pleases (including selling the artifacts for profit). There is a term for this as Dr. Donna Yates kindly reminded me: partage. As an archaeologist 100 years ago, I could also opt to keep the artifacts for my own, share them with one or more museums, or sell them on the open market. This changed in 1970 with the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. I don’t have the time or energy to direct traffic to all of the cases surrounding the sale of looted artifacts from both approved and illicit excavations, or on the stories of metal detectorists and hobbyists finding and selling coins and other objects, and with debates over the rights to whatever is found underground on private land.

The case of Alamogordo is tricky. The city owns the land and the old landfill, which was closed in the 1990s. By dumping its goods in the landfill, Atari Inc. released rights to the material, and the cartridges (many of which were mint-in-box when dumped) made the transition from consumer goods to e-waste. The Atari material (not even 50 years old) was trucked from the El Paso warehouse to the landfill over the course of a couple of days and dumped over that time period into a single cell specially dug for it. This massive assemblage was then hastily topped with a cement slurry followed by dirt, and then more layers of trash were deposited atop it over the following decade, locking the deposit into something we could securely date during the excavation by way of newspapers, catalogues, and receipts immediately above the games.

The fact that the games were shrouded in mystery soon after they were buried, and the fact that Lewandowsky forgot the exact location of the cell and later performed a miracle of amateur photogrammetry, and that the excavation would include professional archaeologists and would be filmed all lent a certain, strange gravitas to the deposit that was about to be unearthed. The cultural and historical context had given these games value, not to mention their immediate tie to Atari’s corporate history providing a kind of public shaming of the company that claimed it had only dumped defective merchandise and nothing more. I can buy a working E.T. cartridge at a retrogaming store or online for $1.99. But the non-playable games from the landfill? Who knows what prices these will bring?

The irony if that we know there are hundreds of thousands of games in the landfill that are just like what is up for auction now, and I wonder what would happen to the market if all of a sudden all of the games were available for purchase. Time and money (and a sandstorm) prevented us from excavating more. My hope is that the New Mexico Environment Department (to whom I wrote but have yet to receive a reply) will require Atari to return to the site to exhume the rest of the e-waste for proper disposal. I want to be there if that happens, and would hope that any and all archaeologists interested in this site would come out to help document the massive amount of material that remains. Laws being what they are, however, I doubt the rest of the Atari material will ever be retrieved. This is said because we retrieved only a small sample of what was buried, and  there are several questions that remain unanswered that would benefit from a full excavation:

  • How many games were really buried? Atari has their corporate figure, so it would be good to confirm that.
  • What titles were buried? We found over 40 titles, so who knows what else we missed, and how many copies of each title were disposed of.
  • Did E.T. really have the lion’s share of the number of buried games, or was it just part of a general dumping of overstock from the warehouse?
  • What else did Atari dump? While it’s highly unlikely any prototypes were included in the dumping, it’s possible that some papers/files were pitched, perhaps along with Atari computers and consoles (we found pieces of 2600 consoles, so it’s possible). We just don’t know.

There are likely other questions to be asked about this deposit that we haven’t thought to ask. One of the things that bothers me most about auctioning off the games we found is that Alamogordo is selling pieces of an incomplete body of artifacts. Granted, and inventory was kept by the City, and these items were photographed (although perhaps not professionally with an eye towards preservation), there is no substitute for having every game stored as a group until research is complete. Yes, that might take years or decades.

To put it into context, when I worked at the Greek site of Isthmia, I constantly was going back to pottery storage to retrieve boxes of sherds that had been excavated ten years ago or more in order to inform my research on placing a date on the mosaic in the Roman Bath there. I was able to do it because everything that had been excavated was right there at the site. All of the trash pottery that had been dumped was also at the site for future researchers to use. Some of the finer pieces were at the nearby archaeological museum, and others have ended up at other museums around the world. We did pick what we felt to be quality, representative, diagnostic games and hardware that could go to museums and not be sold, and Alamogordo is following through with that (see the recent exhibition at VIGAMUS in Rome, Italy). But the rest of the assemblage is being sold piece-by-piece to private collectors and perhaps to other museums. As a researcher of ancient Greek pottery, that scattering of artifacts worldwide grossly complicated my work (and I’m sure the work of others). Future scholars of this Atari site will face similar difficulties especially if some of the buyers wish to preserve their anonymity.

Returning to Prof. Caraher’s blog post about the auctions that I mentioned at the start of this entry, I agree with the points he makes about the excavation and about the Atari material recovered. I would add that the market’s fetishism for these artifacts will likely drive the auction prices up possibly into the realm of absurdity until the second batch of games turns up for auction based on the success or failure of the first 96 lots. The context is key to archaeology, but as humans, we all love the look and feel of things (over the cold practicality of data), and individual possession of an artifact infused with history is what makes most collectors tick. Alamogordo’s auction proceeds will benefit the city to be sure, both immediately materially in the form of cash, but also in adding to the lore of southeastern New Mexico, bringing in more visitors to a town I enjoyed exploring. Atari collectors and fans can have the chance to buy something for their homes to show off to friends.

But herein lies a danger. We (the archaeologists, City workers, and filmmakers) conducted an excavation and are selling what we found just six months after recovery, and we are selling to unknown bidders even before we have published our findings or have been able to further explore the dump site to see how what was recovered fits with the rest of what’s down there. This is digital cultural heritage. It’s also trash. But so is much of what “traditional” archaeologists deal with each season. It’s ancient junk, but it tells us something. This modern Atari junk does the same thing. The auctions both cheapen and place a value on the work and on the artifacts and sets a precedent for future excavations of digital media, and potentially will encourage some people to continue the trope of archaeology-as-treasure-hunt with personal profit as the payoff for digging. Archaeology is more than this, even if it is recovering plastic and metal from the heady days of Late Capitalism.

UPDATE! [Nov. 7, 2014]: Most of the games listed on Ebay have been taken down. Read more about this development here.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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12 thoughts on “The Capitalism of Late Archaeology: Alamogordo’s Atari Games on Ebay

  1. Pingback: “atari dig cartridges”: Object Life History via eBay | Raiford Guins

  2. Pingback: Atari Auction Update | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  3. Andrew, per two of your questions: “Did E.T. really have the lion’s share of the number of buried games, or was it just part of a general dumping of overstock from the warehouse?” and “What else did Atari dump? While it’s highly unlikely any prototypes were included in the dumping, it’s possible that some papers/files were pitched, perhaps along with Atari computers and consoles (we found pieces of 2600 consoles, so it’s possible). We just don’t know.”

    That’s not accurate, we do know. I’ve mentioned this to you before with no response, but the person who buried the games in the first place, Jim Heller, was very forthcoming and and involved with this entire dig from the beginning. He told Fuel what he buried there, showed them the pictures and documentation he still had, helped them and Lewandowsky find the spot where they were buried, and was on site while you guys were digging it up. There is no mystery, these were all returns for store credit, which is why some of the boxes you guys found were shrink wrapped with Target price tags still on them as well as the remnants of distribution boxes. It wasn’t even a clearing out of warehouse stock. And this was actually one of several dumpings of store returns he did throughout that year, Alamogordo was actually the last. It wasn’t mass quantities of specific titles, as you saw it was a lot of different titles and hardware.

    In the case of returns from stores, they were treated like most companies treat returned stock: defective. Hence they went through to Atari’s Service Center processing and were summarily destroyed. According to Jim he was asked to dispose of minor amounts of stock in ’82, most of which actually was defective. But it really picked up in ’83. Then the Service Center headquarters was moved to El Paso and Jim was asked head out to El Paso and dispose of a large quantity

    The context of what happened:

    Since 1980, Atari’s Consumer Division was the golden child of the company as far as Warner was concerned, and Warner did everything in it’s power to bolster that division and in turn bolster it’s own earnings and stock. Unfortunately it lead to some bad practices like a dual management (where Warner management would often supersede Atari’s own management and their decisions) and a lack of any good logistics practices. In fact Warner’s other divisions (such as Warner’s Music group) had been warning that Warner needed to have Atari adopt the same manufacturing and tracking practices as the music industry. It fell on deaf ears because Warner Communications couldn’t see their cash cow declining, and their position on the matter was only solidified even more in 1981 when a shortage of 2600 cartridges for retailers occurred. In fact they were so in demand that retailers were stealing extra boxes from Atari’s distribution warehouses when picking up stock, and even organized crime was hijacking shipments. You see, the Consumer industry had also gone through a tremendous amount of growth since the late 70s similar to Coin, expanding beyond the traditional toy stores and toy departments of major retailers into anyone that carried consumer electronics of any type. So towards the end of ’81 Atari (under continued pressure from Warner to meet their exceptional growth standards) used the issues from 1981 to pressure retailers to place their orders for the entire year of ’82 at once. And to compound the issue, Atari used their sell in numbers to report their quarterly earnings and overall projected earnings for the year. (“Sell In: is the numbers of units shipped to retail. “Sell through” is the total number of units sold to a consumer.)

    Alarm bells continued to be rung at Warner’s other divisions and even their financial partners that things were not sustainable to this magnitude. But it continued to fall on deaf ears until it was too late and they already had a major problem to deal with. By the end the beginning of the summer of’ 82 Atari management became aware that their distribution warehouses around the country were packed to the brim with stock that wasn’t moving. It was further compounded with retailers canceling orders or starting do look to do returns for credit (a common practice in the retail industry were product is either taken back for credit or subsidized for markdown). Warner management became aware of it not long after, and the response from both companies was to try and keep it hidden and play games by changing report dates and extending their 4th quarter. The matter was made even worse as more competing companies entered the market that year to further dilute the market and of course there was the recession. Gordon Crawford from Capitol Group (major investors in both Warner and Atari and responsible for helping bring the two together) mentioned at the time “At the January (1982) Consumer Electronics Show, there were three or four new video hardware systems and about 50 new software systems – all the warning lights went on for me. Then, at the June CES show, it was worse! There were about 200 new software systems. This was a business that the year before it had essentially been a monopoly, and now there were hundreds of new entrants. By this time, Warner was almost a game stock.”

    Then Warner and Atari couldn’t hide what was a happening any longer, and on December 7th (kind of ironic) announced their earnings had been lower than projected. Atari was 80% of the Consumer industry at that time, and when something that large announces earnings problems (especially when analysts had been predicting this was all a bubble ready to burst) you’re going to hurt everyone, and shockwaves immediately went through the rest of the Consumer industry. The entire month of December was a downward moving roller coast for those that were publicly traded. By January ’83 the layoffs began and throughout the rest of the year companies that had just opened the year before started shuttering. By the end of the year, even larger companies like Mattel announced they were exiting video games. Atari was now faced with the problem of not only being unable to move stock from their distribution centers like they once did but also store returns of product that retailers were unable to move even with the discounts. What do you do with stock that you can’t even liquidate? You destroy it for tax purposes. In the case of returns from stores, they were treated like most companies treat returned stock: defective. Hence they went through to Atari’s Service Center processing and were summarily destroyed. According to Jim he was asked to dispose of minor amounts of stock in ’82, most of which actually was defective. But it really picked up in ’83. Then the Service Center headquarters was moved to El Paso and Jim was asked head out to El Paso and dispose of a large quantity of returned stock the last minute (since he was being let go from Atari).

  4. My pleasure. I had been talking to Raiford and did give him Jim’s contact info if you guys wanted to interview him. I’ll be putting up a full article on our book site regarding all these events after the documentary is released. (I had promised Francis and Maddie over at Lightbox I wouldn’t do the article until after the documentary was out.)

    Also, I just wanted to thank you and the team again for the job you did with the dig and continue to do in the promotion of this modern form of archeology (as an archivist and historian, I’ve been calling myself and others involved in video game and computer industry preservation “digital archeologists” for years now btw). I think it was awesome you guys wanted to volunteer your time to go down there and do a proper excavation, and approach this all in such a professional manner. My hat is off to you.

    • Thank you! We, too, are honoring our agreement with Lightbox not to publish our official methods white paper until after November 20th. We tried to dig and document responsibly and will make our data and media available to anyone who wants it once the article/paper is out.

  5. Pingback: Where did Alamogordo’s Atari Auctions Go? | Archaeogaming

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  8. the original news from atari is that pac man , a real disappoint, had thousands of carts that were buried under cement. so you may have gotten the nth burial which i have not heard about … which swordquest is it ? i cant remember but 1 of the elements didnt get produced and a fifth cart was supposed to be the winners play off.

    • Hi — For the landfill cell we dug, we did find a few Pac Man cartridges (I’d expected many, many more), and I’m not sure yet which Swordquests were recovered (there were a lot of these). We did find evidence of concrete on some of the games, along with chunks of concrete in the landfill along with the games, and these match photos taken of the burial at the time it was happening in 1983. Alamogordo began turning trucks of games away, so it’s unclear where those went. My guess is California where they were pulverized/incinerated, but that’s just speculation. Atari did dump games with regularity; I’d be interested to learn the location of the other dump sites.

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