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.
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