Why We Dug Atari

"Punk archaeologists" explain that they went looking for more than just video-game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill.
Atari’s dumped games unearthed (Raiford Guins)

There we were at a trash dump in New Mexico: archaeologists, a documentary film crew, Alamogordo city representatives, security and safety teams, a French gourmet food truck, a bevy of hundreds of curious onlookers, and reporters and photographers from Reuters, CNET, and other media outlets. Everyone was there to witness the rather unceremonious cracking of a sealed deposit of Atari Inc.’s e-waste on April 26, 2014. There were hundreds of old games buried in the landfill, casualties of a collapsing video-game market in the early 1980s—and some terrible game-making.

The media outlets—BBC, NPR, CNN, NBC, and many others—would go on to make the dig an international news item, just interesting enough, just weird enough, just nostalgia-inducing enough, to make the final minutes of broadcasts around the world.

But the stories about the buried games were more complex than the outputs of the media flurry.

The residents of Alamogordo, the town that houses the dump, have their version. The recent attention to their southern New Mexico city validated their first-hand accounts of the actual disposal from September 22–24, 1983. All exhumed remains supplied “concrete evidence” to quiet those who dismissed the disposal of Atari cartridges and hardware as urban legend.

Game collectors have their story, too. For them, the dig provided the extraordinary opportunity to get to the bottom of the “infamous Atari landfill.” Nostalgia had its role, playing upon the remembrances of 40-somethings hoping to reclaim a restorative piece of a childhood that Atari helped define.

Then there is the face of the “Atari Legend,” an Atari 2600 game called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which was subjected to merciless production constraints that resulted in its dubious reputation as the “worst game ever.” Many (mistakenly) hail the game as Atari’s death knell—if not the catalyst to the death spiral of the entire North American games industry. The validation of the dumping ground provided them with an authentic grave upon which to dance. The game’s creator, Howard Scott Warshaw, attended the dig, which tempered the cynicism and fed a real sentimentality toward the man, the game, and the game’s alien. For many, finding the games “brought E.T. home.”

There were, of course, economic interests as well. The dig was seen by some as a publicity stunt by the city of Alamogordo to cash in on its happenstance claim to fame and to generate profits by auctioning souvenirs to the highest bidders. And there was the fairground ballyhoo for Xbox Entertainment Studios and Lightbox Entertainment to promote Atari: Game Over (working title), the first in a new documentary series that may also be its last.

It was an extraordinary media blitz to say the least. Much of the frisson came from the dig’s presentation as archaeology, but few outlets focused on the actual work we, the archaeologists, did.

And we’d like to explain ourselves.

Courtesy of the archaeology team

Here we all are. From left to right, we’re Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Raiford Guins, Brett Weber, and William Caraher. We’re a collective of Punk Archaeologists. The punk moniker harkens back to the suburban culture of the late 1970s/early 1980s that drove Atari to prosperity while simultaneously declaring a critique of those consumerist and materialist values. And, just as punk resisted any unified identity or agenda, our archaeological team embodied a range of motives, perspectives, and theoretical commitments that made us want to be there when the excavation machinery rumbled to life.

This is why we did what we did—a summary of our intentions and reflections on the aftermath.

* * * 

To Reinhard, the leader of the archaeological team, it felt like a possible mistake, an out-nerding of the nerds to get beyond the velvet rope to see the Holy of Holies. Reinhard and Guins, completely unaware of one another’s actions, first reached out to Fuel Entertainment after it had acquired permission to excavate the landfill in June 2013. Their initial contact was motivated by personal research interests in video games, archaeological science, and video game history. Reinhard was ultimately asked to be the lead archaeologist for the project while Guins joined as the team’s historian based upon the field research on the landfill conducted for his book, Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. For some, the dig was seen as a tomb raid, but Reinhard wanted to expose the stratigraphy of the landfill and the interplay between domestic trash and the corporate dump of Atari products. As noble or scientific as those goals might have been, the team also operated out of enlightened self-interest: This excavation put archaeology on the global stage, and raised its profile and capital. After so many “digger shows,” the team sought to document this salvage excavation according to disciplinary standards. We pursued our work under the popular media microscope, distinct from looters in terms of intention, methods, and outcomes.

Richard Rothhaus and Andrew Reinhard documenting the first E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial recovered (Raiford Guins)

While generally agreeing on the larger mission, our team members had different expectations about what would be found and how the work would proceed in the brief window allocated by New Mexico safety restrictions. There were also varying concerns about likely tensions between scientific method and documentary filmmaking. The project was largely dependent on the overarching story and schedule of the director even as team member’s professional interests and intellectual investments in the histories and archaeology of late capitalism’s contemporary past exceeded the subject matter of the documentary.

Presented by

William Caraher is an historian and archaeologist at the University of North Dakota at Grand Folks.

Raiford Guins is an associate professor of culture and technology and curator of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection at Stony Brook University.

​ Andrew Reinhard

Andrew Reinhard is director of publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Richard Rothaus, an archaeologist and historian, is owner of Trefoil Cultural, a cultural resource management firm.

Bret Weber is an assistant professor in the University of North Dakota’s Social Work Department.

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