Atari video game burial between e-waste and cultural heritage

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by Björn Schöpe

November 20, 2014 – Those who remember the Atari days may also remember the sudden end of the video game giant in 1983. The company had just surprised the world with another game: E.T. Instead of selling millions of them, the mother company decided to dispose of them on a landfill in New Mexico under concrete.
Allegedly millions of cartridges were transported to Alamogordo in South Mexico, later this story became a kind of urban legend as many doubted the veracity of the facts (the famous ‘Atari video game burial’).

In 2013 a Canadian entertainment company, Fuel Industries, was granted rights by the landfill owner, the city of Alamogordo, to excavate the site. The event, in April 2014, was open to the public and being filmed as a documentary. A couple of archaeologists were present to lend some respectability and although they did not take part in the actual ‘excavation’ they documented later on the items found – some 1300 cartridges and broken video consoles. Two of these archaeologists put thoughts about this event on their blogs.

They note that the Atari games have no historical value (at least not yet) and are not even playable. And while operating versions of the same game are being sold for a couple of dollars, some of these cartridges reached hundreds of dollars only because they were once deposed of in a landfill together with hundreds of thousands of others (so they are not even rare). At the time being it does not seem likely that more of them will be dug out as the burial was filled up again because the deposed material layers were deeper than expected. As Andrew Reinhard, one of the archaeologists, stresses it will be difficult in future to study the excavated Atari games in detail as they are now scattered all over the planet. However, there are two consoling facts:
1. Some of the material was donated to the New Mexico Museum of Space History and to the Video Game Museum in Rome. So scientist will be able to study at least some of these objects for the benefit of humanity.
2. Probably nobody will ever need them to conduct a scientific study on Atari video games. It’s simply e-waste and a product of our today’s consumer society.

We are not sure about this conclusion. Maybe we just need to wait another 100 years and scholars will cry about the waste of knowledge caused by selling the material. Maybe we should stop trashing anything. Archaeologists might need it for further examination! But when your conscience troubles you on your way to the dustbin, remember: there is no trouble with binning rubbish – but don’t you ever decontextualise it by selling it!

To read the article of Andrew Reinhard visit his blog Archaeogaming.

His colleague Bill Caraher wrote on his own blog The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, too.

A Wikipedia article gives you all the background information.

And here Vigamus, the Video Game Museum, announces proudly the display ‘E.T. The Fall: Atari Buried Treasures’.