UND faculty head to New Mexico to excavate legendary Atari ‘burial ground’

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News Article

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College of Arts & Sciences


Bill Caraher, History, Bret Weber, Social Work, invited to extraordinary dig in hopes of finding what killed pioneering video game company

Archeology: digging up the ancient past, right?

"Not always," said University of North Dakota historian and archeologist Bill Caraher.

With Bret Weber, Social Work, Caraher heads to New Mexico next week as part of a team that's going to dig up a site that's a lot less than 50 years old.

"According to legend, in 1983, the video game maker Atari buried millions of cartridges in the New Mexico landfill," said Caraher, who's also been working in Cyprus and Greece for more than a decade.

"The Atari site near Alamogordo, N.M., comprises mostly unsold and returned copies of the poorly received E.T. video game, as well as the terrible early version of PacMan," Caraher said. "The game burial has come to represent the grave of the first wave of the American video game industry as the losses incurred by Atari over just a few years, sealed the game and console maker's fate."

Since the 1990s, Atari aficionados, gaming scholars, and, most recently, documentary filmmakers have sought to confirm the existence of this legendary cache of Atari tapes and recover some evidence of this tragic symbol of the end of an industry.

Caraher, from UND's Department of History, and Weber, from the Department of Social Work, head to Alamogordo April 24-28 to supervise the excavation of the Atari burial ground with documentary filmmakers from Lightbox Entertainment.

"This actually fits well with our work in archaeology and culture of the 21st century," said Caraher, who uses the state-of-the-art methods — such as "structure-from-motion" 3D imaging, unmanned aircraft systems, and kite photography — in his historical and archeological work.

"Bret and I have worked for the last few years in the archaeology of the 21st-century Bakken Boom in western North Dakota with the North Dakota Man Camp Project," Caraher said. "This project in New Mexico continues our research into the archaeology of how we live today. The team will include Richard Rothaus, from North Dakota State University, who has worked with us in the Bakken, and Andrew Reinhard, a key member of the global Punk Archaeology collective."

"Our interdisciplinary approach to the Bakken informs our understanding of the socio-economic realities in ways that are richer than either disciplinary approach achieves on its own," said Weber. "Besides the celebrity air of this dig, I look forward to learning more about archaeological processes. But I'm also interested in what landfills tell us about contemporary culture and the impacts on the physical environment. By the 1980s, we had only begun our societal journey with e-waste, most of which we now ship overseas."

Atari video games are the kind of ordinary objects that have begun to take on cultural significance in the 21st century with scholarship and museum exhibitions becoming more and more common. Some of the material excavated in Alamogordo will make its way to the Smithsonian.

"Archaeologists are part of this process because our practice recognizes these objects and their current situation in a landfill as historically and culturally important," Caraher said, "so we'll do our part in recording the process of discovering, recovery and collection of these fragments of our own plastic culture. The opportunity to do archaeology at the intersection of the media, an "urban" legend, and an iconic object from the 1980s will dance along the absolute limits of how the discipline of archaeology can produce knowledge. This is a unique opportunity to present our own world in an archaeological context."

The documentary is directed by Zak Penn of X-Men and The Avengers fame and will premiere on Microsoft's X-Box Live game console. Caraher, Reinhard, Rothaus, Weber and Texas-based archaeologist K. Lindsay Eaves, will, however, have rights to publish the scholarly results of their work.