Artifacts from the Atari Tomb

The Henry Ford
The Henry Ford / The Henry Ford 

Show & Tell is a new mental_floss feature spotlighting notable and revealing items from museums and archives around the world. Look for new items each week.

In 1982, Atari 2600 game consoles sold very well, and the company’s corporate parent, Warner Communications, was pleased with its earnings. But for a variety of reasons internal and external, Atari's bubble burst in late 1982, and 1983 was financially disastrous. To make matters worse, Atari overpaid for the rights to make a licensed E.T.: The Extraterrestrial game, and then rushed the game into production; the quality of the game suffered, and the total failure of the hyped-up release was embarrassing.

Residents of Alamogordo, New Mexico, began reporting in September 1983 that truckloads of Atari goods had been dumped in a landfill outside of town. In their history of Atari, Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg write that this hardware, from a company plant in El Paso, Texas, ended up in Alamogordo because the company wanted to dump with discretion, and “New Mexico had a state law forbidding scavenging of landfills.” But locals began to pick up cartridges and consoles from the dump anyway, and eventually the word got out.

By the end of the month, the national press was on the case. The New York Times ran an item on the dump, pointing to it as another strategy deployed by a company stuck in a “video game business gone sour” and desperate to divest itself of inventory. Too late, the company ordered that concrete be poured over the burial site, deterring souvenir-hunters. That concrete sealed the deal: The desert Atari dump became a legend of nostalgic nerd culture, with the story circulating that there were millions of E.T. cartridges in the ground in New Mexico.

In 2013, Fuel Entertainment received permission to excavate the site and tape the excavation for a documentary. What they found in April 2014 was not a solid mass of E.T. games (though there were a few hundred examples on hand). The haul was more mixed: console and computer parts, manuals and warranties, as well as many types of game cartridges. (Vendel and Goldberg write that a bigger burial of cartridges took place in Sunnyvale, California, but that dump somehow escaped notice.)

The City of Alamogordo donated items from the unearthing to museums, including The Henry Ford and the Smithsonian, and sold some of the objects on eBay. Announcing the acquisition in July 2015, The Henry Ford's Digital Collections & Content Manager Ellice Engdahl admitted that the items that came from the unburying were “unpleasant to handle,” adding: “We can now vouch that material recovered from a landfill continues to smell like a landfill for quite some time.” The Henry Ford now holds a variety of items from the Alamogordo dig: catalogs, manuals, controllers, cartridges, even a soil sample, shrouded in a double Ziploc baggie.

Artifacts recovered from the Atari dig. Image courtesy the collections of The Henry Ford.

Soil recovered from the Atari dig. Image courtesy the collections of The Henry Ford.

Why expend resources on recovering, cataloging, and preserving electronic junk, much less the dirt that entombed it? The objects are, after all, not precious in a monetary sense. (Similar cartridges and consoles are available on eBay for not very much money.) A group of five archaeologists who attended the dig explained their interest in the site in The Atlantic after the excavation was complete, arguing that it was important for these artifacts to be unearthed according to a set of standards common to the discipline of archaeology. They wrote that they were interested in “revers[ing] expectations of a culture that values the past only if it is old and unique.”

The failed hardware pulled from the Alamogordo landfill speaks volumes about the industry's booms and busts, the struggle between corporate parents and the creative workers at videogame companies, and the disposability of consumer culture. These dynamics, just coming into focus in the early 1980s, would continue to define the videogame industry for decades to come; we can look upon this “trash,” and think of this.