How old do remnants of our material culture have to be before they’re considered artifacts?
If you’re a gamer, not very old at all.
This week, Canada-based game developer Fuel Industries got approval from the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, to excavate the site of the so-called Atari Dump — a desert landfill where the famous video game manufacturer Atari buried hundreds of tons of broken and outdated merchandise in 1983.
For gamers, the Atari Dump is the stuff of lore, long associated with the failure of “E.T.”, Atari’s attempt at a home-game tie-in to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie. The company paid handsomely for rights to the title and rushed an ungainly game to market, making such a face-plant in sales that it almost ruined the company. “E.T.”‘s epic fail became a cautionary tale and a symbol of the video-game industry crash of the early 1980s.
Now, Fuel seeks to exploit the legend by filming a documentary about the excavation of the dump, perhaps hoping to find thousands of “E.T.” game cartridges and Atari 2600 consoles — or at least hoping that viewers will hope to find that.
(Update: We’ve since confirmed with Fuel their plans for the dig.)
And they might indeed find them — along with a lot of other stuff. Historical records suggest that the dump may be full of all manner of industrial detritus.
In 1983, Atari, Inc. — suffering from a combination of poor overall sales and overconfident ordering that left its distributors with too much merchandise on their hands — decided to change course.
It closed its manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas, and opened one in China — a harbinger of practices to come. It also tried to divert the public’s attention from its hoary 2600 consoles to the new Atari 5600 5200. And it gave up on ever getting rid of its unsold inventory. The company approached the remote desert town of Alamogordo across the border in New Mexico and got the go-ahead to use its landfill.
City officials balked at the huge volume of Texan garbage brought to their town and passed ordinances that prohibited any such “extra-territorial” dumping in the city in the future.
But today, Alamogordo apparently hopes the Atari Dump will bring attention to the city.
“I hope more people find out about Alamogordo through this opportunity that we have to unearth the Atari games in the landfill,” Mayor Susie Galea told KRQE.
In archaeological terms, one culture’s midden is another culture’s treasure trove. Thirty years after it was first interred, Atari’s trash may find new life as precious artifacts of a bygone era.