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Unearthing the Atari Tomb: How E.T. Found a Home at The Henry Ford

July 10, 2015 Think THF

Jonathan Lewandowski holds up one of the first E.T. cartridges excavated from the Atari Tomb. Deb Lewandowski looks on. THF122249

Every year, as we plan for Maker Faire Detroit behind the scenes, The Henry Ford’s curators think about what items from their collections might be brought out for special display during the event. At this year’s Faire, a new acquisition will make its public debut—items retrieved from the infamous “Atari Tomb of 1983” in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

As any good folklorist will tell you, urban legends usually prove to be fabrications of truth that have gone awry and gained their own momentum, spread by word of mouth and media publicity. But sometimes—urban legends turn out to be true. In April 2014, excavations at the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill unearthed every video game fan’s dream: physical evidence that the legend of the “Atari Video Game Burial” of 1983 was indeed a very real event.

Several unearthed Atari cartridges are visible here, including Centipede and Missile Command. THF122255

By 1982, Atari’s once-stellar sales were floundering, and the company became a key player in the “Video Game Crash of 1983” (known as the “Atari Shock” in Japan). The reasons for crash were complicated—largely, the market was flooded with competition, and personal computers were gaining traction as gaming machines.

Many people view the difficulties surrounding the video game adaptation of the blockbuster Steven Spielberg film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, as the final nail in the company’s coffin. Atari believed the game would be successful, manufacturing approximately 5 million cartridges—but only selling 1.5 million. At a time when most games took about a year to develop, Howard Scott Warshaw was given a mere five weeks to create a game version of the E.T film. Atari rushed the game in order to meet production schedules for the Christmas sales season, believing the success of the film would drive sales of a video game. Many were bought—and many were returned by disappointed customers. The chief complaint being that it was “unplayable”—in fact, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is widely considered to be the worst video game of all time.

The City of Alamogordo donated a video game pad and several game cartridges to The Henry Ford, including this copy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. THF159970

In 1983, Atari’s arcade division was sold to Warner Communications, and shifted its focus to the home computing market. And stories began to circulate: fleets of unmarked trucks from El Paso were dumping unsold Atari merchandise into a landfill in New Mexico. Atari 2600 game console units and game cartridges were rumored to be among the items being dumped, crushed by construction equipment and entombed under a layer of concrete to deter theft. In order to confirm the truth of these events—in a time before Internet searching capabilities—one would have had to either witness the trucks, hear stories from the locals, or read the articles being printed in the Alamogordo Daily News about the burial. Initially, Atari denied these allegations, but later confirmed that approximately 700,000 cartridges were in fact disposed of.

The Atari burial made the front page of the Alamogordo Daily News in September 1983. THF122277

Interest in the “Atari Tomb” lingered over the years, circulating within popular culture. In 2014, after navigating a forest of red-tape, a team consisting of the Tularosa Basin Historical Society, Microsoft, and a documentary film crew were granted a permit to dig on the site, accompanied by professional archeologists. Since the burial occurred during a time period when disposal was not tracked, and the landfill is hundreds of acres in size, the crew had to rely on eyewitness testimony, vintage photographs, and photogrammetry to locate the burial point. On the second day of digging, the tomb was located. The team working below giddily held up the first cartridges to emerge: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Centipede, and Asteroids were among them. The City of Alamogordo released some of the recovered material for sale via a public eBay auction, and donated a portion to museums—not only giving people the chance to own a piece of one of the most infamous stories connected to the history of video games—but literally, some of the “dirt” that goes along with it.

Locating the site of the Atari Burial was a stroke of luck—the landfill is 300-acres, and the games were buried in an untracked 100 X 40-foot hole. Heavy equipment was needed to dig down 30 feet. THF122261

Andrew Reinhard, lead archeologist at the Atari Dig, urges us to think of this material not as e-waste, but as historically important artifacts that are relevant to capturing the nuances of our everyday modern life. He says:

Digital “civilization” has been around for a very short period of time, and evolves at an incredible rate. Looking at the Atari games and hardware in 2015 is akin to looking at 5th century BC Greek painted vases: the technology was advanced for its time, but has been improved upon greatly since then. […] What the Ford Museum has now (as well as other museums such as the Smithsonian), is a piece of modern history, archaeology of the recent past, and an artifact from the world's first video game excavation.

The excavation team was only given three days to complete their task, before the site was re-sealed under a layer of concrete. Approximately 1300 cartridges were recovered. THF122235

Items donated by the City of Alamogordo to The Henry Ford will be on display Maker Faire Detroit weekend. Andrew Reinhard, archeology team leader at the Atari Dig, will give a presentation at Maker Faire in the Driving America Drive-In Theater on Saturday, July 25 at 1:45 pm. He will also display a selection of his own Atari Dig ephemera both days of the Faire.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

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