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Cover for the "E.T." game for Atari

UND archaeologist headed to New Mexico landfill in search of legendary cache of Atari artifacts

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Somewhere in a New Mexico landfill is a legendary cache of Atari artifacts from the early days of American video games, and UND archaeologist Bill Caraher is headed there next week to help in the excavation.

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It’s a bit of a change of pace for the professor, whose specialty is fifth-to-10th-century Christian architecture in the Mediterranean region.

He said he was born in 1972 and owned an Atari 2600 video game console. Technology is changing so fast, he said, that things that were common to “every suburban kid in America” are now buried relics.

The story surrounding the artifacts he’s chasing plays like a mythic fall from grace. Atari, a titan of 1980s video games, overconfident in its dominance believed that, by buying the rights to the most popular movie of the day, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” it would rise to unseen heights.

Instead, the game flopped and thousands of unsold game cartridges were sent to the dump. Atari’s fortunes went with it.

But, despite a decade of discussion among Atari fans, no one has dug up the cartridges so no one knows whether they are really there, Caraher said. “If we knew it was there this wouldn’t be a very interesting project.”

He’ll be accompanied to New Mexico by UND social work professor Bret Weber, his partner in another modern research expedition to the man camps of the North Dakota Oil Patch.

Lost era

It’s not that “E.T.” Atari cartridges are rare — a “brand new” copy can be bought for $35 on eBay — it’s that they were buried, Caraher said. This the difference between a classic Ford Mustang found in a farmer’s barn and one sold at a classic car auction, he said.

The context is important to filmmakers at Lightbox Entertainment as well. The company is filming the excavation for a documentary to be released on Microsoft’s Xbox video game consoles, which, unlike game consoles of yesteryear, also provide access to movies.

Caraher said he and his colleagues have a “mystical hope” that they’ll find other video-game artifacts in the landfill also.

He said he believes a terrible, early version of “Pac-Man” is also buried with the “E.T.” games.

The speed at which things are consumed and thrown away today seems to have increased, he said. So even artifacts of the 1980s could be showcased at cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, he said.

He also noted how people are reacting to rapid change by clinging to such artifacts. He still owns an audio amplifier that uses vacuum tubes. “I’m part of this thing.”

“E.T.” is a story about an alien who’s lost in a strange place and wants to go home, he said. “Maybe our nostalgia is rooted in desire to find our way back home.”

Clarification

It’s possible that the legend of Atari’s fall is wrong. Martin Goldberg, one of the authors of “Atari Inc: Business is Fun” and an industry historian, said that that the video-game-industry titan didn’t dump thousands of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill in 1983 as Atari fans think. Instead, the company was simply clearing out its El Paso, Texas, plant to get ready to make personal computers.

He also told the Herald that Atari didn’t try to get the rights to the popular movie; the rights were forced onto Atari by its parent company Warner Communications. Warner’s CEO was trying to woo Steven Spielberg to direct “E.T.” and wanted to sweeten the deal with a game royalties.

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Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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