Just as the desert winds kicked up to 35 m.p.h., with prematurely disappointed onlookers already streaming away from the dusty hole in the ground, the team tasked with digging up Atari’s long-rumored burial ground struck gold—a copy of 1982’s Atari 2600 epic flop, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, flattened but intact. 

But it wasn’t all Atari’s infamous E.T. adaptation. According to Raiford Guins, Associate Professor of Culture and Technology at SUNY Stony Brook and on-site Atari historian, the game that started (or ended) it all is actually outnumbered: “E.T. is the face of this dig … but there are a lot of corpses.” 

The real jackpot: a sprawling, colorful patch of early 1980s Atari cartridges, unboxed games, promo materials, booklets and comics, all preserved by a lack of water and oxygen under thirty years and 28 feet of trash.

Scattered among the early 80s artifacts, the dig team unearthed copies of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Yars’ Revenge—two far more successful titles created by E.T.’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw. 

Here’s a full list of the Atari games pulled out of the Alamogordo landfill that I’ve documented so far, culled from my own photos, conversation with the dig’s archaeological lead, Andrew Reinhard, and a little time spent digging through a small sample of the findings with my own two hands:

  • E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (roughly 70 copies present in the archaeology team’s collection, a very rough working estimate of 700 copies total were found during the excavation, which in total remains a very small sample—possibly 2% of Atari’s total “buried treasure” in the landfill)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Yars’ Revenge
  • Pele’s Soccer 
  • Superman 
  • Human Cannonball
  • Circus Atari
  • Night Driver
  • Adventure
  • Haunted House
  • Combat-CX-2601
  • Defender (Atari 2600)
  • Defender (Atari 5200)
  • Space Invaders
  • Air-Sea Battle 
  • Missile Command
  • Pac-Man
  • Ms. Pac-Man
  • Warlords 
  • Swordquest: Fireworld
  • Vanguard
  • Star Raiders
  • Real Sports: Football
  • Qix
  • Phoenix
  • Asteroids
  • Berzerk
  • Centipede
  • Breakout
  • Super Breakout

Burning Man Meets A Gaming Expo 

The event, a literal excavation of one of gaming’s most enduring legends, cobbled together an unlikely, gleeful crowd at a yet-more-unlikely location. Yet here we were, on the Eastern edge of the White Sands desert, just a hundred miles from Roswell, N.M., at a landfill situated behind a McDonald’s parking lot.

At the site—a pop-up gaming convention cross-bred with Burning Man—a blockbuster production team joined retro gamers, curious locals, Xbox executives, a small, gleeful archaeological team and even a local garbage guru who’d tracked the truth—and all of its permutations—for more than three decades.

If that sounds crazy on paper, it was twenty times crazier in person. With trash literally swirling around us, the crowd looked on as a 40-ton Caterpillar brought up load after load of dusty garbage.

“I was getting nervous … [the tractor] was 30 feet down, almost the length of how far you can extend down” said Joe Lewandowski, the dig’s de facto historian, who owned a competing garbage company back when Atari sent nine semi-trucks to Alamogordo in 1983.

“At one point I said, okay, better hit it soon. As soon as I said that, two buckets later, then they came out with it; there was Space Invaders and Asteroids and right on top was E.T.”

For higher resolution images from the dig, refer to my Flickr album (a work in progress!).

All photos by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite