In pictures: Unearthing Atari's legendary E.T. graveyard in the New Mexico desert

In 1983 at the height of the video game crash Atari dumped millions of game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill. This past weekend, Microsoft and a documentary crew dug them up.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Digital Al Capone

ALAMOGORDO, NEW MEXICO—In the tiny town of Alamogordo, New Mexico is a mass grave. Thirty years ago, at the height of the Video Game Crash of 1983, Atari took a bunch of inventory out to this desert town—primarily copies of legendarily terrible game E.T.—and buried it. Destroyed it. Hoped nobody would ever find it again.

Over time, the legend grew. It became the video game world's El Dorado, or Tutankhamen's tomb—a mythical cache of games hidden right below our feet.

This weekend I, along with several dozen other people, made a pilgrimage to Alamogordo to watch Microsoft and a documentary crew dig up the site. Here's the event in pictures.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

The real Coachella

There was a real festival atmosphere to the proceedings. People drove in from all around to attend—I saw license plates from Oregon, Toronto, and Washington on my way into the dig site.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Dust in the wind

Spirits remained high even in spite of the whipping wind and dust clouds.

Fun fact: Later that day the dust got so bad that New Mexico shut down the freeway for over 100 miles due to poor visibility and high wind conditions. And we were crazy enough to stand outside in it and watch someone excavate a landfill.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Still have to eat, even in the desert

T-shirts were handed out with the dig site's coordinates, and a food truck was parked nearby handing out free sliders to all attendees.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Bacon addict

Personally I'd recommend the Chaos Bacon.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo


Every so often the excavation team would pause and examine some items, hoping for confirmation that the fabled E.T. cache was underneath.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Playing through history

Meanwhile fans wandered around, talked, ate, and even played copies of the original Atari 2600 E.T. game that were set up outside.

Although the sun and dust made it a bit hard to see anything.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Time traveler

Even E.T. himself attended, driving his gull-winged DeLorean thirty years into the future to see how things were going.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo


Maybe E.T. sensed there was a cache of his favority candy around.

On the other hand, the wind had covered this whole bin of Reese's Pieces in landfill dirt. I would not recommend eating.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Dump finds

Our first confirmation came around 11:45am. Zak Penn, director of the documentary, got on the intercom to make an announcement—Tony Johnson of Denver, CO was walking to the bathroom when he'd found the top to an Atari 2600 controller that presumably blew out of the dig site. Anticipation grew.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo


Finally the dig crew went deep enough. The engines shut off around 12:30pm and we heard an announcement—we'd found E.T. The crowd erupted into cheers, people crowding forward to take pictures of the lost treasure.

The dump didn't just include E.T., despite the legend—this was a mass-inventory dump by Atari. As you can see in the image, Centipede (a perfectly decent 2600 port) was also thrown out.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

A piece of history

Fans pose with the first exhumed E.T. cartridge.

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

The creator

E.T. and Yar's Revenge game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was on hand at the event, and even signed this enormous wooden representation of the Atari E.T.

"It's awesome. The idea that something I did thirty years ago is still generating interest, excitement, and media attention makes me feel real good," said Warshaw when I talked to him. "It's been a cool ride."

E.T. Dig, Alamogordo

Diamond in the rough

The documentary crew kept digging even after the first cartridges were found, though they admit only a small portion of the rumored 3.5 million cartridges will be dug up—there's no way to estimate how large the burial site really is.

250 cartridges (or 10% of the haul—whichever is larger) is now in the hands of Microsoft and the film crew. The rest is owned by Alamogordo.

Maybe keep an eye on eBay in the next few months?

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