The Future of Archeology Is Plastic

From yogurt containers to Lego pieces, plastic is already becoming part of the excavated past

Illustration by Dion MBD

AsAs dawn cracks over the Cornish coastline, with only a few seagulls and a lone dog for company, Tracey Williams goes looking for plastic. “It began over 20 years ago,” she tells me. “My parents lived in an old house perched on the clifftop in South Devon, and we used to comb the beaches to see what had washed up.”

Ever since 1997, Williams’ family would notice Lego pieces amid the sand and seaweed of England’s southwestern shore; plastic octopuses, spear guns, flippers, scuba tanks, life preservers, daisies, ship rigging. “I still remember the moment when a neighbor found one of the elusive green dragons. Even today she signs her Christmas card to me ‘Mary, keeper of the green dragon.’”

All of these objects fell into the sea on Feb. 13, 1997, when a freak wave hit the cargo ship Tokio Express, knocking loose a container loaded with millions of Lego pieces. In 2019, brightly colored blocks still wash up on the beaches, and they’re not all that Williams finds. Using her Twitter account, LegoLostAtSea, she details toys, trainers, packaging, medical tape, and, among the detritus, toy cars, models, and figurines from ancient cereal packets — some of which date from more than 50 years ago.

“Quite a few of my friends work in archaeology and heritage and would send me pictures of sites they were working on and artifacts being unearthed,” she says. “In response, I’d send them a picture of a beach-found ‘Barbie’s Boudoir mirror, circa 1964.’”

Plastic will increasingly be used alongside pottery for dating purposes.

“It’s interesting isn’t it — at what point do lost, forgotten, and discarded items become archaeological finds or artifacts of the Anthropocene?”

Plastic of the past

Fifty years. At least, that’s the answer an archeologist might give if they’re going by Section 106 of the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act. According to this, any digging that uses federal or state money, or which needs a federal or state permit, must have an archaeological assessment. Anything found that’s older than 50 years needs to be evaluated. Not necessarily protected, but at least evaluated.

Ever since the turn of the century, that yardstick has brought archeologists into the age of plastic, and with it a shift in mindset about what is considered historical. Plastic tends to signify the contemporary, after all — the very thing archeologists want to get beneath.

“I heard of a Byzantine tomb in Carthage where archaeologists spent weeks digging out material down to the buried entrance, only to find a 1970s plastic yogurt carton there on the threshold,” says Matt Edgeworth, a British field archaeologist and honorary visiting research fellow at the University of Leicester. “It showed that the tomb had already been explored, even though there were no written records of an excavation there.”

As time marches on, archeologists are becoming more interested in the layers where plastic can be found. Edgeworth says plastic figurines found on beaches and beneath garden soil will “certainly be of interest to archaeologists in the future, a bit like 18th and 19th century clay pipes are to us today.” He also says plastic will increasingly be used alongside pottery for dating purposes.

This brings a new set of headaches because it turns out recent history can be more unknowable than the distant past. “There really is no reference material,” notes Eric Deetz, an archeologist and lecturer at UNC Chapel Hill. Unearth a complete object, and it might be straightforward to identify, he explains, but unearth a small tube of mass-produced plastic that existed as part of something else, and an archeologist will find themselves more stumped by an item from 1960 than one from 1660.

“It’s not like post-medieval archeology where you can look up the books and site reports of what was found in England or Germany,” he says. “These plastic pieces are just as valid as pieces of pottery from the 17th century. They tell us just as much about the lives of the people living then, but we’re finding increasingly that we don’t know what they are.”

The plastic ephemera of our lives will one day become historical — is in fact already becoming historical — and in an age of mass, globalized production, we tend to have short memories about the objects we use.

A few years ago, Deetz and Anna Agbe-Davies, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill, collaborated with artist Robin Frohardt on a project that attempted to help solve this by cataloging various plastic objects. Described as “part scientific endeavor, part poetic gesture to future scientists,” Plastic Archeology set out to document everything from artificial plant fragments and toy samurai swords to single-use forks and dental retainers.

Seeing these everyday objects framed as archeological artifacts is disorientating, but the project had a serious message: that the plastic ephemera of our lives will one day become historical — is in fact already becoming historical — and in an age of mass, globalized production, we tend to have short memories about the objects we use. If we don’t record what these things are now, they might be soon forgotten.

“We are in the 21st century so disconnected from the things we rely on,” says Agbe-Davies. “There are so many things we use that we might not know we’re using. Someone 300 years ago using a clay pot, they would have seen someone make something like it. If it broke, they could see the different pieces of it. But we’re so isolated from the processes of production that we can’t intuit the meaning of things, even in our own time.”

The long drift

In 1983, hundreds of thousands of unsold, plastic-packaged Atari game cartridges were buried in a New Mexico landfill. With the help of archeologists, a portion of these were excavated in 2014, including copies of the legendarily bad E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game. “What the exercise showed was how well plastic can survive in landfill,” says Edgeworth. “Many of the games and their plastic packaging were still in mint condition and eminently playable after 30 years or more in the ground.”

Video-game graveyards may be rare, but plastic in landfill is anything but. Edgeworth points out that one recent archeological study found the volume of compacted plastic consistently comprises about 14% of all U.S. landfills. “When you consider that many landfills can be up to 50 or 60 meters deep and kilometers wide, that’s a hell of a lot of plastic to be dumping into the ground,” he notes.

Not only is plastic durable, but it’s also shown itself to be incredibly mobile. As landfills close to coastlines or rivers become eroded by water or wind, plastic can drift across vast distances thanks to atmospheric and ocean currents. “This is the real untold story about plastics,” says Edgeworth. “The intermediary role of landfills in retaining plastic for a few decades and then gradually releasing them into the environment is very little known, presumably because the problem would cost too much to fix.”

As plastics drift, broken down into smaller pieces, transported to every pocket of the globe, even into our bodies, the limits of where a plastic artifact begins and ends can be difficult to trace. Agbe-Davies tells me the logic in how archeologists think about objects still comes from the tradition of analyzing stone tools. But stone is such a different medium from plastic. She isn’t convinced those old logics can be used to understand the drift of modern materials. “We’re so accustomed to dealing with [archeological] sites of a certain size and levels of detail about our artifacts,” she says. “Maybe the scale we need to think about plastic isn’t a single household or a single town or a single river valley, but the planet.”

Back on the beach, Williams’ list of dislocated detritus tells a similar story: “BB gun pellets, fishing beads, hair accessories, bike reflectors, toothbrushes, car parts, fake nails, shoes, socks, pants, false teeth, fibers from concrete reinforcement, tile spacers, rawl plugs, interdental brushes, pop-it beads, cable ties, costume jewellery, KFC sporks, bookies’ pens, buttons, medical lancets, sticking plasters, carcass tags, syringes, biofilters from water treatment plants, purses, wallets, credit cards, synthetic clothing, cap gun rounds, Smartie lids. How do you ever stem the flow?”

It’s an overwhelming sprawl, but among the mess are the pieces that anchor it; the old phone cases and worn-away faces that show the plastic for what it is — not just globalized waste but our own lives turned toward history. Perhaps that’s ultimately what is so disorientating about treating plastic toys as artifacts. It places our world as something that will one day come to pass. When that happens, what will future archeologists make of it all?

“There is a certain sense of nostalgia and melancholy about some of the items that wash up,” says Williams. “Many evoke memories of childhood — the toy soldiers, the old farm animals, the Wild West figures, the cereal packet toys, the spokey dokes, the vintage hair slides, the Cracker Jack toys. And of course the Lego.”

Freelance writer | @BBCNews @guardian @frieze_magazine @SightSoundmag @wiredUK @TheTLS others | Also @GardensBritish | Rep’d by @harriet__moore | Novel coming

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