The Future of Archeology Is Plastic
From yogurt containers to Lego pieces, plastic is already becoming part of the excavated past
As 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…