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Plastic Archeology.

Plastic Archeology.

2023-11-29 19:22:25

In 2019 my Grandma handed away and I inherited a dusty assortment of Lego bricks from her loft. At first these bricks regarded identical to these of my very own childhood, however my palms and eyes are properly educated from thirty years of play, and shut inspection revealed tiny clues that prompt they got here from a unique period. I imagined myself as a plastic archeologist, scouring the floor of those bricks to research and interpret the society that left them behind.

Plastic is already making an unwelcome appearance in archeological digs the world over, and it appears inevitable that plastic archeology will sooner or later change into its personal discipline. I’m curious how such a ubiquitous materials shall be used to inform the tales of our day. Plastic is light-weight and simply breaks down into small items; it will probably journey huge distances and is dispersed simply. Far faraway from their authentic context, the plastic artifacts of tomorrow are unlikely to be analyzed using the same methods that archeologists apply to stone instruments at present. 

As an alternative, it might be that concepts borrowed from reverse engineering will assist unlock insights in regards to the plastic of our time. Mixing engineering with archeology has helped me peer deeper into the historical past of my grandmother’s bricks, and I invite you to contemplate how concepts drawn throughout disciplines will help to know the origins of the objects that encompass us.

Only cement and steel are manufactured more widely than plastic, and 22% of plastic evades waste administration methods, ending up in uncontrolled dumpsites or misplaced immediately into the setting. This has given rise to the thought of the plasticene period, a sub-stage of the anthropocene through which plastic is buried as sedimentary materials and combines with minerals to kind new rocks. One instance of those new plastic-mineral compositions is plastiglomerate: sedimentary granules and particles held collectively by plastic, comparable to those found on a remote Brazilian island.

Plastic rock discovered on a distant Brazilian seashore. Picture credit score: Fernanda Avelar Santos.

To see plastic so deeply embedded within the cloth of our world is unnerving. But from an archeological perspective I’m struck by the way in which that plastic objects now lie on the cusp between trash and treasure. The boundary is ill-defined, however historic preservation legal guidelines present a very good start line. In the US, any digging using federal or state money must have an archeological assessment to judge gadgets discovered which can be older than 50 years. Objects manufactured from plastic now straddle this divide: Are they environmental blights that want eradicating and recycling, or curious finds to be studied and categorized?

This trash-treasure divide has been explored by others earlier than, comparable to these UNC archeologists who presented waste items as archeological finds. However my favourite plastic archeologist is Tracey Williams. Since 1997 she’s been hunting and cataloging the washed-up Lego from a shipping container that fell into the sea. Lego offered an in depth stock of the container’s contents, which has resulted in much speculation about why some elements wash up, and whether or not others will perish on the seabed, by no means to be discovered. That mentioned, deep underwater the low temperatures, greater pressures and diminished photodegradation in low gentle are thought to have a preserving effect. The discovery of Atari game cartridges in a landfill website, completely playable 30 years later, confirmed that supplies in sheltered environments can survive for surprisingly lengthy instances. Maybe the remaining Lego bricks will sooner or later be found too.

One among 4,200 Lego octopuses that fell into the ocean. Tracey discovered her first in 1997, and her second 18 years later. Picture credit score: Tracey Williams/Lego Lost At Sea.

My very own investigations into my grandmother’s bricks started with the traces of their manufacturing processes. The scars of injection molding are apparent when you begin wanting, comparable to the gate from the tip of the hot runner, or flow leaders to speed up molten plastic into the corners and guarantee constant shrinkage throughout manufacturing. 

In distinction to the form of the brick itself, which has changed little since the late 1950s, engineers at Lego are consistently enhancing the bricks’ manufacturing options. A few of my grandmother’s early bricks have a small blemish on the decrease edge, the telltale signal that Lego engineers as soon as favored tab gates over scorching runners to inject plastic into the mildew. Distinctions like this one are cataloged by a passionate Flickr community who specialize in Lego part number 3001, the 2×4 brick. I used to be capable of date a few of my grandmother’s bricks to round 1958 based mostly on the font of the Lego wordmark embedded in every stud, and by the tiny molded numbers on their undersides, which identify the part’s mold cavity.

Evaluating gate scars on older (left+center) and trendy (proper) Lego bricks. Be aware additionally the distinction in logos on the studs. Picture by the creator.

The 2×4 brick is typically known as the Rory, for causes I’ve been unable to completely confirm. The design of the interference match for becoming a member of these bricks along with holes and grooves is captured in the original 1958 patent filing. This sturdy, tightly toleranced match is the rationale Lego fashions keep standing, and some bricks can tolerate over 37,000 assembly cycles before failing. Probably the most fascinating a part of the patent for me is figures 9/11, which illustrate a set of curious interlocking designs that have been by no means mass produced however could be seen at present in a test part from the injection mold on the Lego Museum in Billund, Denmark.

Whereas Lego bricks made at present are reverse suitable with ones made within the late Nineteen Fifties, they do differ in a single vital means: the fabric they’re produced from. Lots of the bricks I discovered in my grandmother’s loft have been noticeably warped and had an unusually shiny floor, indicators that they’re more likely to be produced from cellulose acetate (CA). CA was an early pure plastic, created by French chemist Paul Schützenberger in 1865 by reacting acetic anhydride with the pure cellulose polymer derived from wooden pulp. After CA’s lack of rigidity proved problematic, Lego employed Swiss plastics expert Hans Schiess in 1961 to discover options. German plastic suppliers Bayer and BASF produced take a look at bricks in quite a lot of supplies and colours, lots of that are highly sought after by collectors today. The chosen substitute was acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), whose superior dimensional stability to CA is a giant motive why early ABS bricks will nonetheless mesh securely with these molded at present.

Nineteen Seventies Lego Grangemouth bricks. As described here, they’re rumored to be the product of late night time experimentation by engineers at one in every of Lego’s materials suppliers. Picture via Incredible Brick on Flickr.

As a graduate engineer, I’ve a formative reminiscence of asking an older colleague for assist in figuring out the grade of plastic of a pattern I used to be holding. He took it from me and smiled earlier than tapping it in opposition to his tooth and listening intently to the sound.

I used to be by no means clear if this was science or theater, however totally different plastics do have distinctive bodily properties which could be felt, smelt or heard. CA, as an illustration, deteriorates after publicity to acids or warmth, giving off acetic acid and lending the time period ‘vinegar syndrome’ to the breakdown of movie inventory. Archeologist Mari Isa tells the story of discovering a suspected Bakelite (one other early plastic) artifact in a dump and making an attempt to establish what it was manufactured from. “Individuals who have dealt with a number of Bakelite could make an evaluation based mostly on delicate clues like sound and really feel. Since I’ve not dealt with a lot of it myself, I turned to a number of the different ‘exams’ for Bakelite.”

These different ‘exams’ are sometimes fairly damaging. Working as a design engineer I’d typically seek advice from Stanmech’s Plastics Identification Flowchart, which advises burning a small pattern and observing the colour, odor and pace of burning. Within the pursuits of science archeology I subjected a set of my own bricks and my grandmother’s to these tests. Each burned with a yellow flame which didn’t self-extinguish, producing black smoke and soot. However the trendy bricks burned cleanly with a bitter rubber scent, while my grandmother’s sparked with a discernible scent of vinegar – confirming as soon as and for all that they have been certainly the classic CA bricks I had first suspected.

Early CA brick (left) in comparison with trendy ABS brick (proper). Photos by the creator.

Earlier than I inherited these bricks I’d by no means have thought of myself an archeologist. Nevertheless, approaching this act of reverse engineering by way of the lens of archeology has inspired me to look past the operate of the Lego bricks and think about the context through which they have been created, and the explanations they’ve survived to today. Our creations by no means exist in isolation from the world, and the marks left behind on their floor will inform our story as soon as we’re gone. I’m excited to deliver extra of this archeological mindset to my future work.

See Also

SCOPE CREEP.

In scripting this I discovered myself on many tangents into the world of design fiction, making an attempt to think about what a plastic archeologist of the longer term may rise up to. Sometimes called archeology for the longer term, design fiction is a creative technique that uses fictional prototypes of everyday, mundane objects to tell stories about the future. I discover the way in which it eschews shiny idea movies to give attention to the mundane detritus of our world a refreshing method to future gazing.

Thanks as at all times to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks additionally to Xavier and Laura for his or her contributions, and naturally to Erinna and Lukas, who remind me every single day to take my pleasure seriously.

Love, George

p.s. – If you understand of any design fiction involving drones, simply reply to this e-mail – I’d love to listen to about it.
p.p.s. – We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.


When this piece was first revealed, we mistakenly mentioned that cellulose acetate was used for projector movie. Projector movie was truly manufactured from cellulose nitrate; the textual content has since been corrected.



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