On a bright and breezy morning earlier this year, I found myself looking out across the wide expanse of sand that, at low tide, forms Porth Beach in Newquay, Cornwall. In front of me lay the Atlantic Ocean (there is nothing but water between here and the coast of Newfoundland, 2,000 miles away); to my right, the alluring bulk of Trevelgue Head, a site rich in archaeology dating back to the Mesolithic (see CA 267). It was too early in the year for most holidaymakers, so we shared the near-deserted beach only with a few dog-walkers.
I was here at the invitation of Tracey Williams, who is conducting an ongoing piece of research along this coastline that is both utterly familiar and entirely unexpected – unravelling the story of the thousands of pieces of Lego that periodically wash ashore around the coast of Cornwall, Devon, and even further afield – relics of a shipment lost over the side of a cargo ship back in 1997. I reviewed the book that Tracey has recently published on her research – Adrift: the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea – in CA 385, and was visiting to hear more of this story in person and to see if I could discover my own pieces of these little lost treasures, as well as to explore the aforementioned Trevelgue Head. Alongside Tracey, two sharp-eyed companions joined us ready for the hunt and willing to be bribed with biscuits – Tracey’s friendly dog, Jess, and my equally friendly daughter, Zoe.
Here Be Dragons: the Lego that got lost
Tracey’s book is one that I would recommend everyone should read. As I commented in my review, this is a story of citizen-science of the best type, well written and engaging. It is also simply a beautiful book, thoughtfully illustrated, as well as a thought-provoking one, with an underlying melancholy to it, as it reflects upon the ongoing impact of the billions of tons of plastic that now pollute our seas and oceans. It blends archaeology and oceanography, culture and ecology, art and design.
To summarise, this is the story of what happened when a container full of precisely 4,756,940 pieces of Lego washed off the cargo ship Tokio Express during a storm off Land’s End in February 1997. The cargo was en route from the company’s factory in Billund, Denmark, to North America, where it was to be made-up into sets – and by a strange quirk of fate, much of this Lego was sea-themed. Across the last quarter-century, and an increasingly large stretch of coastline, the resulting spread of Lego has touched the lives of many, but Tracey took things more seriously than most. A few pieces of Lego collected on her local beaches turned into a few hundred, then a few thousand and counting. Tracey’s thirst to find out more about the loss, and then redistribution, of these pieces led her to consult with oceanographers and archaeologists, with journalists and environmental campaigners, and with likeminded beachcombers around the world.
Some of the recovered Lego is tiny – there were, for example, 88,316 sets of flowers, originally shipped in groups of four. Each flower is half the size of my littlest fingernail. That Tracey and her fellow beachcombers find any of these flowers seems borderline miraculous to me – on the vast expanse of a beach, clogged with sand amid a tangle of seaweed, driftwood, and other detritus, they are minuscule. And the figures involved are mind-boggling: 54,000 pieces of sea grass each less than 5cm high; 352,000 tiny pairs of divers’ fins and 97,500 miniature scuba-tanks, each barely 1cm long; 26,400 pieces of petite ship’s rigging; and most appropriately of all, 26,600 little bright yellow lifejackets for Lego minifigures comprise the more eye-catching losses / finds. Some of these have turned up on the foreshore in significant numbers, but others remain elusive. There were, for example, 33,941 Lego dragons in the shipment, of which 33,427 were black and only 514 green. While thousands of the former colour of dragon have been recovered from beaches across a wide stretch of Cornwall, the rare green dragons remain elusive and, with only a handful having been found, are the most prized find of all from the loss. Even harder to find are examples of the 4,200 black Lego octopuses that had also been on board – they are almost impossible to spot when caught up in seaweed. As Tracey reminisces in the book, she found her first octopus back in 1997, not long after the cargo first went missing, but did not discover another one for a further 18 years.
But is this archaeology?
For anyone who enjoyed recent volumes such as Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking (reviewed in CA 358), or who has been interested and involved in inter-tidal fieldwork projects such as CITiZAN (see CA 381), the answer to the question, ‘Is this archaeology?’ is likely to be self-evident – of course it is. But for those among you who wonder, let me make the case to you. Yes – this is about beachcombing pieces of Lego lost off a ship in 1997, and as such it is about very recent events that do not, in some people’s eyes at least, constitute the practice of ‘archaeology’ in the traditional sense of fieldwork on, and relating to, an ancient civilisation. But I would make a counter argument to the doubters among you on three different grounds.
Firstly, I would emphasise that examples such as this are merely the latest iteration of beachcombing as an ingrained human practice. Collecting intriguing, eye-catching, and occasionally useful objects from the foreshore of beaches, lakes, and rivers is an instinctual behaviour seen worldwide. Indeed, it is probably as old as our earliest ancestors, linked to our days as small-group hunter-gatherer-foragers. If, as Mortimer Wheeler rightly contended way back in 1954, ‘the archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people,’ then the study of ingrained human behaviours such as this is archaeology, for the consideration of why and how we find things in such situations is just as important as what we find.
Secondly, and most crucially in making the case for this work as archaeology, this story is all about the study of marine site-formation processes. The archaeologist Keith Muckelroy outlined the principles at work here back in 1978, in his seminal book Maritime Archaeology, in which he proposed a theory – still in use today – for the formation of shipwreck sites. This is a mix of archaeology and oceanography, together with a strong leavening of mathematics and statistics. With the benefit of modern-day digital mapping and modelling techniques, it has become an industry in its own right, tracking the movement of objects large and small across sites and landscapes, and even out in space. The analysis of such object distribution, and so of site-formation patterns, remains a key part of the discipline of maritime archaeology, and has helped to identify sites of shipwrecks as well as those of downed aircraft, both ancient and modern. The most famous example of this is the search in the early 1980s for the wreck of the Titanic (see CA 265), which was successful where previous attempts had failed because the team modelled, and then searched for, the wider ‘debris field’ of the wreckage and the ship’s contents rather than the smaller wreck-site itself.
Finally, Tracey’s and others’ fieldwork is archaeology because of what they do with their finds. Sharing their findings through social and more ‘conventional’ media or through publication is one part of this (@LegoLostAtSea’s Twitter account has, at the time of writing, over 41,000 followers, a figure that many archaeological projects could only dream of). There is also an artistic and aesthetic appeal about the colourful displays and patterns of different finds of Lego here. But before this photogenic sharing comes the cleaning, sorting, recording and analysis of the finds – all forms of post-recovery curation, and all archaeological in approach.
The long-term benefits of such research also come through here, a point that I will return to. The Lego in question was lost in 1997; Tracey started making finds of it not long after that date, and began to formally log her discoveries in 2010; and in 2022, the cargo is still coming ashore in significant quantities, but only some of it. As her book makes clear, huge quantities of the Lego lost a quarter of a century ago remain lost at sea. Some washes ashore; some is found by local fisherfolk (often well offshore – finds from trawlers working 20 miles from the coast are common); but much remains unseen and undiscovered. Beachcombing after winter storms, especially along the high-tide line of seaweed and other detritus, produces the most productive phases of recovery, and batches of distinct types periodically appear. This suggests either that the container the Lego was originally carried in remains intact and is gradually decaying somewhere on the seabed, periodically shedding a little more of its cargo; or, alternatively, that the container burst open on or shortly after its loss, forming a debris field of what one can only imagine are dense layers of Lego on the seafloor that periodically shift and erode, some of this later washing ashore.
To further complicate matters, not all Lego is equal under the sea. ‘Classic’ bricks are made of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a denser plastic that sinks; hence, these types – 520,541 green and 34,500 blue roof tiles, for example – rarely turn up on beaches. Tracey and her collaborators also think that millions of the ‘missing’ bricks made from these denser plastics are still lying on the seabed, for these are the bricks sometimes hauled up by fishermen working off the Cornish coast. At the same time, some of the Lego that is made of the denser plastic (like dragons and life rafts) should, in theory, sink but they have pockets of air built in, meaning that they float until damaged – hence why so many of the dragons were recovered in the first few years after the loss. Meanwhile, this debris field seems to be ever-expanding, and it now seems that some of the bricks that originally sank to the seabed back in 1997 are making their way ashore, swept long distances by undersea currents.
This latest twist in the tale is the subject of a forthcoming scientific paper by Tracey and a team of oceanographers that she is working with. The fascinating reality is that we do not know precisely what is happening here, how fast it is occurring, and how long it will continue. It is a giant, constantly evolving, slow-moving archaeological site hidden under the sea that looks likely to take decades, potentially centuries, to conclude. My nine-year-old daughter, who joined me on this hunt, stands a reasonable chance of being able to take her own children on a similar hunt for this same Lego on the same beaches in another 25 years, and possibly her grandchildren after that too. And this is one loss of one small and distinctive part of one cargo along one stretch of coastline. How many other such examples of lost Lego, among other manufactured materials, lie out there, especially along less-frequented coastlines? There must be hundreds of thousands of such sites and finds.
Ocean plastics and the future of archaeology
A search of Current Archaeology’s online archive reveals that Lego has featured occasionally over the years in the pages of the magazine, primarily in terms of sites and finds recreated using the medium – there’s a Lego Athenian Acropolis in issue 286; and a Lego Sutton Hoo helmet in issue 375; as well as a whole host of constructions by the ‘Brick to the Past’ group (a team that specialises in creating historically themed – and accurate – Lego models; see issues 322 and 366). Most recently, CA editor Carly Hilts visited the Brick Wonders exhibition for issue 387, highlighting Lego models of over 30 historic sites from around the world that was recently hosted by the Novium Museum in Chichester (the exhibition closed in June).
Among all this delightful brick-building, mudlarking, and beach-combing, however, lies a deadly serious story of plastics in past, present, and future societies, which the book sombrely reflects upon. As explained above, Tracey, and countless other beachcombers like her, have recovered only a tiny fraction of the nearly five million pieces of Lego lost overboard that stormy February 25 years ago. They also find many other pieces of plastic in their beachcombing, a point that is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever spent even just a few minutes litter-picking along any beach in any country around the world. The latter part of Tracey’s book examines this larger and frankly depressing story of ocean plastics, of our insatiable appetite for material goods leading to the littering and despoilment of such beautiful and prized coastal locations. And this is just the plastic that we can – if we look hard enough – see.
Many readers will be aware of the growing body of evidence for microplastics – tiny plastic particles smaller than the eye can see – being discovered in organisms large and small, terrestrial and marine, ingested in terrifying quantities and with still not fully understood consequences to ecosystems, including our own. That delicious bag of fish-and-chips that you devoured on a seaside summer holiday contained more, alas, than you may have bargained for. This is a depressing but important note to end on, not just for those of us who are alive now, but also for future generations of archaeologists. They will be the ones digging through the mountains of plastic that we have so cavalierly discarded since it came into mass production in the mid-20th century. At least with books like this one to hand, they will be able to understand what we thought about it all when we cared to.
Further information Tracey Williams, Adrift: the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea, Unicorn, £20, ISBN 978-1913491192. You can follow the project online by searching for @LegoLostAtSea on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also hear Tracey Williams and Joe Flatmass discuss the story of the lost cargo on The PastCast.