Adrift: the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea

I’d wager that every one of us has beachcombed at some point in our lives. Collecting intriguing, eye-catching, and occasionally useful objects from the foreshore of beaches, lakes, and rivers is an instinctual behaviour likely as old as our earliest ancestors. And many people don’t just collect the objects that they find – they curate them too, keeping them around their homes, in some cases in significant volumes. Glance around your own home and see if you can spot sitting on a shelf a mermaid’s purse, a piece of driftwood, or – perhaps – a sea-worn piece of Lego.

Tracey Williams’ book is the story of what happens when beachcombing gets serious. It blends archaeology and oceanography, culture and ecology, art and design. For anyone who enjoyed recent volumes such as Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking (reviewed in CA 358), or who has been involved in projects such as CITiZAN (see CA 381), Adrift is an essential addition to your bookshelf. It tells, in a lively and engaging fashion, of what happened when a container full of 5 million pieces of Lego washed off a cargo ship during a storm near the south-west coast of Cornwall in February 1997. The resulting spread of that Lego across an increasingly large area of coastline over the last 15 years touched many lives, but North Cornwall resident Tracey took things more seriously than most. A few pieces of collected Lego turned into a few hundred, then a few thousand, and counting. Tracey’s thirst to find out more about the loss of and then redistribution of these pieces of Lego led her to consult with oceanographers and archaeologists, with journalists and environmental campaigners, and with likeminded beachcombers around the world.

This is a story of citizen-science of the best type, in a narrative shot through with useful reflections on the nature of site formation, object distribution, and post-recovery curation that is profoundly archaeological in its approach. 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. This is the story of the future of archaeology, told now.

Review by Joe Flatman.
Adrift: the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea, Tracey Williams, Unicorn, £20, ISBN 978-1913491192.