Nurdelology: a future archaeology of the plastics age

Earlier this year, we started working with the fantastic folk at the Solway Firth Partnership (SFP). This is part of a strand of Waste Stories dedicated to waste in our seas and along our coasts; we’ll add a new section to this site explaining more about this work soon.

In March, I went to Port Logan with Nic Coombey (SFP Project Officer) to take part in a beach clean organised by local group ONUS (Ocean Needs Us). These amazing people spend some of their free time cleaning up marine litter and debris along the Galloway coast. I’ll write more about this in the upcoming marine litter section of the site, but for this blog, I want to emphasise just how much of the litter is made of plastic. Plastic bottles, plastic bottle tops, kinder eggs, plastic balls, plastic water containers, plastic cotton bud stucks, plastic cigarette lighters, plastic shotgun cartridges, plastic fishboxes, plastic gloves, styrofoam fast food containers, polystyrene packaging, nylon rope, nylon fishing nets … in some places, the layer of plastic beneath the beach grass was so thick and so ubiquitous that I could hear it crunching underfoot as I walked. We’ve made plastic central to our lives, and so it has become central to our waste. One of the ONUS regulars suggested that at some point in the future we might end up mining beaches for the plastics they contain. Of course, the value of a material increases as it becomes more scarce, and so the cost-benefit analysis for collection, salvage and recycling will change as we run out of oil and can only create new plastics from old.

We’ve also been helping SFP develop some resources for teachers in the Solway Firth area. SFP had already received funding from Rotary International to produce a Sea Chest pack with physical items and associated activities exploring the marine litter that washes up on the Solway Firth shore. As well as helping with the activities booklet, we have produced some bespoke Waste Stories guidance, tailored to the Solway Firth. This included two example stories, both created in response to photos that Nic sent me of waste that had ended up on Solway Firth beaches.

One of these was of a pile of plastic nurdles.

Colourful plastic nurdles litter a beach

Nurdles are small plastic pellets that are used in the production of other, larger scale plastics. They are accidentally released into the environment during both manufacture and shipping, and are a serious pollution problem. They are small and light, easily transportable, stable and durable. They got me thinking about what future humans will make of the detritus of our age.

This is the story about them that I wrote for the Solway Firth Waste Stories teacher resource.

Treasures of the Nurdelii

Mhurri peers through the glass at the small, brightly-coloured objects in the display case. They glint and glimmer under the bright lights. She thinks she has never before seen anything so beautiful.

‘Ah yes,’ says the guide, clearing his throat and puffing out his chest. ‘We may only be a small, provincial museum, but we’re proud to be the home of one of the most important Nurdelological discoveries in the world. For it was not far from here that what is now known as the Great Hoard of the Nurdelii was unearthed in 3073, providing the first solid evidence that the Nurdelic civilisation was more than just an old wives’ tale.’

Mhurri turns and looks at him. His uniform is really daggy and he’s old, probably even older than her Mum. But she’d like to know something at least about the treasures in front of her.

‘The famous archaeologist and, indeed, Mother of Nurdelology, Kree Stjan, was digging at a site close to what we believe would have been, one thousand years ago, the shoreline.’

Cuik whispers to Mhurri: ‘Let’s go, or WE’LL be here a thousand years.’ But Mhurri is interested and wants to stay a bit longer.

‘She and her team were searching for evidence of the Nurdelii when she came across the Hoard, almost perfectly preserved in the sandy soil. What you see here is but a small selection of the objects she found – objects that we now understand as not only characteristic of but central to the Nurdelic Age.’

‘But what are they?’ asks Mhurri. The man looks pleased at her interest; Cuik doesn’t. The guide continues:

‘At first, all sorts of outlandish hypotheses were put forward as to their use and purpose. Scientists and scholars had very little to go on, and some of the suggestions were, in hindsight, almost laughable – for example, one school of thought had it that these objects were somehow joined together to make playthings for children!’

Mhurri tries again: ‘What are the pretty things in the display case?’ But the man has only paused to draw breath, not to listen. He continues:

‘In the end, common sense prevailed. These objects were clearly precious, perhaps deliberately buried to keep them safe during an attack by marauding enemies. More hoards were discovered all over the country, but particularly along the courses of ancient waterways and coastlines. Prof Stjan postulated that these were objects of great spiritual and symbolic importance, used to decorate the garments and headdresses of the elite, vivid illustrations of power and authority.’

Mhurri turns back to the case. ‘Is the man saying they were used for dressing up? Maybe for parties?’ she wonders.

‘And her theory came to be widely accepted among most serious Nurdelicists and Nurdelologists. The beauty and durability of these objects does indeed seem to make this likely, and of course the twine, thread, wool, hair and leather that they might have embellished has long decayed away. Prof Stjan’s theory is also consistent with how paleolinguists understand the term Nurdelii, which they believe has its origins in the word “noor”, meaning “light” in one of the ancient languages in use at the time.’

Cuik rolls her eyes and pokes Mhurri in the ribs. ‘Come ON,’ she whispers. ‘Let’s get out of here before we die of boredom.’ Mhurri touches the glass longingly, leaving sticky finger marks. The man drones on:

‘However, more recently, Prof Makla Ghan has put forward an alternative theory that seems to be gaining a significant following in nurdelological circles. He contends that these objects had a much more practical use, as a form of currency. As he points out, there is no doubt that they are durable –they must have survived the mysterious disaster that put an end to the Nurdelic civilization more than a thousand years ago. They are also clearly portable, divisible and apparently in limited supply. And it is easy to imagine how they might be viewed as fungible and universally acceptable.’

Mhurri and Cuik exchange glances, suppressing giggles. Fungible?! They start to move away, hoping he won’t follow.

‘Prof Ghan has several supporters but, as is the nature of the past, we will probably never know the truth. Ah – I can see you are interested in the next exhibit – another highly significant find. Allow me to explain!’

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