Lost and Found: paddling into the past

As an archaeologist, I am by default a “finder” of “lost” objects. Most of my career has been spent excavating things discarded, mislaid, thrown away, hidden, hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. But recently I’ve become much more interested in and excited by objects “lost” by present-day people, objects that form assemblages found in charity shops. This is what I call my “99p archaeology” project.

But “loss” can mean many things: there is the kind of loss that results from a hole in a pocket, a loss that we may not even be aware of until we mourn the absence of the coins or whatever that have vanished.

There is the accidental loss of things that we know have gone astray but which we are powerless or unwilling to retrieve, such as objects that have fallen into the privy, or the phone that slipped through our fingers and into the sea.

We lose people, through death or migration, through conflict or just neglect. We lose status, face, jobs, time, sometimes memories, or unfortunately occasionally an organ or a limb.

Lost and Found is a collaborative project ┬áinvolving a small group of MIRIAD researchers. On-going, it will eventually result in some sort of publication, or publications, and includes a changing exhibition located on the first floor of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Righton building.

The first objects I have added to the Lost and Found project first lost their function because the structure of which they were a vital moving part was abandoned. The objects were already hidden below the waterline and had simply vanished from the collective consciousness. No-one regretted their loss or even thought about them momentarily because they had become instantly valueless an instant after they were last used.

80 or so years later, the objects, which had been dredged, bent and decayed, from their muddy hiding place as part of a restoration project and cast aside as useless, are once again valued, if only by me, as examples of a long-redundant technology, as “ancient” artefacts, as a celebration of the achievements of long-dead canal builders and those who maintained the waterways, and as aesthetically interesting if not particularly attractive “found art.” As chunks of rotten wood and rusty iron they are of course perhaps without value to anyone else except perhaps as a conversation piece, or mysteries…

Now they rest beneath glass, instantly transformed by the closure of the display case lid from casually discarded and unappreciated junk to something else – artefacts, art (?), specimens, exhibits. Next to the, a printed label underlines their newly acquired status.

Of course the objects themselves haven’t changed, merely my/our interpretation of them and the messages they communicate about form and function and value. But perhaps I’m wrong. The objects have changed. They now mean something that they didn’t when rotting unnoticed in the grass. Or perhaps they have achieved a potential (to be exhibits etc) that they possessed but were unable to express until they established a relationship with me. That relationship depended on their being attractive (as in attracting my attention) and interesting (as opposed to the natural vegetation around them) enough to engage my agency and reward my making the effort to retrieve them, carry them home and then to share them. They might be said to have solicited my involvement.

Again, if I had been anyone else, someone without the various buttons that the objects pressed, I would have ignored or not even noticed them unless they tripped me up as I passed. But even if unnoticed, the paddles still possessed a whole range of potential messages. They almost certainly still do. The species of wood or composition of the iron, their design when compared with other paddles. Perhaps in another century or so, so far unthought of technologies will release much more meaning from these objects, at present locked away in their atoms and molecules. Just as the long-dead Welshmen who made them never for a moment thought that the prosaic objects they made would one day rest in a glass case in Manchester. What is exciting, in a fanciful material culture sort of way, is that they will never be the same, and neither, by association, will those anonymous canal men.