Wednesday 22 April 2020

Earth Day; The Fragility of the Environments, natural and anthropogenic

Image copyright  DAN GIANNOPOULOS
The Coronavirus crisis seems likely to precipitate a whole load of future effects that we can only barely perceive at the moment. It is legitimate to wonder what traces it will leave in material culture, and in the archaeological record. One facet that people in the UK are noticing (satisfyingly, it is not something one sees at all on the streets and public places of Warsaw) are discarded disposable gloves on the street.

Photographer Dan Giannopoulos explains what drew him to start photographing the discarded plastic gloves he found on the street as the coronavirus began to affect the way of life in the UK.
These disposable gloves quickly came to represent the sheer scale of the public health crisis. The artefacts of the paranoia and panic that people are feeling under the immense pressure of this invisible killer.  These discarded gloves also represented, to me, our own virulent impact on the environment. If this small sample is anything to go by then there are hundreds of thousands of these gloves scattered across the empty public spaces of this country. The gloves had gathered in gutters, protruded from bushes and bins, were strewn on doorsteps and forced through wire fences. I couldn't walk more than a few metres without finding one. And over the course of the next four days I continued to go out for my permitted daily exercise and zigzagged through my neighbourhood again and again focusing each time on a different area. Covering a radius of less than a mile, I found in excess of 300 discarded gloves and masks.
At first sight, these plastic objects therefore would form a sort of a 'layer of 2020', an easily identifiable and dateable chronological marker like the Boudican burning in Roman cities, or WW2 rubble layers in modern ones.  But they will not. And this illustrates two things, the effect we are having on the world around us, the pernicious nature of the anthropocene - those gloves will end up blown by the winds, washed into the sea. When they tear and get abraded they will form part of an amorphous mass of microplastic. The other point is that they will not become buried by soil processes en masse where they were dropped. The majority of these gloves - if not cleaned up by urban cleanliness services or volunteers - will be buried in some other form. This illustrates for me how fragile the archaeological record it. Archaeologists of the future will find deposits of gloves and other 2020 waste, but nowhere near the amount that were originally lost or left on the ground surface.   And with time, redevelopment, changes in land use and so on, the number of those deposits that survive will decline. We should look after the precious traces that have survived to our times from the more distant past. They too have a story to tell.

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