Sunday, January 08, 2012

Cable ties, the taphonomy of plastics, and the modern world

Truly I need a new life.  I'm starting to notice cable ties everywhere.  I was waiting at a bus stop last week when I spotted a broken cable tie in the dirt, my eye now being attuned to the characteristic L-shape.  I picked it up and took it home (unlike other kinds of artefact, those of the contemporary past are usually "rubbish". There is no law against souveniring them).  I think there may have been a construction site nearby, but my memory is a little hazy on this point.
Image courtesy of 4Cabling

Examining this orphan cable tie was interesting.  The un-cut-off end suggested that it was a very long one indeed, but part of it was missing, as the stub was neither long enough or flexible enough to curve around to meet the opposing break. However, on the remaining length, there is no sign of a manufacturer's label or a patent number.  This suggests that it belongs to a later period where cable ties are a generic technology, rather than proprietary.

The wear on the cable tie suggested that it had been lying around for some time; they are pretty robust little beasties, after all.  I might interpret it as trampling wear, and abrasion from the stony/gravelly surfaces of the dirt and road where I found it. The flat surfaces are scratched and the smooth edges are roughened and squashed a little.  I don't recollect noticing this on the Orroral Valley cable ties, which were located in lovely soft sandy silt.  Clearly this is another feature that needs recording in future fieldwork.  This makes me think that it might be useful to examine a bit more closely the ways in which plastics deform and deteriorate. A taphonomy of plastics.

There's very little literature specifically about cable ties that I have been able to track down as yet, although I have no doubt that I shall find more once I get deeper into the technical journals. However, this is for me exactly the justification for taking an archaeological approach: the documents that tell the story of how they became such a ubiquitous feature of everyday life do not exist.  No-one is, for example, going on a hiking trip, or building a house, and choosing to focus on the role of cable ties in what they write or photograph about their activities.

They're not just a useful string or wire substitute though - artists and crafters are using cable ties to make all sorts of fabulous things.  That might have to be the subject of a separate post.

I'll be talking about cable ties at the workshop "That was then, this is now" in Sydney on the 16th-17th February. How they'll thank me!


  1. Their endless uses & beauty has kept me entertained for many an hour but never had I considered their historic being & transition. Thank you for the insight I look forward to more, more & more. x

  2. Really you can find cable ties every where and even as a part of our lives. They are not only used for one purpose but it seems people finding new ways for using these cables for various purposes.