Lost matters

“The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.” ~ Mark Russell

An image of a stuffed toy rabbit lying next to a lamp-post

The terms ‘lost’, ‘mislaid’ and ‘abandoned’ refer to categories of movable personal property that have left the possession of the legal owner without entering the possession of another party. The difference in term partly reflects the intentions and actions of the legal owner and the circumstances in which the object was found by another party. Under English Property Law, the owner retains entitlement to mislaid goods  (over-ruling the notion behind the sing-song rhyme ‘Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers’) while the finder can keep abandoned goods. Meanwhile, if someone finds lost items the owner retains entitlement.

However, these rules may be subject to jurisdiction by a court of law and are not always so clear in practice. A wallet found on the pavement of a city street is likely to be lost. However, personal property can be found in a wide-variety of diverse situations. Some examples of footwear I’ve seen and photographed include a good pair of brown leather boots lying under a tree in north London and a single shoe next to an ice-cream stand in Swanage: abandoned property I think. I ‘lost’ a shoe at Brighton train station when it slipped off and fell onto the tracks as I boarded a packed train. Half-shod I walked home in the rain that night before retrieving the shoe the next day (the member of staff at the station that switched off the electricity to retrieve the shoe recalled other items dropped onto the tracks over the years).

2013-04-18 15.02.44I have a perambulatory hobby that involves looking out for lost objects in public spaces. I photograph the object and post the best images on a Tumblr blog. The smallest object I’ve spotted is a safety pin on a street near Springfield Park in London, the largest a hub cap in Chingford. I see items of clothing picked up and hung out of the way of dirt and feet. These items, temporarily curated by pedestrians, are clean and recently dropped while older items covered in street grime are left for the street cleaner. No one picks up dirty lost objects (except perhaps SOCOs, street cleaning operatives and archaeologists).

My interest in lost objects is archaeological and I like to walk. The matter of archaeology – from prehistory to the modern era – is closely concerned with loss and this is reflected by archaeological terminology, for instance, the ‘structured deposition’ of a pottery within a Neolithic ditch or the ‘casual loss’ of a medieval finger-ring (search for examples of the latter on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database). I wonder if the objects I see were lost, abandoned or mislaid. As archaeologists, we question the intention behind the ‘separation event’ by studying the context of the find, associated finds, and comparanda, however, the circumstance of deposition can be debated as we are dealing with partial evidence and alienation from the owners and objects’ contemporary culture.

On my walks I have an advantage. I see familiar objects in familiar cultural contexts. But sometimes I can’t tell how the object came to be separated from its owner. What happened in the minutes and seconds before it was dropped onto the street? I returned for my shoe but does anyone miss a lost safety pin? So small a street-cleaner may not notice it (but a magpie could). Strangers’ objects on city streets / my shoe on the train track / archaeological objects that belonged to the once living but now long dead: common threads of loss, mislaid objects, hideaways and abandonment runs through human-object relations. But memento mori – be ready to let it all things go: we will lose our objects and they, one day, will lose us.


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