A Little Big History of Shipping Containers

What happens to industrial artifacts over the longue durée?

Shipping containers are one of the pervasive facts of contemporary global commerce and shipping. Since their introduction in 1956, and the adoption of an international industry standard for the corner fitting and twist lock hardware in 1965, the use of inter-modal shipping containers has steadily grown. (They are called “inter-modal” because they can be transported by road, rail, or ship, i.e., different modes of transportation.) There are an estimated 20 million shipping containers in use today.

The origin of the shipping contain revolution is described in the opening paragraph of Marc Levinson’s book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger:

Now ships purpose-built to haul shipping containers may carry 20,000 TEU (“twenty-foot equivalent unit”) stacked up to seven containers high. With so many ships hauling so many shipping containers stacked so high and exposed to the treacherous weather and currents of the oceans, accidents are going to happen. Sometimes shipping containers fall off ships in storms and accidents, and sometimes ships break up and are lost with all their containers. In the immediate aftermath of an accident involving a lost shipping container I expect that there are many standard forms to complete in order to file an insurance claim, and the human, all-too-human business of everyday life goes on. But for those shipping containers that fall into deep waters, time virtually comes to a standstill.

The shipping containers at the bottom of the world’s oceans are unintentional time capsules, conveniently sealed and containerized, that future archaeologists will be able to use to study and document commerce from the mid-twentieth century until as long as these containers are used. Fortunately, most shipping containers are numbered or otherwise labeled, so that in many cases it will be possible to trace a shipping container to its origins. This is similar to the case of lost ships and submarines, most of which have readily identifiable markings, so that the identification of a ship of recent vintage is usually a straight-forward matter. But records get lost and misplaced and damaged by water and fire, so that our records of shipping containers are likely to be far from exhaustive.

In the short term, individual shipping containers lost underwater will become places for marine animals to attach themselves, as described in Containers lost at sea! Why it happens and what to do when it happens… (scroll to the bottom of the page for the marine biology part of the article). They will be an opportunity for marine life and a curiosity for divers or others exploring the ocean floor. At some point, that curiosity will become scientific curiosity as the containers and their contents are viewed as part of the historical record.

It is easy to imagine archaeologists of the 22nd or 23rd or 24th centuries and so on either purposefully excavating shipping containers, or, when one is found by chance as a result of some search in the oceans, returning to it with the gear necessary to raise it up out of the water like some latter-day Vasa warship. Some will be intact. Some will have spilled their contents on the sea floor. There will be ways for future archaeologists to accommodate all these contingencies. Eventually there may be a subdivision of underwater archaeology that specializes in shipping containers; eventually someone will write the standard scholarly work on shipping container archaeology.

For the next several hundred years, perhaps even for the next several thousand years, archaeologists will know that date at which shipping containers came into use, and will be able to date a layer of sediments by whether or not they include shipping containers. If they have a copy of Levinson’s book, and subsequent books written about shipping containers, they will know a great deal about the development of shipping containers, and they will be able to use this knowledge to re-construct their finds. And there will be a time when shipping containers pass out of use, much as amphorae are no longer used to transport oil and wine, so that there will be a Shipping Container Era that comprises that period from their initial use to their final use.

Much later, long after the history of our time has passed out of memory, the Shipping Container Era will be identified and used to date other artifacts that date to the Shipping Container Era. It is not coincidental that the baseline date employed for nuclear dating techniques (01 January 1950 is the “present” for all radiocarbon dating, so that some year given as BP, i.e., Before Present, is before 1950 — one could say that 01 January 1950 is the calendar epoch of scientific historiography) is so close in time to the introduction of the shipping container — a planetary-scale civilization seeks standardization in both science and in commerce, and both of these initially came to a head in the middle of the twentieth century.

Over biological time, some of these containers will be entirely overgrown by the marine life that they host. If they are sufficiently close to the surface they will become a kind of artificial reef, especially if several shipping containers are dropped in one spot in shallow waters. And, as the planet warms and the ice melts, areas that are now deep waters will eventually become shallow waters, and containers once secreted in the dark depths will come to host ocean life in their turn as sunlight reaches down to their depth. Most containers will decay over biological time from the combined effects of rust and being overgrown with life.

Over geological time, most lost shipping containers that have survived over biological time will decay or be destroyed, but a few will come to rest in deep, dark, cold, anoxic waters, be covered over with silt, and eventually enter into the geological record. Microscopic particles will find their way inside the container, and over the ages the contents will be entombed in mud that will eventually solidify into sedimentary rock. These containers will survive, embedded in the sea floor, even after an expanding sun has boiled away Earth’s oceans. While plate tectonics continues to reconfigure the face of the planet, some of these buried shipping containers in subduction zones will be forced down into the mantle and what remain of them will be melted by the magma and no sign whatsoever will remain of them.

Over cosmological time, some few remaining lost shipping containers embedded in geological formations will be raised up, and, if there is an atmosphere and weather to facilitate erosion, will come to be exposed in a cliff face, like the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterosaur skeletons of Lyme Regis along the Jurassic Coast. But it will not be Mary Anning chancing along to chisel the container out of its formation, but perhaps a geologist or archaeologist that has never seen a human being and knows nothing at all of our history.

Such a find might be the first trace of humanity glimpsed by some traveler from a distant world, and might also be the only trace that we leave upon the universe. If the traveler is curious, it may seek to reconstruct our civilization entire from this fragment of our industry — as paleontologists once said, “Show me the bone, and I will describe the animal!” our alien archaeologist might say, “Show me the artifact, and I will describe the civilization!”

One Man Think Tank

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