“Picking” by guest blogger Elizabeth Mosier

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Philadelphia’s Living History Archeology Lab, where I volunteer every other week, is a haven of unitasking.  I might be assigned to a six-hour session washing Colonial-era dishes or identifying leaded glass using an ultraviolet light or counting and cataloguing hundreds of pottery sherds.  There’s a meditative aspect to this work, especially the task called “picking”:  sorting through the remains of an Old City neighborhood to find the tiny artifacts – seeds and bones and beads – that have been sifted with water through a 1/8-inch screen.   

The goal is to work slowly and carefully, tackling no more than a quarter-sized pile.  First, I scrape the gravel across the tray with a tongue depressor, then separate the contents with a tweezer by type:  brick, mortar, bone, charcoal, flora (seeds), metal, misc. (buttons, beads, straight pins, teeth), insects, and oyster shell.  Focus – and nearsightedness – are the skills I call upon to hone in on a splinter of cream-colored egg shell, a transparent fish scale, the fibrous backside of what looks at first like charcoal but is actually a bit of burnt bone.   

Writers, too, are archaeologists: digging, processing, and repairing the relics of experience to find the meaning in it.  Memory is our medium for binding the human to the object, and as I work through the mountain one molehill at a time, I’m thinking about life’s lost objects and found wisdom, the mysterious ways memory serves and finally fails us, the fragments that float to the surface or fall through the screen.

From www.ElizabethMosier.com

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