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.