Today’s assignment—brushing diluted adhesive across tiny field specimen numbers to seal the numbers inked onto hundreds of sherds—is Zen-like in its tedium. Hours pass, marked by the transfer of pieces, one by one, from mesh tray to aluminum, as the empty baker’s rack is slowly filled. My time to think, I tell my friends. But really, I love the work because it requires just enough focus so that I can’t think. I can’t think about my mother, who is dying slowly and furiously.  My grief is an unpacked box of sharp pieces stacked in a dark storeroom, while I lug around a catalogue of unfinished business. It will take ten years to process it all.

 –from “The Pit and the Page” in Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Homeby Elizabeth Mosier (New Rivers Press)

As a volunteer technician at the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory in Philadelphia, I got to practice looking closely at small things, and looking beneath the surface of the city I knew mostly by its buildings, monuments, and celebrated citizens. Though I’m not an archaeologist, it turns out that two writing-related skills I possess—patience and nearsightedness—were exactly what was required.

Washing, labeling, mending, and cataloguing a colonial neighborhood’s glass fragments and ceramic sherds trained me to see broken, discarded things as material evidence—of social class, consumer patterns, cultural practices, politics, and relationships. I became more conscious of how we construct reality, create history, from pieces we’ve saved by choice or accident.

I learned from the real archaeologists that the treasure isn’t the artifact, but the information gleaned from it. And after working 1,000 hours at the lab, I viewed my own material through this new lens. I saw that writing is like repairing a broken bottle from the base up, and then taking it apart again to fashion a story from what you’ve found.

But the dig became meaningful to me in other ways, too. My time at the lab coincided with my mother’s mental decline, due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life, and yet I was too distracted and distraught to write. Studying objects closely connected my mind to my senses, and therefore to my body, and thereby to my emotions. Processing artifacts allowed me to process my grief.

And so my book began to take shape as I recorded details and observations about the lab in my journal and in short blog posts. Four years in, I put these brief pieces together in “The Pit and the Page.” As I wrote:

At the lab, I work through the mountain one molehill at a time. As I work, I think about life’s lost objects and found wisdom, about the mysterious ways memory serves and finally fails us, about the fragments that float to the surface or fall through the screen. I think about how the words we choose to tell a story enclose and connect our unfinished business and unsettled feelings just as tangibly as a building’s bricks and mortar do.    

The past ten years have been a long process of recovery. My book is an artifact, forming the record of my midlife reconstitution in the wake of loss.

If you’re struggling to make meaning from a painful experience, try this writing prompt: “Reading” personal artifacts, as an archaeologist does, may help you find an indirect way to engage with  traumatic material. Choose an object that is important to you and in some way related to your subject matter. Study your object closely, noting its material, design, production, use, social context—and any aspects of the object that intrigue you. Was/is this object used or retained for meaning’s sake? Does it offer a context clue to time or place? What memories do you have about this object? What stories about it have been conveyed to you?What does possessing/using this object tell us about the person who uses/used or possesses/possessed it?  How would you describe the object’s value? Reflect and research as necessary.

Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 hours processing colonial-era artifacts to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home(New Rivers Press). At the 2019 Philadelphia Writers Conference, she’ll lead a master class on how to incorporate material culture into the writing process, in order to expand and gain new perspective on literary material.