Research Notes · 12/22/2012

Recapture & Other Stories

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Erica Olson writes about her collection Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press).

Recapture’s Artifacts

“All over Utah, the pots were unburying themselves.” This line is from “Everything Is Red,” one of the stories in my collection of short fiction, Recapture & Other Stories. In the story, the line is an ironic reflection on the activity of both archaeologists and pothunters. Those artifacts — they just keep showing up! In the Four Corners area, where I live and where many of my stories are set, unburying is also a statement of fact. It’s what happens when a heavy rain washes away the topmost layer of desert soil, exposing what’s been hidden under the surface.

Throughout my story collection, artifacts — from characters’ personal keepsakes to prehistoric ceramic vessels — unbury themselves.

When I was putting the collection together, the prevalence of artifacts seemed like a flaw. Artifacts are things, points of stillness — the opposite of page-turning plot.

Now the book’s out in the world, and readers have compared it to a cabinet of curiosities and a living museum. The fictional artifacts, once my personal obsession, are on public view. As it turns out, they may be what holds the collection together. They embody Recapture’s themes of memory, authenticity, preservation, and restoration. They arise naturally from locations in the stories — the museums, parks, and public lands of the American West. And they provide occupation for my cast of characters, who include archaeologists, curators, hikers, and artifact thieves.

That said, I’ve decided to curate a small exhibition of the sort of artifacts I had in mind when researching and writing these stories.

[Edge of the Cedars visible storage, photo by Erica Olsen]

Whole vessels can be seen in visible storage at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, in the small town of Blanding in southeast Utah. These are the kinds of vessels in my stories. The pots are from the Ancestral Puebloan culture, formerly commonly known as Anasazi). In my story collection, the ceramic artifacts include:

— An illegally collected Mesa Verde bowl in “Reverse Archaeology”: “The pattern inside is an all-over spiral, black-on-white, a background of fine hatched lines. Below the rim, another curve intrudes, a bit of the pattern traveling on into space.”

— A black-and-white olla, or water jar, in a 1920s trading post in “Everything Is Red”: “It was something over a foot high and round as a pumpkin, but with a flaring neck wider than a pumpkin’s stem, and two tiny handles low on the sides. Except for a band of white from the base to the handles, it was painted all over with zigzag bands of black. Whoever made it, they’d had a steady hand.”

These two stories were first published in 2002 and 2004, when I was still living in San Francisco and before I started doing museum archives and curation work. I had been visiting and hiking the southeast Utah backcountry since 1993 and though I didn’t yet have a professional stake in museum cataloging, accurate description was important to me in my stories. In these early stories, my artifacts were influenced by descriptions and illustrations in Anasazi Pottery, a catalog of the personal collection of early 20th century archaeologist Earl Morris, by Robert H. Lister and Florence C. Lister (University of New Mexico Press, 1978).

About those two ceramic vessels in my stories — let’s just say they don’t end up in climate-controlled museum storage. When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for an introductory fiction workshop. The workshop instructor, Canadian author Kent Nussey, gave us some advice I still remember, including this tip about short-story composition: “Children and small animals are there for sacrificial purposes.” I’d say the same about artifacts.

On a more serious note, one of the earliest pieces of English literature, Beowulf, includes this passage describing artifacts in a burial mound:

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
by honourable men.”
~ Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 153

The passage is a striking tribute to the meaning of artifacts, which have their own life cycle and connect human beings to the earth.

[image of sherds, photo by Erica Olsen]

Back to “unburying.” The photo above shows a diverse range of sherds, including painted white and red ware, seen near a Pueblo III site (AD 1150 to 1300) on a recent hike in southeast Utah. (Look closely. Can you spot the mug handle?) The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the Antiquities Act of 1906 make it illegal to remove artifacts from federal public lands — laws that some of my fictional characters break.

People often believe that museums keep “the best stuff” stored in the basement. Blame Indiana Jones and that movie’s closing shot of a giant warehouse filled with boxes filled with implied treasure.

In fact, in a typical ceramics collection, potsherds outnumber whole vessels. Though not very interesting for exhibit purposes, these broken pieces of pottery can provide lots of useful information about archaeological sites, including the age of a site.

During my time working at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a Bureau of Land Management museum in Dolores, Colorado, I counted thousands of sherds as part of a collections inventory. Some of this experience found its way into “The Curation of Silence,” a story that’s partly about the erotics of public interest in archaeology, in attractions such as visible storage. The assistant in “The Curation of Silence” reflects on her workday routine, which is far from glamorous: “… sometimes the bags split when I picked them up, spilling sherds onto the tray — we used old school cafeteria trays to sort and count. This was necessary work: the preservation of the artifacts, rehousing them into new archival-quality bags and boxes, and the database updates that would let researchers access the collections. It was also dusty and tedious. Most of my sherds were gray ware, as ordinary as a sherd could be. There were other kinds of ceramics, red ware and white ware, but for some reason I got mostly gray …”

My work at the Anasazi Heritage Center also found its way into “Everywhen,” the tale of an archaeologist who encounters an unexpectedly preserved personal memento. Trying, and mostly failing, to deal with the emotional reality of this artifact, he falls back on familiar territory, his professional expertise: “The toothbrush in his hand had the proportions of a worked bone tool, a fine and slender type of awl, made from a mammalian long bone, commonly mule deer, split and shaped and smoothed.” You can see some of the awls I inventoried here.

I’ve come to see the artifacts in Recapture not only as items on display in museums or buried in the red dirt of Utah’s canyon country, but also as nonnegotiable pieces of reality in a fictional world. Artifacts cross genres. They occupy a space between fiction and nonfiction. People tell the truth about them, or they don’t. Projecting into the future, as in my heavily footnoted story “The Discovery of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park” — in which modern park infrastructure joins ancient cliff dwelling in the category of architectural artifact — who knows what stories will be told when we’re not around to tell them?

Now that it’s a published book, Recapture is an artifact itself, to be bought and sold, to be read (or not), to become dusty, dog-eared, fly-specked, wine- or coffee-stained, mildewed or sun-faded, cherished or given away, lost, and eventually forgotten.

Links to museums:


Erica Olsen uses the subjects of place, landscape, and history to write fiction that reflects on the relationship between nature and culture. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press, 2012). She lives in the Four Corners area, where she has worked as an archivist at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah, and as a museum technician at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colorado, both grant-funded positions supporting the preservation of archaeological collections.