Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: Sorting through life's artifacts


I'm starting an archeological expedition to the bedroom back at the house I grew up in. I won't be able to count on my old room as a free storage space forever, so it's time to start sorting through it all with a brush and trowel, looking for buried treasures amidst three decades worth of detritus. For years now, it's been a repository of all the things that I couldn't bear to part with, but that I didn't really need cluttering up my apartment.

Now I have to go through and make some tough decisions on what is a priceless artifact of my youth and what I'm kidding myself on the continued necessity of. I have to decide which of the books I haven't managed to read in 10 years I'm ever going to realistically get to, as well as which books I have already read that I actually need to hold on to for the rest of my life. A select few items will go into my storage unit if I can convince myself I will eventually have the time and space needed to use them again, but at some point there will have to be hard decisions. I'll need to treat the project with the ruthlessness of cleaning out the fridge. Sure that salsa may still technically be good, but I know I'm not going to get around to eating it before it goes, so I might as well free up the space.

The hardest part, though, isn't the practical things; it's the ones that were never useful to begin with. The tchotchkes and baubles that fill draws and line shelves never actually did anything and never will, but somehow that makes them harder to get rid of. How can I get rid of a little glass dolphin figure that's sat on my childhood desk for 20 years? No, seriously, how do you get rid of something like that? Will the Salvation Army even take something like that? Can it be recycled? Do you just give it to a local theater company for future Tennessee Williams festivals?

Something that doesn't get talked about a lot in archeology is that there are far more fossils and artifacts out there than all the museums in the world combined could ever hold. While the more intact T-Rex skulls and caryatid columns end up on display, the less dramatic things like fossils of ferns and Assyrian oil burners don't make the cut. A lot of them end up for sale online or in curio shops. Across the street from the British Museum is a store that has buckets of coins and rings and vases from ancient Rome, Greece, and China available for anyone who wants a slightly more "air-quotes" authentic souvenir than the ones in the museum shop. Sure, some of it might be fake but given that a fossil of a crustacean that predates the dinosaurs goes for about $4, the cost of forgery outweighs the returns for all but the biggest ticket purchases.

On the one hand, the relics of ancient cultures are a priceless treasure that should be preserved as best we can. On the other, we shouldn't fetishize the past by building a museum around every trinket that came out of a gumball machine in the Roman forum (gumball machines are probably bound for museums themselves soon). The other, other hand would interject to make a point about who exactly gets to profit from the sales of antiquities, regardless of how small, but that's a topic for another day. The first two hands would then be briefly sidetracked while figuring out where that last hand came from.

The longer an object sits around, the more emotional inertia it gains, until it's impossible to get rid of. Every house has something in it, some painting or paperweight or weird little figurine, that can't be gotten rid of. It's there because it was always there. I'm sure that was just as true during the Han dynasty.

And perhaps, if someday Mount Greylock erupts in a Plinian eruption that buries all of western Massachusetts in a few feet of volcanic ash, treasure hunters will come across my storage space, having left the larger and more impressive spaces for the legitimate archeologists. Perhaps they'll casually sort through the various knickknacks and discard most of them, before lumping the rest in a box that says "Twenty First Century New England Christmas Ornaments: Buy 2 Get 1 Free." And 20 years after that, perhaps who ever bought them will find himself wondering what it is he'll do with all these trinkets and if perhaps some should go into storage.


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