Jason Sanford



Digging the Human Condition—Truths from an Out-of-Work Archeologist



Say you go to a job interview—like everyone these days, money is tight, so you apply for a part-time job selling life insurance to people who can barely afford food, let alone a future sense of security.

But still, you need the job. So you get all clean-cut and well-dressed and go to the insurance company's headquarters. The human resources flak who will interview you meets you at the receptionist's desk, where you exchange measured handshakes. You then follow her to a small office and sit across the desk from her.

She's friendly, smiling—her job, after all, is to get you to open up so she'll have a reason not to hire you.

She asks why you want to sell life insurance.

You say that you used to be an archeologist.

"You mean digging up dead people?" she asks, writing a little note on your application.

Yes. Burials. Bones. Decay and death.

"And that makes you want to sell life insurance?"

You say yes, yes it does. To explain further, you say that when you see a house, you instinctively know how the place will appear in a thousand years time, long after the bricks have crumbled and the wood decayed. When you meet a person for the first time, you know what their petite little bones will look like when one day their grave is dug up—the few scraps of blond hair clinging to the skull, the glossy sheen of the right and left femur.

The human resources flak bobs her petite blond head in horror.

"I'm sorry," she says, "Are you joking . . ."

No joke, you say. Life insurance and archeology are very similar. After all, locating long-lost burials has got to be the same as knowing which person wants to insure their life against unforeseen, untimely accidents.

When the woman's mouth drops—unable to come up with more questions—tell her about archeologist Loren Eiseley and his book All the Strange Hours. Tell how he describes discovering a cave that contained (and lower your voice while quoting these words), "A child's skeleton tenderly wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket and laid on a little frame of sticks in the dry, insulating dust."

Explain how Eiseley saw this grave as telling the story of the child's parents, who had intended their child to be secure for eternity. Instead, civilization encroached on the grave site and soon vandals or looters would destroy the burial.

Eiseley saw archeology as a trade off—do we wait for civilization to destroy our past or should archeologists like Eiseley disturb the past while also saving parts of it from destruction? Eiseley was happy with neither option.

The story of the little child's burial does not have a happy ending. Eiseley's expedition leader, a famous archeologist who is only interested in extremely ancient people, doesn't want anything to do with this far younger burial. The leader says they'll give the burial to the local museum, even though there is no local museum. This is merely his way to abandon the little child's grave because the child doesn't fit into the scientist's plan. Eiseley protests, but the expedition leader shuts him up by saying, "We don't want to bother with this stuff. Let the locals have it. We want to go deeper, much deeper."

"And did he?" the human resources flak asks in a shaky voice. "Did he go deeper?"

No.

Tell her that this happens every day—the loss of amazing links to our shared past because no one thinks the links are worth saving. Like this very office. In a thousand years all of this—the plastic plant in the corner, the fluorescent lights, the non-snag beige carpet—will be considered priceless artifacts. Future people will be dying to visit 21st-century offices, just as people today wish they could stand in ancient Rome or see the pyramids being built.

Humans only are interested in what no longer exists.

The human resources flak begins to recover. Glares at you. Asks, "Would knowing archeology help you sell our life insurance?"

Of course, you say. What people want most in life is insurance against realizing that one day they'll be dead.

The human resources flak stands up. Thanks you for coming in. Doesn't even bother with, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

As you walk out the door, don't worry about not getting the stupid job. Rejection comes often to unemployed archeologists.

After all, how many jobs really want someone digging down to any unsettling truths?

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Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth. Read more of his essays here.