I Know What You'll Look Like Dead--Confessions of an Out-of-Work Archeologist
Copyright © by Jason Sanford, 3/6/03
You go for a job interview--selling life insurance to people who can barely afford food, let alone a future sense of security. But you need the money. So when the human resources flak waves to come in, you walk over, 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 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 after a thousand years of decay. When you meet a person for the first time, you know what their petite little bones will look like when
they are dug up one day--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--horrified.
"I'm sorry," she says, "Are you joking . . ."
No joke, you say. Life insurance, archeology--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. How he describes discovering a cave that contained (and you 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. Vandals or pothunters wait to destroy the place. So it's a trade off--does we wait for civilization to destroy the grave or should archeologists like Eiseley disturb it while also saving it from destruction? Eiseley is happy with neither option.
But Eiseley's expedition leader, a famous archeologist who is only interested in truly 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, all the while knowing that there is no local museum and that this is merely an easy 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?"
This happens every day in archeology--the loss of amazing links to our shared past because no one thinks the links are worth saving. Links like this H.R. flak's 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 offices like this one, just as people today wish they could stand in ancient Rome or see the pyramids being built.
We 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. Knowledge is insurance against people realizing what they'll look like after they're 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, not many jobs actually want someone to digging down to any unsettling truths.
[Hear Jason Sanford read this essay on Omniversica's Show # 3, recorded 3/6/03]
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