Amateur Archaeology: From Bone Yards to Writing Desks

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

Growing up in West Texas, I figured out pretty fast that the ranchers and farmers, they’d always have a certain part of some pasture where they would shoot the animals of theirs that needed to be put down, where they’d drag their cows and horses after they’d wondered out into the road, got hit.

I would spend hours crawling through those corpses. I had cigar boxes where I’d keep collections of all the elbow callouses I’d peeled up, that felt like shallow little stone cups. For a while I had a jar filled with what I’d convinced myself was the shiny disc that made cows’ eyes flash green in headlights.

It wasn’t biology or anything forensic that interested me. What interested me was pretending this was all much older. Pretending this was ancient.

Another thing I’d figured out, it was that if I could find the old footprint of a house way out in the mesquite, some place people had lived eighty or a hundred years ago, then I could walk in circles around it and jab a piece of rebar down through the crust of the dirt every few feet, wait for that deep-down dirt to be black on the rebar. That meant burn. That meant burn pile. That meant this had been the trash, a century ago.

I would peel through that midden spoonful by spoonful, and come home with all these neat old bottles, all these rusted tools I wasn’t even sure how to hold, much less what they might have been for.

A few years later—say, fourteen, fifteen years old—I got transfixed by that transformation scene in the movie Altered States, where William Hurt’s character regresses into his own genetic prehistory and becomes something vaguely, wonderfully australopithecine.

This made my heart pound against the wall of my chest.

Then, like it was meant to be, I stumbled into the 1987 anthology Neanderthals, the sixth installment in Isaac Asimov’s Wonderful World of Science Fiction series. And wonderful it was. The last story is Philip José Farmer’s the “The Alley Man,” which suggested that maybe all the Neandertals hadn’t died off, which was the best secret ever.

I read this anthology front to back and over again, and came to know that all these stories were both true and written specifically for me.

Then, looking for More Like This, I found William Golding’s The Inheritors, where, instead of rendering Neandertals as dim witted hunched over almost-humans, he gives them dignity, and curiosity, and these complicated longing and suspicions.

Four years later I’m eighteen, and—big surprise—carrying something of a torch for proto-humans, one I was certain was going to light up the dawn of man in a completely new and better way. I could figure out all the steps and developments everyone else kept missing, I knew.

Where to shine that torch, though, right? Thanks to alternative school I had a diploma, but I had zero plans for any more schooling—you don’t need college to drive tractor, which was was what I had in mind. But then, because I wanted to get a date with a girl who needed a ride to the SATs, I ended up enrolled in college.

The first big thing to happen there was I took a beginning philosophy course, that showed me there was a world where the kind of thinking I liked to do didn’t make me a weirdo. The second big thing was I took an archaeology course. You mean I could get course credit for reading about what I wanted to be reading about anyway? I was that girl in Indiana Jones’s classroom with love you painted on her eyelids, yes.

A couple weeks into that archaeology course, though, the prof doddered into class, regarded us all, and shrugged, said he was sorry if any of us were wanting to get our hands dirty, because the only digging left to do in archaeology was in museums drawers.

So I became a philosophy major.

My heart, though, it stayed in the trash middens, in the bone yards, in the goings-on I could imagine from all these things left behind.

And that’s still where my heart is.

What I most love to think on and read about and dream towards, what I spend my free time chasing down as best I can, it’s our hominid ancestors, our human precursors, ourselves before we had a sense of self. My first novel, even, my big plan was for it to be a series of long answering machine messages from an uncle to a nephew, theorizing why we ever stood up on two feet. And what we could see from that new vantage point.

I don’t go on digs, no—I don’t have the training, and don’t get any invites either—and I don’t sift museum collections, but I do page through everything I can find, certain that I’m going to make some vital connection no one else has made yet, one that shakes the family tree, makes it all make sense. Just, I also know I don’t really have the science to be anything, finally, but an enthusiast.

That’s never stopped a dreamer, though.

And, some days, I even want to thank that archaeology prof who scared me away from his field.

If not for him, I never write fiction.

That next semester after I signed on with the Humanities way of learning, I stumbled into writing stories. And, what I found, what I never would have guessed, it’s that the way of thinking I’d been engaging for so long, that I had to apply to try to figure out what this rusted tool was, that was exactly the kind of imagination I needed in order to make characters and plots come together on the page in a real way.

To me, that’s what fiction is: a cigar box rattling with artifacts.

My job as a writer, it’s to hold each of those objects up, inspect them from every side, then lay them out with the other objects, and see the story that brings them all together, the story that’s right there, waiting to be told.

I’m still that kid walking the pasture for the people who used to live there, the people who came before.

Only, now, with my pen, I can make them real.

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of 22 or 23 books, 250+ stories, and all this stuff here. His horror novella, Mapping the Interior, is available June 20th from Tor.com Publishing. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and has a few broken-down old trucks, one PhD, and way too many boots.

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