WHEN you come upon something at random, you must assume that it is typical of its class. The reason is simple: there's lots of ordinary stuff, and not much special stuff, and if you find something at random, the odds are that it's toward the middle of the bell curve rather than out at the sparsely-populated ends. The two-million-year-old skeleton is probably neither larger nor smaller than ordinary, and is therefore representative of people of the time. The stone axe is like most other stone axes. The cave drawing is in the style of the day. The broken shard of pottery is like all the other pottery, differing in only the most minor particulars.

Things get lost and broken, used up and worn out and thrown away. People die and are buried along with things that meant something to them in life, or that mean something to those who outlive them. Time passes, and these ordinary things and ordinary people sometimes come to light. The reason that a broken piece of flint is interesting is because it's ancient, and because it's just about all we have to go on when trying to figure out who our ancestors were and what they did. But, it's just ordinary stuff, only real old.

Someday your skeleton or pocketknife or a button off your shirt may grace a musty display case, and our remote descendants will wonder, "Who was he? What did he think about? How did he use these implements?" And they'll get some of it right and much of it wrong, but they'll have to assume that you were just an ordinary Joe, and that this was typical of what humans carried about with them, and that your life was an ordinary life. And they'll be right. (March 28, 1997)