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I was describing this story to a co-worker today, but I couldn't recall the title. Probably something I read in the 1990s; I was thinking Zahn, but I flipped through his collections and I couldn't find it.

The story starts out with a group, maybe from a university, doing an archeological dig in a modern dump. There are some odd events; bureaucratic headaches, some random sabotage but they dig down through the 1970s and 1960s.

Sometime in the post-war strata they find a skeleton. They figure it's a result of a crime, turn it over to the police and move the dig slightly away. Now efforts to stop the dig really ramp up - and then they find a new skeleton. This time they expand the trench and find more skeletons, all at the same level.

At this point it becomes apparent that it is primarily older people, in their 60s and 70s, who are trying to stop the dig.

The dig becomes a cause célèbre among the young and dozens, then hundreds, of volunteers show up. They clear the entire dump down to the same level and reveal thousands and thousands of skeletons, all laid out as though the entire city's population were killed at the same time.

Someone notices that the skulls of the skeletons are not quite identical to modern human skulls, and the implication is made that the entire existing "human" race are pod people who replaced the actual human race.

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    Sounds like something from SCP. Jul 12, 2022 at 8:25

1 Answer 1

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This is "Detritus Affected" (1993) by David Brin, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1993 and collected in Otherness. It can be read at the Internet Archive.

The story starts out with a group, maybe from a university, doing an archeological dig in a modern dump

Yet each evening, when the day's work is done, I climb out of our trench to look across the vast expanse that is Hyperion, and am consoled. Our trench is just fifty meters by fourteen, while the landfill stretches far away in all directions.

Mile after mile of garbage. The largest midden—the largest single thing—ever built by human civilization. Bigger, by volume, than even China's Great Wall.

[...]

Meanwhile Leslie surveys dietary patterns of Angelenos past. When we penetrated beyond the era of microwave ovens, he found a sudden shift in the packaging poisons found in ready-to-heat food residue. The Department of Urban Pathology at UCLA has expressed keen interest in this work.

Zola chose to study the "replacement threshold" . . . at which point it used to be more price effective to throw out a machine than repair it. Nothing better typifies the subject era than the sight of countless appliances—from TVs to dishwashers to stereos—all tossed because newer, better models cost less than a technician might charge to find a burned transistor.

Keoki pays the freight, testing rich veins of complex organics and heavy metals for our industrial sponsor. It's a long shot, but if the assay proves out, Fabrique Chang may bid to come mine Hyperion. One generation's junk can be the next's mother lode.

There are some odd events; bureaucratic headaches

Never have I faced so much political aggravation on a dig! Each day some old fart bureaucrat comes on-site, scratching his head and muttering confused objections. Even the infamous red tape of India pales in comparison.

It's been much the same with the press. One curmudgeon city editor had it in for us from the moment our department got this grant. Tried angling stories about disease germs

Sometime in the post-war strata they find a skeleton.

Zola found the bones down at South-22, a neat row of ribs sticking through a pile of dingy rags. At first we thought it was a pet, some large dog. On realizing they were human, we had no choice but to report it. We're digging in strata from A.D. 1958, after all.

move the dig slightly away

This morning the lieutenant overruled her gruff sergeant to let us resume work at the north end

Now efforts to stop the dig really ramp up

That didn't keep some of the police brass from trying to shut us down.

The day after work resumed, I found a strange note in my mailbox. Scrawled on real paper in a thin, cramped style, it simply read—LEAVE IT BE!

and then they find a new skeleton.

Today's big discovery—this time at South-31—four more sets of bones.

This time they expand the trench

Tomorrow we start lateral holes, expanding the trench in case one or two more bodies might lie buried nearby.

and find more skeletons, all at the same level.

Zola was in tears when she reported finding the child. A five-year-old, judging from the little bones. This time the clothing was well preserved. A pink and blue print dress. We all stared as Keoki and a police pathologist worked. That was when we realized this was no gangland dumping ground.

Half an hour later Leslie gave a shout. He had found another pair of skeletons. Then, suddenly, it seemed diggers were yelling from all sides.

At this point it becomes apparent that it is primarily older people, in their 60s and 70s, who are trying to stop the dig.

Today, while yellow machines peeled away detritus for a bigger trench, lawyers arrived with injunctions to halt the desecration of graves! Turns out they were fronting for the same bunch of retirees who tried to stop us earlier.

Here I'd been expecting some cabal of fundamentalist loonies to be behind the threats and vandalism against my people. But in each case it's been individual action by someone they knew. No visible connection between the perpetrators, except their advanced age.

The dig becomes a cause célèbre among the young and dozens, then hundreds, of volunteers show up.

Sometimes it seems half the population under fifty must be here, assisting with the excavation, browsing through the detritus, carting things away.

They clear the entire dump down to the same level and reveal thousands and thousands of skeletons, all laid out as though the entire city's population were killed at the same time.

We ignore them and dig on, uncovering layer after layer of the dead.

A million skeletons so far, with no end in sight.

Someone notices that the skulls of the skeletons are not quite identical to modern human skulls

Zola claims that the skulls are different from ours. She points to a slight, statistical difference in the shape of the occipital lobe.

"They were more like Neanderthals than we are," she says, with the eagerness of a proselyte. "They would have been more intuitive, more empathic beings...."

the implication is made that the entire existing "human" race are pod people who replaced the actual human race.

That we're invaders.

That the true, rightful denizens of L.A. lie buried where our grandparents put them, after slaying them, one by one. In the course of taking over their city, their lives.

In the end only the bones remain:

Picked clean, it holds a certain sterile beauty. A valley of bare, trampled clay between steep hills. Bare clay covered with four million skeletons, the only man-made things now left behind.

It makes a pretty scene—Hyperion Boneyard. Peaceful.

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    Since the other answer is not accepted, this should have a complete answer. I guess I'll have to do it myself.
    – DavidW
    Jul 13, 2022 at 3:22
  • Thank you for all the extra details
    – Andrew
    Jul 13, 2022 at 9:57

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