Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble
© 2014 Marilyn Johnson
Archaeology’s blend of history and science, topped off with a bit of danger, is a winsome combination. For those curious about it, Marilyn Johnson’s account of her time spent with field archaeologists — investigating the past in places as diverse as the Caribbean, the World Trade Center underground, and New York fields that bear the revolutionary war dead — is all kinds of fascinating fun. Johnson’s style is a bit like Mary Roach’s, but with less toilet humor. Although it’s not a comprehensive treatment of archaeology, it communicates the field’s unique appeal, challenges, and dangers in a highly readable fashion.
Although I would have read this for the subject alone, I was immediately taken in by the author’s humor and personal dedication to her subject. When visiting archaeologists studying various hominids scattered throughout Eurasia, for instance, she tries her hand at flint knapping — and even helps butcher a lamb, being tutored in the finer points of extracting the best cuts of meat while not being butchered herself by the beast’s bones. The scientists she works with are a varied lot, men and women, and their particular objects of interest range from ancient beer to undocumented burial grounds. What unites them is their passion for understanding the past, and rescuing it from being destroyed completely by the passage of time — either by nature, or by humans who never saw a pastoral scene they thought couldn’t be improved by a strip mall and a parking lot big enough to land a Cessna on. That passion has to motivate them, because most of the scientists Johnson works with are paid worse than teachers or librarians — and that’s interesting, given that their work often puts them into harsh, dangerous, and isolated conditions. There are the perks, though: archaeologists are at the forefront of human history; a day’s work might render textbooks obsolete, and those harsh conditions offer beauty in equal measure to their perils.
I found Lives in Ruins to be a delight to consider and read, with all kinds of little attractions — Johnson’s immersion in the field, practicing archaeology along with her subjects, and her inclusion of pop culture topics, like the discussion of Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. It’s breezy, but there’s substance here for the casual reader, and it’s just fun. Johnson has evidently done other books on librarians and….obituary-writers, so she has a unique interest in those who work to understand and protect the past.