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Review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

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Highlights: Sections on ancient alcoholic beverages and the historical authenticity of Jean Auel’s books, plus a tour of Machu Picchu and a peek into the Explorers Club in Manhattan.
Synopsis: An off-beat journey through the world of contemporary archaeology: a nostalgic but not overly rosy view of a difficult profession. It’s not all about centuries-old history, though; it’s just as much about what we value today, and what we will commit to saving.



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Johnson captures perfectly both the cinematic allure and the mundane reality of archaeology. She highlights a great variety of aspects, including marine work, forensics, and war zone preservation.


Perhaps not enough detail about the painstaking, filthy day-to-day work of archaeologists. I also wish photographs had been included.

Posted November 17, 2014 by

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lives in ruinsBetween the ages of about eight and 15, I was adamant that I wanted to be either an archaeologist or a paleontologist when I grew up. I can date the latter ambition to the first Jurassic Park movie, which I saw in the theater when I was in third grade; the former is a bit more challenging to trace, but may have something to do with the hours my first best friend and I spent “excavating” behind the shed in her backyard. With our hand trowels we unearthed ceramic fragments and seemingly endless oyster shells. I doubt any of it was worth anything, or proof of any kind of interesting history on this plot of land. It was most likely just a 1950s suburban trash dump. Still, I felt like Indiana Jones discovering buried treasure.

When I was 15, I finally had the chance to do some real archaeology, through a University of Maryland summer field school. Five of us eager high school students won places through an essay contest to participate in the college kids’ dig behind a Colonial-era home in Annapolis. A classmate and I carpooled every day for those two weeks, our moms taking turns driving us in to the historic town center, where we split our time between field work and lab work.

I wish I could say the field school was inspiring, but if anything it convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for archaeology. It was a dripping hot Maryland August, and our work was painstaking and filthy. Outsiders probably don’t realize that you work literally centimeter by centimeter, and spend proportionally more time taking notes and making sketches than you do digging. Finds are few and far between, and usually not very exciting; the highlights of the whole time were an animal tooth and a few shards of blue pottery. It was hard to gauge our contribution to the overall goal of finding traces of the home’s formal garden. I finished the two weeks feeling glad of the experience, but disillusioned with my erstwhile life goal.

All the same, I’ve never quite shaken off my interest in archaeology—despite an introductory college course that bored me to tears (and lowered my grade point average). It turns out I wasn’t actually that compelled by soil layers and evidence of early farming and animal domestication. I couldn’t see the rare delight of discovery past all the mundane, laborious realities of an archaeologist’s day job; I studied English and Religion instead, and became a freelance writer and book reviewer via multiple bookstore and library jobs.


Marilyn JohnsonApproaching journalist Marilyn Johnson’s third book, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, then, I hoped for an off-beat journey through the world of contemporary archaeology: a nostalgic but not overly rosy view of a difficult profession. I certainly was not disappointed. Johnson captures perfectly both the cinematic allure and the everyday drudgery of archaeologists’ work: “From a distance, this kind of work might seem to fit the Indiana Jones fantasy, full of treasure and danger. Up close, the glamour can be hard to detect. Archaeologists are explorers and adventurers—Hollywood got that part right—but not exactly in the way you’d think.”

From a position of almost total ignorance, Johnson went about educating herself through a whirlwind tour of as many different aspects of archaeology as possible. She attended two field schools, one on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, where she looked for remnants of Dutch plantations, and one at Yeronisos, off Cyprus, where Joan Connelly runs an ongoing dig searching for proof of a Greek priestess cult. The variety just in these two field experiences points to the difficulty of making generalizations about the career as a whole:

“Archaeology itself is not easy to navigate; it is a broad and complicated profession, and the archaeologists of the Old World (who study Iraq and the ancient civilizations of the East and Middle East, including classical Rome and Greece) tend to go to different conferences and read different journals than the archaeologists who work in the New World of the Americas.”

Yet Johnson was determined to get the whole picture. She learned about bog bodies, Native American methods of harvesting bone grease, forensic archaeology, and jade “pig dragon” sculptures from the Goddess Temple in northeastern China. At conferences she chatted with experts on ancient alcoholic beverages (Uncorking the Past by Patrick E. McGovern), debated the historical authenticity of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series (starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear), and toured Machu Picchu with UNESCO delegates in Peru. A female archaeologist also gave her a sneak peek into the Explorers Club in Manhattan—where women were only admitted in 1981!

Panorama of Machu Picchu. Photo by Martin St-Amant, via Wikimedia Commons.

Panorama of Machu Picchu. Photo by Martin St-Amant, via Wikimedia Commons.

Underwater archaeology is where it’s at nowadays, apparently, and in one of the key chapters of the book Kathy Abbass introduces Johnson to marine archaeology taking place in Newport, Rhode Island, a hotspot for Revolutionary War shipwrecks. Fishkill, New York also proved to be a surprisingly good Revolutionary-era site, with a soldiers’ graveyard that has more than once been under threat from developers.

The book is not all about centuries-old history, though. It’s just as much about what we value today, and what we will commit to saving. One of the most intriguing sections of the book is about modern war zones. A group of archaeologists had the brilliant idea of issuing American soldiers with playing cards featuring Iraqi and Afghan archaeological treasures. By collecting them all, and putting them together to form a bigger photo, they might absorb the message that they are in a land of ancient traditions with riches worth preserving. “These sites have survived thousands of years; will they survive you?” went the provocative slogan.

“Good archaeology fills in the blanks of history. It tells the losers’ story. It teases out the history that falls between cracks,” Connelly told Johnson. Sometimes, sadly, it seems archaeologists are the losers at risk of falling between the cracks. This year Forbes magazine named archaeology the #1 worst college major, “based on high initial unemployment rates and low initial earnings.” The husband-and-wife team with whom Johnson worked in the Caribbean struggled to find jobs when they moved to England. It took two years for Grant Gilmore to get a six-month contract, and two and a half years in total for him to get his dream job—a dispiriting 300 job applications later. Johnson sums it up with this sobering sentence: “Jo and Grant were in thrall to a profession that couldn’t sustain them.” Indeed, none of the archaeology graduates I know personally are working in their field.

But if Johnson paints an overall somewhat depressing picture of archaeology today—it’s a difficult field to break into or make a living from, and governments and ordinary people are not always supportive of digs that stand in the way of development—she makes a case for how relevant and essential the work still is. As she asked herself of one enthusiastic archaeologist she met while exploring Deadwood, South Dakota,

“What was archaeology to him? It was the opposite of killing things. It was trying to will life back into stuff that had been forgotten and buried for thousands or millions of years. It was not about shards and pieces of bone or treasure; it was about kneeling down in the elements, paying very close attention, and trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.”

Now that’s a noble aim.

I highly recommend this book, for armchair travelers and professionals alike.


Thank you to Harper for granting early access to the book via Edelweiss.

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.


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