Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

This charming, accessible tribute to archeologists and their work will both entertain and educate a wide range of readers.


Marilyn Johnson, who celebrated librarians in This Book Is Overdue! and obituary writers in The Dead Beat, here turns her attention to another underappreciated profession. She had long been captivated by the idea of digging in the dirt and bringing up treasure in the form of human history, and was awed by the men and women who do that work. Archeologists are plagued by low pay, scant job security and the pressures of a world that values many things–real estate, the pace of progress or simply the future over the past–more than it values potsherds and human remains. With Lives in Ruins, Johnson pays homage to and learns about these individuals and their often-dirty, often-uncomfortable, always-intriguing work.

In pursuit of archeology’s magic, romance, filth and smells, Johnson enrolls in several different field schools, working as an archeologist-in-training (with varying degrees of success). She attends conferences and travels to notable sites ranging from Peru’s famous Machu Picchu to the almost unknown, but historically indispensable, Fishkill Supply Depot in New York. She learns techniques and technologies, views artifacts and absorbs history, but her most important work comes when she meets archeologists. They are tough, intelligent, deeply committed people; they are “cultural chameleons” who work in dust and grit and heat and are also capable of attending formal affairs to advocate passionately for preservation. (One is a woman who cleans houses for the wealthy to support her nonprofit organization, and appears at fancy balls in the same upper-crust circles.) When archeologists and the U.S. military team up to defend cultural heritage from the violence of war, Johnson comments on the intersection of two “cautious, even paranoid professions.” She meets a young woman who sifted through New York City’s topsoil and sewage in the years after 9/11, and another who teaches forensic archeology using the carcasses of farm animals as stand-ins for human murder victims. She also investigates classical and prehistoric digs around the world.

Lives in Ruins will captivate a variety of readers: those who, like Johnson, dreamed of being archeologists; fans of history, anthropology or odd jobs; and people who respect the past and have an interest in preserving it. Johnson is merrily self-deprecating and funny in her anecdotes of the personalities she encounters, but also absolutely serious about the importance of their work. We are all the richer for Johnson’s eloquent ode to this dirty job.

This review originally ran in the November 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 sherds.

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