Archeology and Archeologists; Continents: Various

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

  • Considering a career in archeology? Put this book on your summer reading list
  • 274 pages (240 without Acknowledgements, Index, Bibliography)

Someone says “archeologist” to you, and immediately Indiana Jones pops into your head. Author Marilyn Johnson tells us to adjust that mental image. Realistically, Indy needs to have no budget and a research interest so particular as to court eccentricity—not both the Ark of the Covenant and crystal skulls, in other words. More realistic Dr. Jones also faces the sort of obstacles where a whip is less helpful than you might think, like construction deadlines or the lack of suitable storage for found artifacts.

Johnson delivers a short, readable survey of the sort of work various kinds of real archeologists do when they are employed. Truly, she gives us the sense that the field’s few paid positions vary as widely as do human civilizations. She’s interviewed archeologists to who dive to find their interests underwater. She’s also interviewed people who focus on the history of Imperial Korea, tiny Caribbean islands or Revolutionary War-era New York. Not everyone works in academia, either: Johnson made a point of interviewing the field’s “hired guns,” the archeologists who get called in when a construction team unearths skeletons on the would-be site of a strip mall (in case you’re curious, this type of excavation is where the money is, to the extent there is any in archeology). She even talks with the forensic archeologists and anthropologists who assist at crime scenes.

Common Threads

She does find some common threads among the people who choose this sort of work, however. For example, archeologists do work outdoors, so they do tend to be physically rather sturdy types who don’t find things like bugs or weather terribly off-putting. Obvious traits when you think about it, perhaps, but not everyone would think to apply them to the small-framed or the aging archeologists doing fieldwork. Who among us is willing to work on a Greek island populated with poisonous snakes whose venom kills in less than half an hour when the nearest hospital is 45 minutes away by helicopter? Johnson describes that person for her readers.

Johnson remarks that ego is a common trait among archeologists, and I think she must be right. A subtler trait than physical robustness, ego has negative connotations, but consider its value. Ego allows archeologists to withstand nagging from family members to choose a better-paying career. Ego gives archeologists the confidence to stick up for the dead in recently discovered burial grounds, even if that action is unpopular with the construction company footing the bill for their dig. Each of the portraits Johnson gives us describes people facing a range of headwinds. Only a confidence in one’s own ability to not only find important history but also to make a difference in its preservation could get an archeologist out of bed in the morning.

Game for the Field

What keeps this book from becoming a syrupy love letter to a group of professionals is Johnson’s own willingness to take her shot at doing some fieldwork. She can’t dive in Rhode Island, but she does grab brush and trowel for experiences both foreign and domestic. Johnson even goes on a training mission for forensic anthropologists (a la Fox network’s “Bones”), marking off the boundaries of the grave where a murdered waitress (really a pig, not actually a human) lay with several crucial clues. While the author plainly values each experience, she doesn’t necessarily love every minute. It’s her complaints about the bugs, the physical strain and the frustration inherent in the work that keep her work grounded. Johnson makes sure her readers experience her own frustration with finding little or feeling a spark of excitement over finding something that turns out to be just a rock. She shrugs and gives up on seeing some of the subtle contours in a landscape that some archeologists have described as significant evidence of a particular culture. I respect Johnson for taking a stab at participating in the work under a range of conditions. Finding limited success in her efforts in the field lends credibility to the assertion that archeologists are a gifted bunch.

This readable book goes by quickly because Johnson maintains a narrative tone, describing her own direct experiences with the archeologists who lend their time and experience to this writing project. Chapters are not necessarily short, but they do have some breaks within them to make the book easy to pick up and put down. One chapter equals one setting, one story. With the summer reading season coming up, consider suggesting this nonfiction selection to the young adult who wants to read the real deal about a possible career option.

 Image by James DeMers, at Check out more of his images here.


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