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

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

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by Marilyn Johnson

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The author of The Dead Beat and This Book is Overdue! turns her piercing eye and charming wit to the real-life avatars of Indiana Jones—the archaeologists who sort through the muck and mire of swamps, ancient landfills, volcanic islands, and other dirty places to reclaim history for us all.

Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Valley of the


The author of The Dead Beat and This Book is Overdue! turns her piercing eye and charming wit to the real-life avatars of Indiana Jones—the archaeologists who sort through the muck and mire of swamps, ancient landfills, volcanic islands, and other dirty places to reclaim history for us all.

Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Valley of the Kings, the Parthenon—the names of these legendary archaeological sites conjure up romance and mystery. The news is full of archaeology: treasures found (British king under parking lot) and treasures lost (looters, bulldozers, natural disaster, and war). Archaeological research tantalizes us with possibilities (are modern humans really part Neandertal?). Where are the archaeologists behind these stories? What kind of work do they actually do, and why does it matter?

Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins is an absorbing and entertaining look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside archaeologists, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. Her subjects share stories we rarely read in history books, about slaves and Ice Age hunters, ordinary soldiers of the American Revolution, children of the first century, Chinese woman warriors, sunken fleets, mummies.

What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 11/01/2014
Johnson's (This Book Is Overdue) wonderful and engaging work peels back the superficial glamour surrounding archaeology and archaeologists, offering an account that is a step above the typical book on the subject. The author sets out to explore what archaeology is really like and puts herself in the mainstream of her subject. Through personal experiences, interviews, and research, she exposes the suffering that archaeologists must endure to pursue their "craft" and honestly portrays the relentless, glamourless pursuit of the human condition through material culture. While Johnson provides great insight into why someone would choose to become an archaeologist, she also notes that success rarely occurs from monumental or notable discoveries. Rather, victory for an archaeologist is often found in the small, the hidden, and often unimpressive bits of flotsam and jetsam of prehistory. Johnson's contribution to this genre is unmatched. VERDICT Without glitz, the author has created a very enjoyable work that will be appreciated by experts in the field and casual readers alike. Well suited to anyone contemplating archaeology as a career, those curious about what the profession is like, lovers of history and science, and readers who enjoy and are grateful for the lure of prehistory and discovery as a mental process.—John Dockall, Austin, TX
The New York Times Book Review - John Glassie
…[a] lively survey of archaeology and the people who practice it…Human history is a broad topic…and there are archaeologists all around the world studying the remnants of virtually every era. But [Johnson] chases down a colorful sampling and produces a series of enlightening glimpses into the profession…Johnson writes entertainingly, employing many quirky tidbits gleaned from the likably eccentric intellects she meets.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/15/2014
In this lively love letter to archaeologists, former Esquire editor Johnson (This Book is Overdue!) travels the world, getting her hands dirty as she studies archaeologists in their natural habitats. She joins field schools, attends conferences, and chats with the legendary and the up-and-coming practitioners of the discipline and displays infectious enthusiasm for the material. Johnson samples drinks prepared from recipes discovered in ancient tablets, braves bad weather and worse food, visits body farms, and hobnobs with the military all in an effort to examine and explore every aspect of archaeologist’s life. Her experiences are eye-opening, engaging, and occasionally frustrating, and she talks about the downsides of the occupation: “Those who persevere in the profession fight like cats to get these jobs and work like dogs to keep them. And for all their expertise, competence, breadth of experience, and even cockiness, they are continually humbled by their subject. For people who know so much, there is so much they can never know.” But, as Johnson states, it’s all about “trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.” Many archaeologists credit Indiana Jones with sparking their passion, and Johnson may well inspire a new generation to take up this calling. Agent: Chris Calhoun, Chris Calhoun Agency. (Nov.)
Sarah Parcak
“World travel, drinking, lust in the dust-our lives are all in ruins, indeed, and Johnson reveals why we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Ian Frazier
“The great pleasure with which I read this book took me back to when I was eight years old and wanted to be an archaeologist. Marilyn Johnson does a wonderful job uncovering the delight in this tough, important, and exhilarating profession.”
New York Times Book Review
“Johnson writes entertainingly, employing many quirky tidbits gleaned from the likably eccentric intellects she meets.”
Lives in Ruins is…delectable.”
Seattle Times
“Johnson writes in a charming and thoughtful manner, weaving in her personal observations, insightful quotes from her subjects and a wide-eyed fascination with her subjects.”
From the Publisher
"Many archaeologists credit Indiana Jones with sparking their passion, and Johnson may well inspire a new generation to take up this calling." —Publishers Weekly starred review
Entertainment Weekly
“As she did in her previous books about librarians and obituary writers, Johnson finds that the line between inspirationally nutty and actually crazy is measured in the joy of the work.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-10-07
Science reporter Johnson (This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, 2010, etc.) explores the work of archaeologists.In her latest endeavor, the author, who makes a habit of looking into atypical subjects and then writing about them with brio and dash, takes on the discipline of archaeology, which is on a bit of a hot streak, thanks to technological advances, war, commercial development, violent weather and warming temperatures, all doing their parts to reveal our past. On her journeys, Johnson attended a field-training school—on St. Eustatius in the Caribbean—where she received a glimmering of how backbreaking, tedious work can be imbued with high suspense. Throughout, she demonstrates a learned hand in her minibiographies of various practitioners of the discipline—e.g., Joan Connelly of New York University, who told the author, "Good archaeology fills in the blanks of history. It tells the losers' story. It teases out the history that falls between the cracks." Much like Mary Roach, another sharp writer who often tackles a single topic, Johnson casts her net widely, from the Caribbean to Stony Brook and Fishkill, New York, to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to Agios Georgios, a small village in Greece. However, she's also mesmerized by the smaller-scale elements: gorgeous blue beads from the wreck of an old galleon, the never-ending steam of lectures and conferences ("The audience at an archaeology lecture is ancient. I watched them stream in, drawn to slides of artifacts and talk of ruins: snowy-haired, with canes and sensible shoes. They listened with hunger") and the pure, magical allure of the lost: "significant sites that are so humble in appearance, or buried, or otherwise hidden." An engrossing examination of how archaeologists re-create much of human history, piece by painstaking piece.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Marilyn Johnson is a former editor and writer for Life, Esquire, and Outside magazines, and lives with her husband, Rob Fleder, in New York's Hudson Valley.

Brief Biography

Briarcliff, New York
Place of Birth:
St. Louis, Missouri
B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., University of New Hampshire

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Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tonerlow More than 1 year ago
Awesome reading, but depressing. Too true! It's a laundry list of heartfelt commitment, stellar hopes, and smashing reality. Archeology is at once the most interesting profession, and worst paid. real commitment is needed to do this. It pays less than teaching - so that should say something. There are VERY few people making a living at this, and Marilyn Johnson shows us why, with a bit of wry, sardonic humour. If you like Mary Roach, you'll like this. Marilyn writes with a stream-of-consciousness bent, that did make this a read more like a lot of tales around the campfire, rather than a mapped out excursion into the psychotically focused realm of historic discovery. A very honest appeal to those seeking to follow their dreams into hell. All in all, a good read! I enjoyed it!!
Jdemet More than 1 year ago
When there was such a thing as empty lots in Queens, my grade school friends and I sometimes found ourselves playing in them. As young boys we were always one unsupervised adult day away from another tetanus shot. But who cared? This was adventure. This was the 1950s, and because of a New York City taxation policy that used frontage to determine real estate taxes, there were any number of vacant corner properties. Corner lot, more frontage. More moolah. Which is really surprising, because the real estate taxation basis never really became realistic until the Bloomberg administration. How much more could the real estate and sewer tax have been that it stymied corner lot development? Lots of corner properties had houses on them, but they tended more often than not to be occupied my physicians and dentists. So the world went. In one of these empty lots in Whitestone my friends and I found what we firmly believed were the remains of trolley tracks. You'd think we found dinosaur bones. Considering that trolleys went out of existence, even in Queens, sometime in the late 1940s, our sense of what was really old was not very realistic. Never mind. I think our teacher took such an interest that he investigated the lot himself. Turns out they were not trolley tracks at all, but some sort of steel beams, likely dumped illegally by a demolition company. But you know what? Before our voices changed and our interests could care less about empty lots, we were, without our knowing it, archaeologists. Ever bury money in the backyard as a kid? Willie Sutton buried his bank loot in parks: Central Park, Prospect Park, and would return to some very moldy, sometimes unusable United States currency when he got of prison, whether he was released, or he released himself. Willie was many things to many people. He was a legendary criminal. He was also an archaeologist. Marilyn Johnson, in her new book, 'Lives in Ruins,' quickly sets us straight on what an archaeologist is. Right there on the first page, opening paragraph, she tells us if you're expecting to read about dinosaur bones, you need a book on paleontologists. Archaeologists study people, and what they left behind, "their bones, their trash, and their ruins." So, if you want to read about dinosaur bones and human remains, you're going to have to--like the comedian Alan King once said about reading about love and marriage--buy two books. Ms. Johnson is foremost a journalist with a literary background--and a poet. She'll pop in the subtlest of phrases that leave a delayed reaction. Take the opening narrative that explains where archaeologists get their volunteers from, their grunts, their go-fers. Somewhat like Tom Sawyer and his whitewashed fence, the interested are hooked into labor and even pay for the privilege to sweat and strain. She wonders if all this doesn't resemble some sort of "'pyramid scheme." The book takes us longitudinally and latitudinally halfway around the world from New York. We start on a caraway seed-size island in the Caribbean, St. Eustatius, under Dutch governance. Pirates loved the place. Here, Ms. Johnson describes her "boot camp" where she first crouches with a trowel. Her travels are extensive, and impressive. She attends archaeology conferences and chats up more than one person smitten with the calling. She has a list of who she'd like to meet, but doesn't always catch up to everyone. Archaeologists don't always come out and play. And in case your preconceived notion of an archaeologist is someone in a pith helmet in an Agatha Christie novel dying for tea time, then cocktails, you're going to be surprised. Some of the most interesting parts of this multi-layered book are the stories that were just on CNN if your TV was plugged in and on. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Afghanistan involvement of American troops have all produced work for archaeologists. The Department of Defense employees archaeologists? You betcha. A glance at the author's dust jacket photo and it might be understandable how Ms. Johnson works her way into conference breakout sessions and manages to stay invited, especially to the one that numbers archaeologists and the United States military. One of the most interesting chapters is produced because of it. This is current. We're seeing this in our living rooms. Profiles of archaeologists fill the book. One woman, Laurie Rush, works as a civilian archaeologist out of Fort Drum in Watertown, New York. This is an area of the state I'm familiar with and which even Ms. Johnson's prose fails to capture its bleakness. Harry Chapin, in an introduction to one of his narrative songs, 'Better Place to Be,' describes the area as where he spent a "week there one afternoon." Ms. Rush has a staff and is the is the guiding force behind the playing cards that are distributed to the troops that depict historic, and hoped for protected sites, they might encounter in their deployments. An educated soldier is a better soldier. The only shortcoming felt is that there are no photos in the book. Expense, and the ease of the Internet can be excuses. Still, a choice few would have been welcomed, especially a sample of the playing cards. A small distraction. Pay attention, and you will encounter a word like 'paleoethnobotany." Really pay attention, and you'll learn the spelling distinction of an ancient Peruvian civilization that's not at all to be confused with an international sex club. Distinction is everything. Ms. Johnson is smart enough to tell us in her poignant last chapter how today's debris is, a century or so from now, tomorrow's archaeological find. That Lincoln head penny with the newly designed back you no longer pick up because it has so little value, is a find a century from now. There is even such a thing as "the archaeology of the contemporary past." I won't admit that this is what I realize I'm engaging in when I remind myself that I've been coming and going through New York's Pennsylvania Station for over 60 years now. But I do see the past, especially when I hold onto one of the remaining brass banisters with the giant ball at the top that line staircases from some of the tracks. What a find that is going to make someday. The book is a joy to read and goes by fast. Just like time.