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

By Marilyn Johnson

(Harper Collins, 2014; 288 pgs., illus., $26 cloth, $10 ebook;

Author Marilyn Johnson assumes that everyone in the sandbox wanted to grow up to be an archaeologist.  In writing this delightful travelogue, she takes on the task of seeing the earth through the eyes of real archaeologists doing research at archaeological sites. From the effigy mounds of Wisconsin to the plantations of the Caribbean, from the waters off Rhode Island to Egyptian tombs, Johnson tracks archaeologists at work around the globe.

She turns herself into a kind of archaeological Walter Mitty who actually participates in the work, fun, and hardships of archaeology, and not just in the glamor spots of Egypt and Machu Picchu, but also in obscure sites in South Dakota and upstate New York.  Unlike her hero Indiana Jones, she learns some of the tricks of the trade, like digging with a trowel and brush.  She also shares the bologna sandwiches and warm beer that were served at a real field school under the hot sun. Johnson revels in learning about the rather obscure things modern archaeologists deal with, like the fat content of mammoth bones.

Her adventure takes her to a primitive field school on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, where she learns the basics of excavation and historical archaeology, as wells as the horrors of archaeological looting and trafficking.  At an ancient Greek site on Cyprus, the beauty and wonders of the classical world bring science and art together.  In New York she takes a class in human origins and learns about the latest controversial research on human evolution and migration.  She also takes a course in stone tool knapping, which required her to stock up on Band-Aids.  Beer and archaeologists have a special attraction, and Johnson attends conferences where she learns the archaeology of beer as well as its attraction.  On a more serious note, she examines the dismal job market for archaeologists and the scarcity of funds for training and research.

Johnson weaves a serious tale of learning about archaeologists and their craft with humor and insight.  The wild cast of characters is the stuff of Hollywood.  Adventure blends with scholarship to tell a fascinating story.  This book is a delight for all of us amateurs who someday want to become serious archaeologists. —Mark Michel


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