Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rabble.

NY: HarperCollins, 2014.

I’ve been an archaeology junkie all my life, starting with my reading of Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology in 5th Grade many years ago. The summer after my freshman year in college, I was an unpaid volunteer for the National Park Service’s Missouri Valley Basin Project on the upper Great Plains — which mostly meant holding a surveyor’s rod steady, but I loved being associated with the guys who were searching for Indian hunting sites.

Real life intervened and I never became an archaeologist (I probably couldn’t have passed the chemistry courses anyway), but I’m still a fellow traveler of those who wield the trowels and camel-hair brushes.

Johnson is a magazine journalist who has done two previous books in which she basically tags along after those in a particular career, investigating and describing what they do and how they do it — and why. The earlier works covered obituary writers and modern-day librarians (definitely gotta read that one), so she seems to have her method down pat. And while she’s strictly a middle-aged civilian, she’s a quick study and eager to learn, though she’s constantly astonished at what the twenty-year-old “shovelbums” around her go through while remaining willing and cheerful.

The Hollywood image of the archaeologist, of course, bears no resemblance at all to those who, with only “a trowel and a sense of humor, try to tease one true thing from the rot and rubble of the past.” Although one professional notes that “deep down inside,” all of them want to be a little bit like Indiana Jones, one way or another. They enjoy the chance to swagger occasionally. (“Every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation.”) It’s an action profession, and a very poorly paid one — full-time employment hovers around fifty percent and an income of $30,000/year is considered an accomplishment — but those who are drawn to it make the unconscious decision early in life and never lose their dedication. They live close to the bone and they do their jobs. Still, most graduate programs in archaeology “perpetrate frauds on a public that doesn’t understand that there is very little chance for graduates to get a job.”

Johnson starts on Eustatia in the Caribbean, where a barely locally-funded culture center is trying to piece together the island’s 17th-century Dutch and slave history (the program was essentially shut down recently when religious fundamentalists took control of the government), and where she learns about the importance of pottery. (Every culture created it and it lasts forever.) She learns about experimental archaeology, where students learn to make stone tools, to throw a spear with an atlatl, and to butcher a goat with a razorlike obsidian blade, and she learns about the intricate typology of stone tools. Forensic archaeology (hunting for a murdered body in the New Jersey Pine Barrens) follows a week on a small, perplexing, ruin-covered island just off Cyprus. A visit to the disappearing remains of the tiny Chinatown in Deadwood, South Dakota, is followed by an introduction to underwater archaeology in Newport, Rhode Island. And then she joins a conference crowd on a tour of Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most dramatic heritage sites. She learns about ancient beverages (rediscovered by analyzing the sludge in Greek and Roman amphorae), and why well-meaning amateur diggers can be almost as disastrous to a site as treasure-hunters and looters — though there are exceptions, and she covers those, too.

Some of the author’s discoveries are depressing, as in the short shrift frequently given to newly uncovered sites by property developers, even someplace like the large Revolutionary War cemetery at Fishkill, New York. Private property law still overrules public interest in those cases and “much important history has been lost forever,” thanks to the profit motive. (In Canada, the U.K., and Europe, the public interest legally comes first in such cases.) Not to mention the deliberate destruction of an Indian site by a state highway construction crew, even as an archaeological survey team was en route. Contract (or “salvage”) archaeologists have a trickier and more stressful job than most, especially when they’re identifying minuscule body parts and artifacts in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. But then she visits Fort Drum and learns that the Department of Defense employs more archaeologists and cultural resource specialists than any other federal agency, in its relatively newfound attempt to protect important historical sites in war zones. Better late than never.

Women in the profession get special attention, too, because it was only a couple of decades ago that they were regarded as having no place whatever in archaeology. Times have definitely changed and some of today’s most highly regarded specialists, excavators, and teachers are women.

This is an engrossing and highly instructive volume, compulsive reading, not long and not technical, and even the cheerleading has a point. An excellent way to spend a rainy weekend.


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