Non-Fiction Review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

Growing up, I wanted to be three things - an archaeologist, a paleontologist, and an astronaut (not necessarily in that order). In fact, when I was planning on what University to attend, I looked long and hard at those with established Classics programs, particularly the schools that credited a field 'dig' component. In the end, I chose a different career path (for a lot of different reasons), but that passion remains.

It's that passion for the nitty-gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails approach to the subject that led me to Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson. This is not a dry textbook or a clinical study of the subject. Instead, it's a real-life account of a woman who chose to (temporarily) live her life in the trenches, studying, sweating, and starving alongside the professionals. It's an absolutely enthralling read, and one that will have you itching to get out there and dig (despite what some of those professionals have to say about amateurs).

One on the first things that pleasantly surprised me about the read is how much attention Johnson pays to pop culture archaeologists, and how much credit she gives them for their role in supporting and furthering the field. Jean Auel, author of the Earth's Children series, gets a lot of credit for her diligence and authenticity as a writer, as well as for her role in changing the public face of archaeology, insisting that scholars and archaeologists "Romance the public . . . Let them know that what you are doing is not only important, but fun, exciting, and fascinating." Sarah Milledge Nelson, who I was previously unaware of, get some credit as well for incorporating real discoveries and real artifacts in her teaching novels, and for founding RKLOG Press as a home for archaeological fiction.

Along the same lines, Indiana Jones is honored and vilified in equal measure. Johnson is honest about how many archaeologists were drawn to the field by his adventures, and how many sport a fedora and bullwhip because of him. He gets full credit for the exposure he provided the field, and while he is vilified for looting and destroying so many tombs and ruins, his actions are (surprisingly) defended within the context of standards and practices of the 1930s.

On that note, Johnson has a lot to say about amateur archaeologists, looting, and the illicit antiquities trade - which is worth a staggering $6-7 billion per year. She points out that looted objects lose all archaeological meaning, as they have no context, can't be accurately dated, and lose the power to speak. Her example of an ancient coin found in the ground is perfect. In context, it can help date an entire settlement, but as a piece of loot it's just a coin. In terms of amateurs, she presents a balanced sort of view, contrasting the advice of professionals to just "don't do it" with the reality of what honest, diligent, careful amateurs can add to the field of study.

As for those professionals, Johnson points a stark portrait of their reality. She doesn't romanticize the work at all, and is honest about the harsh truths of low wages, staggering unemployment rates, corrupt regimes, the potential for violence, the lack of health care, and the physical risks. It's dirty, dangerous work, and often thankless as well. However, she counters that harsh reality with the passion and excitement these archaeologists share, their love for the work, and their delight in discovering and revealing new elements of history. It's definitely sobering stuff for anybody thinking of a career in the field, but sometimes passion does outweigh physical rewards.

As a life-long Clive Cussler fan, I was delighted to discover that Johnson dedicates a significant portion of the book to detailing the value and the importance of underwater archaeology. We're constantly hearing about melting ice caps and rising sea levels, but we rarely think of what that means for the study of archaeology. Sea levels have risen an astounding 300 feet since the age of the glaciers, which means a lot of history has been submerged. Sadly, this is neither more glorious nor more profitable than land-based digs, and Johnson shares the story of an archaeologist named Kathy who ran her own non-profit underwater archaeology organization, and was forced to finance her lab fees by cleaning houses for rich women (with no tips).

Perhaps most fascinating of all, however, is the amount of time that Johnson spends on what we don't generally think of as being archaeology. Contract archaeology, involving the study and excavation of construction sites, is something I'd never thought much about. It's a fascinating aspect of the science, and one in which the archaeologists are constantly at odds with owners, the government, historical societies, and activists. Excavations are often forced to be quick and dirty, and there's always pressure to let the wheels of commerce keep turning. The most striking example she shares is the discovery of a Revolutionary War graveyard, with the dig twice abandoned due to politics. Hundreds of graves were discovered on a relatively small plot of land, and there they remained for years, unmarked and unacknowledged, even as the property remained for sale.

Crime scene investigations are also covered, where archaeologists are needed to help locate, excavate, and identify victims. The amount of science and study that goes into determining a 100 year old body from a 10 year old murder victim is astounding, with one investigator admitting to having dozens upon dozens of dead rats buried in her backyard so she could study and observe decomposition rates. It's not just about buried bodies, however. Johnson also shares some sobering stories of archaeologists being called in to help locate and identify body parts and personal items as part of the World Trade Center clean-up.

Finally, in what is probably the best example of how far the field has come in terms of focus and respect, Johnson lets us in on some military secrets. She takes us overseas to the war zones of the Middle East, and talks specifically about the destruction of historical sites such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Much of that destruction could have been avoided with just a little background information, and she reveals the new role archaeologists are taking in advising where not to target or where not to march, all in the name of historical preservation.

Woven though all those facts and observations is the real-life account of Johnson's own brief career as an archaeologist. She went back to school, paid to be part of several digs, undertook rigorous training, and lived alongside the men and women she writes about. It makes for a very authentic, hands-on experience, but still allows here to maintain a little professional detachment. There's just as much 'how' and 'why' to be learned here as there is 'what' and that's precisely what makes Lives in Ruins such a well-rounded, enjoyable read.

Hardcover, 272 pages
Published November 11th 2014 by Harper


  1. Excellent blog. I wanted to be an artist, writer or archaeologist . . . I became the first two. I do enjoy reading Elizabeth Peters. Blessings, Janet

    1. Thanks - writer was fourth on my list, and that's where a particular English teach and his praise for my short fiction led me. No regrets, but I do still long for a dose of dirty adventure. :)


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