Review: Lives in Ruins

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


Published November 11th 2014 by Harper

Hardcover, 272 pages

Source: E-ARC from Edelweiss


From Goodreads

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.

When I saw this book available on Edelweiss I knew I had to read it.  I dreamt when I was little of being a paleontologist and then an archaeologist  When I realized the reality of living on dig sites and camping I also realized this dream was not for me.  I still love reading about archaeological finds and this book did not disappoint me.

Marilyn Johnson takes us all over the world, looking at current sites and discussing past breakthrough finds and even talks about who Indiana Jones is to the real archaeological community.

“It’s tongue-in-cheek, but if you scratch any archaeologist, deep down inside they want to be him, one way or another.”

Johnson digs in to the profession by attending field schools in the Caribbean and on Cyprus, attending conferences, and interviewing archaeologists in the US, Europe and South America.  She shares stories of sites that sound fascinating, but what really struck me was the sense of loss in this field.  Finds are lost to treasure hunters, to war and  weather and to those that just don’t care about history when they’re trying to build a new parking lot every day.  I don’t mean to say the book was all doom and gloom at all.  Johnson and those she interviewed were very hopeful about the finds yet to be uncovered.  I thought the way that archaeologists are looking to the future was really cool!  Finding sites and waiting years to even begin to think about digging-can you imagine the patience!  Finding sites and covering them back up because they know that technology will be able to do so much more in the future.  I just don’t think my curiosity could handle that.

By far what I found the most interesting was the participation between the U.S. military and archaeologists.  From supporting historic native sites that are now on current military bases and  determining how to handle sensitive sites in war zones – I had no idea of the amount of time and attention given.  By choosing the sites she did Johnson makes an excellent case for how important archaeology is, despite the hard work, poor wages and sad lack of funding.  She makes the reader really think about what is still to be found and also what future archaeologists will think about us!

Lives in Ruins definitely piqued my curiosity for more nonfiction reading about archaeological sites and the individuals she interviewed.  I also will be checking out Johnson’s book about librarians, This Book is Overdue.

4 stars!

Thank you Harper Collins and Edelweiss for this advance read copy in exchange for an honest review!

All quotes were taken from an uncorrected galley proof subject to change in the final edition.


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