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

by Marilyn Johnson

Hardcover, 2014

Status

Available

Publication

Harper, (2014)

Description

Examines "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"--Amazon.com.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Gwendydd
I was disappointed with this book, which is probably not because it isn't a good book, but because it wasn't what I was hoping it would be. I was hoping to learn about the science of archaeology and about the history of some archaeological sites. Instead, this is a collection of biographical sketches of archaeologists. There are some historical details, and some information about archaeologists' methodology, but mostly, the book focuses on a handful or archaeologists. The depressing theme of the book is that archaeology is a terribly underpaid and under-appreciated profession, and most archaeologists live in poverty so they can pursue their passion. Since I went to graduate school for history, I already knew that was the case. Some of the biographies are quite inspiring, because it is amazing to see the sacrifices these people have made, but I would have liked more information about their discoveries.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbelik
I learned that being an archeologist is a dirty job, requiring travel to some pretty unpleasant places and is very badly paid. It makes you appreciate the folks who devote their lives to digging up and discovering the past. Somehow I wished for more actually knowledge from this book; much of it concerns the hows and whens of the author following her subjects around--too focused on her rather than her subjects.… (more)
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This work of nonfiction is terrific for someone like I am, someone who thinks archaeology sounds interesting from afar, wants to play in the dirt, but doesn't want the actual hard work and the detailed tedium that are involved. Better to just sit back and read this book than do any real work.

The author interviews, works with, and writes about several different archaeologists, and isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. This book could have been incredibly boring, but it was not. She kept it lively throughout, and with a certain amount of humor. The book starts with:

“No dinosaurs appear in these pages. If you are looking for scientists who study dinosaurs, you want to pick up a book about paleontologists.”

It's obvious from that tongue-in-cheek beginning that this book is written for the curious, the layperson. But don't be fooled. Unless you are already schooled in archaeology, there is much to be learned here.

It covers scientists who specialize in all different periods of history and prehistory, their personalities, their quirks. And especially the difficulty of making a living as an archaeologist, the battles to protect sites from development, the red tape, and the passionate dedication of the people who overcome the negatives. All written quite engagingly.

“And this is what happens when you strike up a conversation with an archaeologist. Soon you are talking about bone grease...or pointy-headed babies...or pig dragons.”

How can you not want to read about that?

I was given an uncorrected proof of this book for review.
… (more)
LibraryThing member 2wonderY
Everyone wants to be an archeologist. Johnson exploits this desire and gets to trek all over the globe and go on digs. What an entertaining several years. She met lots of cool people and introduces us to them in turn. The chapter on Jean Auel made me roll my eyes, but Indiana Jones is universally beloved by professionals and amateurs.… (more)
LibraryThing member SamSattler
There is a good chance that you have something in common with Marilyn Johnson, author of Lives in Ruin: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, because Johnson's dream job (one she aspired to but never filled) was to be an archaeologist. It seems like thousands and thousands of us had the same dream - largely, with the same result. Once we find out how hard it is to get a job as a field archaeologist, and how little the work actually pays, we move on to a more realistic alternative to make our way in the world.

Johnson, however, is luckier than most of us will ever be when it comes to archaeology: she turned her love of the calling into a book deal. And she has written a book sure to please the rest of the dreamers out there. Johnson's research gave her the opportunity to get her hands dirty at digs all over the world, to meet some of the most respected archaeologists working today, and to gain a new appreciation for those, from top to bottom, who dedicate their lives to sifting through the remains of those who came before them. As she put it in the book's prologue, she was "studying the people who study people."

Lives in Ruins is presented in four sections: "Boot Camp," "The Classics," "Archeology and War," and "Heritage." In the appropriately titled first section, Johnson recounts what she considers to be a "rite of passage" for all wannabe archeologists: field school. In one of my favorite chapters in the book, she describes the typical field camp experience in which apprentices pay for the privilege of joining an excavation to do the dirtiest and most tedious grunt work imaginable. They pay dearly (often in the thousands of dollars) for the chance to be there simply because they hope the experience and the contacts they make will help them become a permanent part of that world.

"The Classics” is a short section in which the author meets, and learns from, some of the most respected archaeologists who have made their career studying Greek archeology. Amusingly, Johnson points out how often even this rather elite group of professionals affectionately evokes the name “Indiana Jones” in conversation with her – and how amused they themselves are at the job envy they sense from so many of the people they meet outside the job.

The book’s third section, “Archaeology and War” addresses one of the major problems associated with preserving the past there is today: war in all of its terrible destructiveness. Here, Johnson interviews and befriends some of the people working hard to educate American soldiers about the importance and sacredness of some of the ground upon which they are fighting for their lives. Encouragingly, the military seems to have fully embraced site preservation as one of its wartime missions.

“Heritage,” the book’s last section, finds Johnson and a group of archaeologists from six continents on a field trip/convention to Machu Picchu where she compares and contrasts the ways that various countries approach archeology and summarizes what she learned about the profession and those who sacrifice so much to be a part of it.

Lives in Ruins is an eye-opener of a book, a stark reminder of how easy it is to destroy our history in the blink of an eye, and a tribute to those who dedicate their lives to preserving as much of that history as possible for future generations to explore and appreciate.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
Johnson's book is a peek into the lives of archaeologists ranging from the expected academics working on notable sites to the more every day contract archaeologists working for little pay and a lot of love. There are even forensic archaeologists who use the tools of the trade to help solve crimes. By interviewing archaeologists and participating in classes, conferences, and field schools, Johnson exposes the reader to a wide variety of the practitioners of archaeology and their craft. I studied archaeology in college and thought of going into the field, but all the same I was surprised to read about people I know, including my college classmate Grant Gilmore. An excellent book about an endlessly fascinating (and undersupported) field of study.
Favorite Passages:
We think we know what archaeologists do, but, like librarians, they toil behind an obscuring stereotype. The Hollywood image of the dashing adventurer bears little resemblance to the real people who, armed with not much more than a trowel and a sense of humor, try to tease one true thing from the rot and rubble of the past.
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Archaeology isn't usually a particularly glamorous profession - the image of Indiana Jones notwithstanding. Work is scarce, stable work even more so, conditions are typically remote, dangerous, and/or uncomfortable, and the pay is frequently meager, to say the least. So why do people do it? What drives people to be passionate about the past - learning about it, uncovering it, preserving it? In this book Marilyn Johnson dives into these questions - why do people become archaeologists? Why do they keep being archaeologists, in the face of all of the professional uncertainties and hardships? She interviews archaeologists working in all different subfields of the discipline, from those studying the hunting techniques of early humans, to those excavating temples in Greece, Revolutionary War graveyards in New York, plantations in the Caribbean, or sunken fleets off the coast of New England, those involved with recovery efforts after 9/11, and those involved in helping the military to protect our worldwide cultural heritage.

Review: I really enjoyed this book, although it ultimately wasn't quite satisfying. It was remarkably easy to read; Johnson's prose is light and engaging and flows easily, and I found myself blowing through chapter after chapter, interested in the stories she was telling. For a work of non-fiction to be that much of a page-turner - particularly a work of non-fiction that doesn't have a continuous narrative through-line but rather focuses on different stories in different chapters - is quite an accomplishment, and Johnson makes it seem effortless, like: who *wouldn't* be fascinated by this stuff? The only unfortunate thing was that, for me, I was too interested, and there wasn't enough detail to suit me. This was due to a disconnect between what I was interested in and what the author was interested in - she's much more interested in the archaeologists, and why they do what they do, with a little bit of how they do what they do. And while I was interested in that as well - or at least, Johnson made me interested in it - what I really wanted to know more about was the work itself. What were they finding? How did they interpret things? Tell me more about what those beads, or shards of pottery, or postholes, or whatever - what do they mean? What can they tell us about history? It's probably unfair of me to mark this book down for not having that (or not enough of it), since that's clearly not the goal Johnson set out to accomplish. But it got to be a little frustrating to get to know each of these scientists, and their sites, and their trials and tribulations, and then not get to hear hardly any of the details of the very thing they're so passionate about. But overall, a very good book… and if nothing else, it definitely made me feel better about the funding and job security woes of my own field… who knew that we had it so (comparatively) easy? 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like archaeology or history, or "behind the scenes of various professions" books more generally (or both, like me), this book is a compelling and easy-to-read look at what it's really like to be an archaeologist.
… (more)
LibraryThing member SamSattler
There is a good chance that you have something in common with Marilyn Johnson, author of Lives in Ruin: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, because Johnson's dream job (one she aspired to but never filled) was to be an archaeologist. It seems like thousands and thousands of us had the same dream - largely, with the same result. Once we find out how hard it is to get a job as a field archaeologist, and how little the work actually pays, we move on to a more realistic alternative to make our way in the world.

Johnson, however, is luckier than most of us will ever be when it comes to archaeology: she turned her love of the calling into a book deal. And she has written a book sure to please the rest of the dreamers out there. Johnson's research gave her the opportunity to get her hands dirty at digs all over the world, to meet some of the most respected archaeologists working today, and to gain a new appreciation for those, from top to bottom, who dedicate their lives to sifting through the remains of those who came before them. As she put it in the book's prologue, she was "studying the people who study people."

Lives in Ruins is presented in four sections: "Boot Camp," "The Classics," "Archeology and War," and "Heritage." In the appropriately titled first section, Johnson recounts what she considers to be a "rite of passage" for all wannabe archeologists: field school. In one of my favorite chapters in the book, she describes the typical field camp experience in which apprentices pay for the privilege of joining an excavation to do the dirtiest and most tedious grunt work imaginable. They pay dearly (often in the thousands of dollars) for the chance to be there simply because they hope the experience and the contacts they make will help them become a permanent part of that world.

"The Classics” is a short section in which the author meets, and learns from, some of the most respected archaeologists who have made their career studying Greek archeology. Amusingly, Johnson points out how often even this rather elite group of professionals affectionately evokes the name “Indiana Jones” in conversation with her – and how amused they themselves are at the job envy they sense from so many of the people they meet outside the job.

The book’s third section, “Archaeology and War” addresses one of the major problems associated with preserving the past there is today: war in all of its terrible destructiveness. Here, Johnson interviews and befriends some of the people working hard to educate American soldiers about the importance and sacredness of some of the ground upon which they are fighting for their lives. Encouragingly, the military seems to have fully embraced site preservation as one of its wartime missions.

“Heritage,” the book’s last section, finds Johnson and a group of archaeologists from six continents on a field trip/convention to Machu Picchu where she compares and contrasts the ways that various countries approach archeology and summarizes what she learned about the profession and those who sacrifice so much to be a part of it.

Lives in Ruins is an eye-opener of a book, a stark reminder of how easy it is to destroy our history in the blink of an eye, and a tribute to those who dedicate their lives to preserving as much of that history as possible for future generations to explore and appreciate.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
For better or for worse, the study of archaeology will forever evoke images of a sweaty Harrison Ford in his iconic leather jacket and fedora battling Nazis, snakes, and other bad guys for all sorts of unusual and often valuable historical artifacts. However, what Indiana Jones does in the field is practically a cakewalk compared to the daily battles modern archaeologists must fight. Lives in Ruins brings the focus away from the idea of swashbuckling archaeology and presents the field of study as it truly is.

As Ms. Johnson discovers during her research and as she humorously presents to readers, true archaeology is backbreaking work. Often, it means working in subpar conditions, fighting against time, weather, curiosity, greed, politics, and a severe lack of funding. Indeed, this lack of money is the common theme throughout the book. In fact, almost all of her research subjects do not earn a living wage. There are almost no permanent jobs, and funding for expeditions and for storage of the finds is quickly running dry. The story Ms. Johnson tells over and over is that no one will ever make money working in the field of archaeology.

While this may seem like a rather depressing thread about which to read, what Ms. Johnson does so well is capture the dedication and passion these scientists have for their chosen profession. Each scientist she interviews exhibits a fierce pride in their area of expertise and a complete unwillingness to walk away to move to a more lucrative field. They thrive under the stress and strain of such work and do so with smiles on their faces. Theirs is truly a labor of love.

They may work under the most dire of situations, but all of Ms. Johnson’s subjects maintain an amazing sense of humor about those self-same situations. Each one recognizes the endless work and time limits nature places on artifacts. They understand that luck is as much a part of a career-making find as it is perseverance and skill. They use humor to repeatedly pick themselves up after each disappointment. This is something about which Ms. Johnson is quick to capitalize. She injects her own sense of fun and humor into her reporting, layering it on to the individual quirks of her subjects to create a book that is much more hopeful than one might think given the immense odds that come with archaeology.

Lives in Ruins dispels the myth created by Steven Spielberg all those years ago, but one finishes the book with the understanding that the archaeologists of today are the true heroes of this tale. For, they work because they love it. They love it so much in fact that they are willing to put up with the scarcity of resources and political battles and flirt dangerously close to the poverty line for most of their lives in order to fulfill their dreams. It is as powerful an example as one will ever get of working for love and not for money.
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LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I love learning about other professions, so Marilyn Johnson's exploration of the world of archaeology was my kind of book. She joins a kind of archaeology boot camp, participates in digs, attends conferences, and interviews many archeologists. While she does focus on the more interesting and glamorous parts of the profession, she also makes it clear that the profession is hard and that steady jobs are rare. She also does a good job conveying the difficulties many archeologists face in finding public support for the preservation of important sites and their passion for the job.

One of my favorite parts of this book was that the author used her experiences to add a narrative to what could otherwise be a purely informational book. I wasn't completely sold on the organization, since it wasn't clearly chronological and I often didn't see a connection between the stories that were grouped together. This wasn't necessarily a problem; it just meant that this book read like a collection of short stories. Something else I really liked about the book was the author's casual, personable tone. It wasn't so informal or so much about the author that it interrupted my enjoyment of the text (I'm looking at you Assassination Vacation), but it did make the story feel light and fun.

Unfortunately, the book was light in other ways too. Even though the back-of-the-book description claims that the story will teach you some little known history, there was very little historical information I wasn't already aware of and none was given in any depth. Each interaction with an archeologist really was like a short story and didn't give me as much time as I would have liked to become familiar with their subject. I think this could actually be a perk for some readers or for me in the right mood, since the short story feel and light content made this a nice, easy read. At the time I picked this up though, I was hoping for a more substantial nonfiction book and I enjoyed the author's writing enough that I'd happily have read a longer book in order to learn even more.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I love learning about other professions, so Marilyn Johnson's exploration of the world of archaeology was my kind of book. She joins a kind of archaeology boot camp, participates in digs, attends conferences, and interviews many archeologists. While she does focus on the more interesting and glamorous parts of the profession, she also makes it clear that the profession is hard and that steady jobs are rare. She also does a good job conveying the difficulties many archeologists face in finding public support for the preservation of important sites and their passion for the job.

One of my favorite parts of this book was that the author used her experiences to add a narrative to what could otherwise be a purely informational book. I wasn't completely sold on the organization, since it wasn't clearly chronological and I often didn't see a connection between the stories that were grouped together. This wasn't necessarily a problem; it just meant that this book read like a collection of short stories. Something else I really liked about the book was the author's casual, personable tone. It wasn't so informal or so much about the author that it interrupted my enjoyment of the text (I'm looking at you Assassination Vacation), but it did make the story feel light and fun.

Unfortunately, the book was light in other ways too. Even though the back-of-the-book description claims that the story will teach you some little known history, there was very little historical information I wasn't already aware of and none was given in any depth. Each interaction with an archeologist really was like a short story and didn't give me as much time as I would have liked to become familiar with their subject. I think this could actually be a perk for some readers or for me in the right mood, since the short story feel and light content made this a nice, easy read. At the time I picked this up though, I was hoping for a more substantial nonfiction book and I enjoyed the author's writing enough that I'd happily have read a longer book in order to learn even more.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I love learning about other professions, so Marilyn Johnson's exploration of the world of archaeology was my kind of book. She joins a kind of archaeology boot camp, participates in digs, attends conferences, and interviews many archeologists. While she does focus on the more interesting and glamorous parts of the profession, she also makes it clear that the profession is hard and that steady jobs are rare. She also does a good job conveying the difficulties many archeologists face in finding public support for the preservation of important sites and their passion for the job.

One of my favorite parts of this book was that the author used her experiences to add a narrative to what could otherwise be a purely informational book. I wasn't completely sold on the organization, since it wasn't clearly chronological and I often didn't see a connection between the stories that were grouped together. This wasn't necessarily a problem; it just meant that this book read like a collection of short stories. Something else I really liked about the book was the author's casual, personable tone. It wasn't so informal or so much about the author that it interrupted my enjoyment of the text (I'm looking at you Assassination Vacation), but it did make the story feel light and fun.

Unfortunately, the book was light in other ways too. Even though the back-of-the-book description claims that the story will teach you some little known history, there was very little historical information I wasn't already aware of and none was given in any depth. Each interaction with an archeologist really was like a short story and didn't give me as much time as I would have liked to become familiar with their subject. I think this could actually be a perk for some readers or for me in the right mood, since the short story feel and light content made this a nice, easy read. At the time I picked this up though, I was hoping for a more substantial nonfiction book and I enjoyed the author's writing enough that I'd happily have read a longer book in order to learn even more.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I love learning about other professions, so Marilyn Johnson's exploration of the world of archaeology was my kind of book. She joins a kind of archaeology boot camp, participates in digs, attends conferences, and interviews many archeologists. While she does focus on the more interesting and glamorous parts of the profession, she also makes it clear that the profession is hard and that steady jobs are rare. She also does a good job conveying the difficulties many archeologists face in finding public support for the preservation of important sites and their passion for the job.

One of my favorite parts of this book was that the author used her experiences to add a narrative to what could otherwise be a purely informational book. I wasn't completely sold on the organization, since it wasn't clearly chronological and I often didn't see a connection between the stories that were grouped together. This wasn't necessarily a problem; it just meant that this book read like a collection of short stories. Something else I really liked about the book was the author's casual, personable tone. It wasn't so informal or so much about the author that it interrupted my enjoyment of the text (I'm looking at you Assassination Vacation), but it did make the story feel light and fun.

Unfortunately, the book was light in other ways too. Even though the back-of-the-book description claims that the story will teach you some little known history, there was very little historical information I wasn't already aware of and none was given in any depth. Each interaction with an archeologist really was like a short story and didn't give me as much time as I would have liked to become familiar with their subject. I think this could actually be a perk for some readers or for me in the right mood, since the short story feel and light content made this a nice, easy read. At the time I picked this up though, I was hoping for a more substantial nonfiction book and I enjoyed the author's writing enough that I'd happily have read a longer book in order to learn even more.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I love learning about other professions, so Marilyn Johnson's exploration of the world of archaeology was my kind of book. She joins a kind of archaeology boot camp, participates in digs, attends conferences, and interviews many archeologists. While she does focus on the more interesting and glamorous parts of the profession, she also makes it clear that the profession is hard and that steady jobs are rare. She also does a good job conveying the difficulties many archeologists face in finding public support for the preservation of important sites and their passion for the job.

One of my favorite parts of this book was that the author used her experiences to add a narrative to what could otherwise be a purely informational book. I wasn't completely sold on the organization, since it wasn't clearly chronological and I often didn't see a connection between the stories that were grouped together. This wasn't necessarily a problem; it just meant that this book read like a collection of short stories. Something else I really liked about the book was the author's casual, personable tone. It wasn't so informal or so much about the author that it interrupted my enjoyment of the text (I'm looking at you Assassination Vacation), but it did make the story feel light and fun.

Unfortunately, the book was light in other ways too. Even though the back-of-the-book description claims that the story will teach you some little known history, there was very little historical information I wasn't already aware of and none was given in any depth. Each interaction with an archeologist really was like a short story and didn't give me as much time as I would have liked to become familiar with their subject. I think this could actually be a perk for some readers or for me in the right mood, since the short story feel and light content made this a nice, easy read. At the time I picked this up though, I was hoping for a more substantial nonfiction book and I enjoyed the author's writing enough that I'd happily have read a longer book in order to learn even more.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
… (more)
LibraryThing member mcdenis
There is on my shelf in my study an earthenware bowl given to me by a archeologist friend. The bowl looks primitive and is possibly from a site in New Mexico. It didn’t think much about it until I read Marilyn Johnson’s excellent narrative on archaeologists and the lure of rubble. She has really gone all out to live the “digging” experience, the forensic sorting and above all shining a light on the colorful men and women who are in this profession. I would highly recommend this book to the young adults who are looking for an exciting profession. Marilyn writes well and with humor.… (more)
LibraryThing member bogopea
Serious subject infused with sense of humor by author. Great armchair primer of the world of archaeologists and archaeology. The book ends with 2 busloads of archaeologists traveling to Machu Picchu. I spent 2 incredible days at MP 30 years ago and thought it was the most magical place on earth. That these seasoned professionals felt the same way was heartwarming. And they saw it in 2013, when Cuzco and its surroundings were commercialized (I mean really, a KFC in Cuzco?!)-- not as "natural" as when I was there But I'm glad to hear it is still worth visiting.… (more)

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