Marilyn Johnson – Lives in Ruins
Length: 272 pages
Started: 27 December 2014
Finished: 31 December 2014
Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? The punny title caught my eye, and then the description sounded fascinating.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 16 September 2014.
do it for love of the past.
(And the fedoras.)
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.
Other Reviews: Lots of ’em at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: No dinosaurs appear in these pages.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 23: “Then he warned us about the manchineel trees over by the foundation of the main plantation house; if it rained and we took shelter under a manchineel, we would emerge with second-degree burns and blisters.” – A tropical American tree (Hippomane mancinella) having poisonous fruit and a milky sap that causes skin blisters on contact.
- p. 27: “His sites were full of artifacts like ivory combs, medicine bottles, meerschaum pipes, and the industrial parts that helped turn sugar into rum; what did they get to study, stone tools?” – A fine, compact, usually white claylike mineral of hydrous magnesium silicate, H4Mg2Si3O10, found in the Mediterranean area and used in fashioning tobacco pipes and as a building stone
- p. 35: “I followed Corinne Hofman and two of her students, Anne and Hayley, around the tourist spot and across a spit of sand toward the abandoned leprosarium.” – A hospital for the treatment of leprosy. (Oh. Probably could’ve figured that one out on my own, eh?)
- p. 138: “An elaborate cistern was built to collect water, and numerous buildings were erected on huge ashlar blocks of native limestone.” – A squared block of building stone.
- p. 141: “Each afternoon, we repeated the complicated boat drill in reverse and then the action shifted to the apotheke, the picturesque headquarters on the bluff opposite Yeronisos – essentially a huge storeroom and offices with a plaza, thatched and covered by grapevines.” – repository, storehouse.
- p. 142: “Croft, the burly expat archaeologist from Cambridge University, “who does all things well” in Connelly’s view, wore a keffiyeh and a Las Vegas T-shirt.” – A square of cloth, often embroidered, traditionally worn as a headdress by Arab men, either by winding it around the head or by folding it into a triangle, draping it over the head, and securing it with an agal.
- p. 204: ““We opened up our debitage bag to him – all the bits of stone that we had no idea about but had saved – and he started finding channel flakes in it.”” – all the waste material produced during lithic reduction and the production of chipped stone tools.
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