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Marilyn Johnson – Lives in Ruins

January 16, 2015

99. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson (2014)

Length: 272 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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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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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2015 9:33 am

    I’m not sure if I like archeology or not but you sure have made this book sound good.

  2. rudejasper permalink
    January 16, 2015 9:05 pm

    This book made me “books released in 2014 that I missed and most want to read soon”. Your review gives me a good sense of the book and I suspect I will have some of the same frustrations as you but you include enough good things that I’m still excited about it. I wonder if there are any entertaining non-fiction books that focus more on the great finds in Archeology and their significance. I’m sure there are but I have no idea how to find recommendations for that!

  3. January 17, 2015 1:39 pm

    I really enjoyed this one, although I wasn’t quite certain if it was because I really do love archaeology and therefore was already favorably inclined to like the book. I agree that there was a lot more about which she could have written, but as an introductory or at least more accurate image of the field/profession and its hardships, I thought it was a great choice!

  4. January 17, 2015 2:32 pm

    I am interested in the things Johnson is interested in, so I was okay with some of the other stuff you mention being left out. Not that that wouldn’t have been fascinating too (it definitely would have), but I was also very interested in the more personal stuff. And I felt so sorry for the poor archaeologists had to deal with, financially. Poor them! Working for pennies!

  5. January 19, 2015 3:44 pm

    I’ve recently read her book about librarians (This Book is Overdue) and I really liked it; I think it’s kinda like this one where it’s more of an overview of the people doing the job than the job itself, maybe? (Meanwhile, we have Lives in Ruins at my library and it’s been staring at me from the New Books shelf for the last few weeks.)

  6. January 25, 2015 6:11 pm

    Oh, this does look interesting. Although… “No dinosaurs appear in these pages.” WELL WHAT IS EVEN THE POINT THEN.

    • February 11, 2015 9:03 am

      and I was thinking that this first sentence is an effective warning that she wasn’t going to talk about the work itself. :)

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