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‘Lives in Ruins’ and the Secret Worlds of Archaeologists

lives in ruins by marilyn johnsonThe first archaeologist that comes to mind for me is Indiana Jones. The second is Amelia Peabody, the quirky Egyptologist made famous by author Elizabeth Peters. While there are some nuggets of truth about what it means to be an archaeologist in both of those pop culture portrayals, the real lives of the people who find and preserve history are much less romantic.

In Lives in Ruins, author Marilyn Johnson digs deep to tell the stories of the archaeologists who are behind many of the historical finds being written about today. She explores the work that they do, the challenges that come with the job, and why, ultimately, the work matters to the rest of us. To do so, Johnson follows archaeologists around the world and finds the stories that we otherwise wouldn’t get to hear.

Johnson is a delightful person to follow through this story. Her persona in the book, and I assume her attitude in real life, is one of optimism and excitement. She’s game, both to try new things and to ask the kinds of questions that get real, honest answers. Having a narrator who constantly says “Yes!” really makes the book fun to read.

At the same time, Johnson doesn’t shy away from some of the difficult parts of a career as an archaeologist. The pay is bad, job security is practically nonexistent, and many people don’t see the value in preserving pieces of history if it means putting off a development or major project. Much of the work isn’t romantic, yet Johnson also preserves some of the romance of this field. Lives in Ruins is exactly the kind of entertaining and informative nonfiction that I love to read and share with others. It’s just a lot of fun.

After I finished, I was so happy to discover that Johnson is the author of two previous books that take the same approach to telling the stories behind the jobs we think we understand. In This Book is Overdue! she dives deep into the lives of librarians, while in The Death Beat, she tells the true story of the people who help write our obituary pages. While these things seem like they might be far apart, Johnson sees a wonderful connection between them:

Who cares what we leave behind? Obituary writers care, though they capture the lives of only a tiny fraction of the people who die. Librarians and archivists care as well; they try to keep the records of our civilization available and organized, though their resources shrink even as their tasks multiply. And then there are archaeologists, on their knees behind a construction fence, studying the way a foundation collapsed or an ancient skeleton crumbled. They explore uncharted territory to piece together the fragments of an unknown or disputed past. They are the ants of history, combing the earth for crumbs of cultural significance that everyone else missed. The jobs are scarce. The pay is bad. It can be nasty, difficult work, and yet the archaeologist’s life is the dream of everyone in Lives in Ruins — and for a time, it was my dream, too.

Isn’t that lovely? I can’t wait to read more of her stories.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trisha November 12, 2014, 7:13 am

    She sounds like an author I want to read! I love it when authors tackle subjects that are a bit unique and do so in an upbeat, personal way (a la Mary Roach).

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 1:20 pm

      Yes! Me too. I think the comparison to Mary Roach is a good one.

  • Sandy November 12, 2014, 7:16 am

    I love Mary Roach, and this woman sounds like she has the same personality. I need to check her out! I remember hearing about The Book is Overdue.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes November 12, 2014, 7:58 am

    I really enjoyed this book too. Who doesn’t secretly want to be an archaeologist? I loved learning the realities of a profession that we rarely see true glimpses of.

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) November 12, 2014, 8:13 am

    One of Vance’s good friends from high school has become an archeologist so I think I need to read this.

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 1:21 pm

      That’s so interesting! Being an archaeologist always seemed like a fictional career too me. It was interesting to learn about what it actually means.

  • C.J. November 12, 2014, 8:35 am

    I was very curious about this book and it sounds like a lot of fun, but also is very realistic about the profession (in case any of us were thinking of ditching our day jobs!).

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader November 12, 2014, 2:35 pm

    I didn’t realize she wrote a book about libraries as well. How in the world did that one get past me? 😉

    I have this one and I’m hoping to get to it very soon!

  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf November 12, 2014, 6:40 pm

    I thought the same thing as Sandy, that this sounds like it’d have a similar tone as Mary Roach’s books. LOVE the quote you included, too.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End November 12, 2014, 8:01 pm

    I can’t even describe how excited I was when this book popped up on Edelweiss. I love reading about other people’s jobs, and I love archaeologists a lot! And it was awesome how Johnson spends time with a bunch of different subdisciplines of archaeologists, to find out what their work is like.

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 1:23 pm

      I liked that part too — it’s good to know that there are lots of types, and they deal with different issues (especially depending on location).

  • Stephanie November 12, 2014, 9:28 pm

    I was intrigued by this book when you first mentioned it and your review makes me wish I had it in my hot little hands right now. It sounds fantastic! I almost majored in Anthropology/Archeology. I chose a different low-paying, low appreciation job, lol but am still fascinated by the field!

  • Jess - A Book Hoarder November 12, 2014, 11:38 pm

    I have been wishing for a good archaeology book. This sounds perfect. I can’t wait to pick it up. Her other two books sound interesting too.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) November 13, 2014, 3:36 am

    Yes, yes, yes. I need to read this book. Though anthropology is more my thing, there is a certain romance to archaeology as well. I can’t wait to get to this one.

  • Leila @ Readers' Oasis November 13, 2014, 9:15 am

    Looking forward to reading it!!

  • Linda Boa November 13, 2014, 5:42 pm

    These all sound like fantastic ideas for books! I often read the obituary pages in The Times, and find them fascinating. Although it is a tad creepy that, in many cases, they are written before the person dies! I’ve learnt all sorts of wee nuggets of history from obituaries. I think I’ll have to look out for her books. Thank you!

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 1:25 pm

      When I was taking a journalism class as an undergrad, one of our writing assignments was to do an obituary (for someone who hadn’t died yet). At the time it seemed like a strange assignment, but I sort of understand it better now.

  • Vasilly November 14, 2014, 9:03 am

    I can’t wait to read this. This Book is Overdue! is also fantastic.

  • Brona November 15, 2014, 4:00 am

    Curiously, I’m also now fascinated to read all 3 of her books – archelogist & librarian weredream jobs for me as a child.I’m not sure anyone would think to aspire to being an obit writer, but I can see it would be a fascinating & rewarding thing to do!

    • Kim November 16, 2014, 1:25 pm

      I’m super curious about the obituary book — I put it my Christmas list!

  • susan November 17, 2014, 8:07 pm

    I’d like to read this one. Interested in which archaelogists she follows around. I’ll check it out. thanks.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey November 29, 2014, 1:10 pm

    I just finished this and I really enjoyed it too. I’d definitely like to check out more of her books. Like you, I love learning about interesting careers 🙂