The 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.