Uncovering the Lives of Archaeologists

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, by Marilyn Johnson, (Harper), 288 pages, released November 11, 2014

Marilyn Johnson would make a fascinating dinner guest—at least, that’s what her books lead me to believe. She’s written quirky, fascinating books about obituary writers (The Dead Beat) and librarians (This Book is Overdue!), and now one on archaeologists.

I’m pretty sure that every child who knew the word archaeologist wanted to be one, at least for a few years. In fourth grade I fantasized about living alone in the Egyptian desert and spending my days unearthing treasures from the time of the pharaohs. Marilyn Johnson had her own version of the antiquarian dream: “I assumed that everyone in the sandbox wanted to grow up to become an archaeologist. I spent my childhood digging with garden tools, hypnotically absorbed in the hunt for fossils.”

While archaeology is a much less glamorous career than it appeared to be in our childhood dreams, it is every bit as interesting as we thought it would be, making Lives in Ruins a truly pleasurable read. Johnson shadows a variety of archaeologists: a couple in Barbados leading a field school focusing on historical sites, an underwater archaeologist, an expert on alcoholic beverages of the past, a woman who’s spent her life excavating on a Greek Island that has no potable water.

Lives in Ruins is engaging in its entirety, but I was particularly struck by one of the later chapters: “Archaeology in a Dangerous World.” This chapter recounts recent collaborations between archaeologists and the military, a modern-day group of “Monuments Men” (and Women) formed after the pillaging of the museum in Baghdad during the early days of the U.S. occupation. Archaeologists now train many ground soldiers to spot unexcavated ruins, so they can avoid damaging them when possible. When the U.S. bombed Libya, archaeologists quickly compiled a list of the country’s most important archaeological sites—non of which were struck by U.S. bombs during the conflict.

One of the most ingenious products of this collaboration has been the production of decks of playing cards distributed to G.I.s heading overseas. There are card sets for Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan:

[R]egular fifty-two-card decks, but with images and information about archaeological practices, famous cultural sites, and notable artifacts; the revers sides [can] be pieced together to form a map of the most iconic site for each country.

Whether you’re a lover of history, science, or anthropology—or even a fan of Indiana Jones—this book will provide you with delightful hours of reading.