Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble
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The author of The Dead Beat and This Book is Overdue! turns her piercing eye and charming wit to the real-life avatars of Indiana Jones—the archaeologists who sort through the muck and mire of swamps, ancient landfills, volcanic islands, and other dirty places to reclaim history for us all.
Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Valley of the Kings, the Parthenon—the names of these legendary archaeological sites conjure up romance and mystery. The news is full of archaeology: treasures found (British king under parking lot) and treasures lost (looters, bulldozers, natural disaster, and war). Archaeological research tantalizes us with possibilities (are modern humans really part Neandertal?). Where are the archaeologists behind these stories? What kind of work do they actually do, and why does it matter?
Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins is an absorbing and entertaining look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside archaeologists, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. Her subjects share stories we rarely read in history books, about slaves and Ice Age hunters, ordinary soldiers of the American Revolution, children of the first century, Chinese woman warriors, sunken fleets, mummies.
What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.
quite locate this oddly endearing event in their own past. The rain from the tropical storm that had been threatening since I arrived finally came, a hot August downpour. It kept our little band of volunteers indoors for pottery lessons and a show-and-tell about eighteenth-century pipes, mirrors, and ink bottles, some of them marked POLICE EVIDENCE because they had been confiscated from a doctor trying to smuggle them out of the country. Why do we study pottery? Because it endures; because, for
walk from the beach, and one in Peru, though students there bunked in a community center “with the only flush toilet in the village!” That exclamation mark worried me. What were the odds that while I was there this toilet would break from the stress of being the only toilet, and no one in the village would know how to fix it? I never imagined I was claustrophobic until I read about another field school in Peru: “Please keep in mind that excavations are made inside the tombs which have a very
discovered in ice in the Alps, are not eligible for World Heritage designation—but, Gill-Frerking wondered, weren’t they important parts of our archaeological patrimony? As more than one archaeologist pointed out to me, the field advances one obituary at a time. Archaeologists took ages to embrace historical archaeology as a legitimate branch of the profession. And once they accepted the idea that sites with seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century artifacts could be understood in fresh
millions of years. It was not about shards and pieces of bone or treasure; it was about kneeling down in the elements, paying very close attention, and trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there. THERE WAS NO one in sight as Bratzo and I left Caral. We rolled slowly away over the rocky riverbed in this remote moonscape, and then . . . what’s this? A man in a yellow jacket and cap on a mototaxi—a three-wheeled motorbike—with a yellow cooler strapped in front
toothbrushes, scrubbing dirt and grime from fractured pottery and goats’ teeth. Chickens pecked under the clothesline and lizards (brown, striped, and green with blue heads) scurried over the broken porch and around the bucket where an old anchor, another artifact, soaked. Hofman, in her early fifties, was tan and languid in shorts and a low-cut T, ball cap pulled over dark hair, gold earrings flashing—a dead ringer for Ali MacGraw. Her students call her the god (her husband was the demigod,