There is a good chance that you have something in common with Marilyn Johnson, author of Lives in Ruin: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, because Johnson's dream job (one she aspired to but never filled) was to be an archaeologist. It seems like thousands and thousands of us had the same dream - largely, with the same result. Once we find out how hard it is to get a job as a field archaeologist, and how little the work actually pays, we move on to a more realistic alternative to make our way in the world.
Johnson, however, is luckier than most of us will ever be when it comes to archaeology: she turned her love of the calling into a book deal. And she has written a book sure to please the rest of the dreamers out there. Johnson's research gave her the opportunity to get her hands dirty at digs all over the world, to meet some of the most respected archaeologists working today, and to gain a new appreciation for those, from top to bottom, who dedicate their lives to sifting through the remains of those who came before them. As she put it in the book's prologue, she was "studying the people who study people."
Lives in Ruins is presented in four sections: "Boot Camp," "The Classics," "Archeology and War," and "Heritage." In the appropriately titled first section, Johnson recounts what she considers to be a "rite of passage" for all wannabe archeologists: field school. In one of my favorite chapters in the book, she describes the typical field camp experience in which apprentices pay for the privilege of joining an excavation to do the dirtiest and most tedious grunt work imaginable. They pay dearly (often in the thousands of dollars) for the chance to be there simply because they hope the experience and the contacts they make will help them become a permanent part of that world.
"The Classics” is a short section in which the author meets, and learns from, some of the most respected archaeologists who have made their career studying Greek archeology. Amusingly, Johnson points out how often even this rather elite group of professionals affectionately evokes the name “Indiana Jones” in conversation with her – and how amused they themselves are at the job envy they sense from so many of the people they meet outside the job.
The book’s third section, “Archaeology and War” addresses one of the major problems associated with preserving the past there is today: war in all of its terrible destructiveness. Here, Johnson interviews and befriends some of the people working hard to educate American soldiers about the importance and sacredness of some of the ground upon which they are fighting for their lives. Encouragingly, the military seems to have fully embraced site preservation as one of its wartime missions.
“Heritage,” the book’s last section, finds Johnson and a group of archaeologists from six continents on a field trip/convention to Machu Picchu where she compares and contrasts the ways that various countries approach archeology and summarizes what she learned about the profession and those who sacrifice so much to be a part of it.
Lives in Ruins is an eye-opener of a book, a stark reminder of how easy it is to destroy our history in the blink of an eye, and a tribute to those who dedicate their lives to preserving as much of that history as possible for future generations to explore and appreciate.