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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

(Cover image and synopsis from goodreads.com)

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson was the November read for the Pi Phi Pages book club. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I saw the title name on the list, but I am so glad that it was included in this year’s reads! Johnson provides a very entertaining and informative look into the world of archaeology. 

As you must know by now, I am not in the archaeology field. 🙂 That being said (unnecessarily), Johnson’s book is a great read for anyone who is interested in this mysterious world, but has no background knowledge coming into the topic. Johnson mixes in her personality to her writing that makes this information much more relatable. This is probably one of the best nonfiction books that I have read in a long time.

Johnson obviously invested a lot of her time in creating this book. She has numerous interviews with professionals, and talks about her time on dig sites to truly understand the world of archaeology. I find it incredible that she even attended classes and various conferences to explore  the different areas of archaeology. Through Johnson’s Lives in Ruins,  I feel like I have gained so much information about the varied ways of thinking within one profession. There are so many different approaches and areas of focus that I find it amazing we have so much history that is unknown to us. I also found it interesting that there are so many difficulties that archaeologists encounter…not just with the earth that they are digging through, but the politics of it all. Despite the differences that are found throughout the field, Johnson is also able to demonstrate the things that bring them all together (sometimes it’s as simple as beer).

I have a greater understanding and respect for this field of work (with the little information I know), and I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Johnson to pair down her information to fit within Lives in Ruins. I’m sure with all of the research, interviews and experiences she had, there was so much more that she could have written. Johnson has done a great service to the archaeologists that she interviewed, and even the ones she didn’t, by presenting their livelihoods in a way that demonstrates the importance of their line of work without sugar-coating it. There are many perspectives offered, and the fun and excitement of the search (with the hard work) is presented in a way that I could feel the tiring muscles and the burning sun. I highly recommend Lives in Ruins to anyone who wants to learn more about the world of archaeology, no matter how much prior knowledge they may have.

Based on Johnson’s writing style in Lives in Ruins, I can’t wait to get my hands on her first two books and explore other professions that aren’t as well known, or well understood. To learn more about this book and her others, visit Marilyn Johnson’s website at http://www.marilynjohnson.net/

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