Layman’s perspective for a novice reader
In her 2014 book Lives in Ruins, author Marilyn Johnson applies her “irrepressible wit and curiosity” (quoted from the jacket copy) to the field of archaeology. I approached this book with some trepidation because I had previously read Johnson’s book on the profession of librarianship, This Book Is Overdue!, and found it disappointing. In the end, however, having long had an avid armchair interest in archaeology, I couldn’t resist the promise of an inside look into the lives of archaeologists. The good news is that Lives in Ruins is better than Johnson’s previous book. She doesn’t gush over the personality quirks of her subjects as much as she did with the librarians, and she concentrates more on the actual profession itself. The bad news is in many ways it’s more of the same, a little too frivolous and elementary to amount to a worthwhile read.
Indiana Jones has unrealistically colored everyone’s conception of what an archaeologist is or does, not only because he’s a death-defying tomb raider but also because he’s a tenured professor. As Johnson points out, most archaeologists aren’t so lucky, and many struggle to get by on contract work for low pay and no benefits, hopping from job to job like nomads. The most valuable take-away from this book is the realistic view of how difficult it is to achieve security and success in the profession, and the degree to which the important work that archaeologists do is so underappreciated. I was also surprised to learn the extent to which the U.S. Department of Defense acts as a patron of archaeological research.
For the most part, however, the problem with Lives in Ruins is that if you are interested enough in archaeology to want to read this book, then you probably already know most of what’s in it. I’m not an archaeologist, but I do read a little on the subject. I subscribe to Archaeology magazine and National Geographic, both of which are intended for a general readership, but Johnson writes in a style of journalism that is even more casual in tone and elementary in content. The effect is similar to getting a guided tour of a museum by a docent who doesn’t know much more about the collections than you do. I certainly wasn’t expecting a textbook on the subject, but the marketing copy promised behind-the-scenes, inside knowledge of archaeologists’ lives, and the book doesn’t deliver enough of that. Instead, Johnson mostly just summarizes the research of the archaeologists she’s interviewed from a layman’s perspective for a novice reader.
Johnson attends field school and works at some dig sites. In her reporting on what goes on there she emphasizes her amateur status and indulges in fish-out-of-water humor that undermines the relevance of her narrative. In a few chapters she sits in on meetings at the American Institute of Archaeology conference and reports on what she heard there. She has access to many distinguished professionals in the field and reports on everything they say with the amazement of a novice: Archaeologists are doing this! Who knew?! Well, I knew, and I’m far from an expert.
I’m not saying this is a bad book by any means. It just depends on your level of knowledge on the subject. This would be a great book to give to a high school student who is considering studying archaeology as a profession. On the other hand, most people who have ever dreamed of being an archaeologist would probably get a better grasp of what archaeologists actually do and what’s going on in the field by picking up a typical issue of Archaeology magazine.
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