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Originally published Sunday, November 9, 2014 at 5:03 AM

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‘Lives in Ruins’: true tales of archaeologists and their work

Marilyn Johnson’s “Lives in Ruins” is a charming, thoughtful exploration of the lives and work of archaeologists.


Special to The Seattle Times

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“Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble”

by Marilyn Johnson

Harper, 272 pp., $25.99

Indiana Jones is easily the most famous archaeologist in the world. He travels to exotic locales, battles evildoers, captures the sacred idols, heads off into the sunset with a beautiful woman, and looks good doing all of it. If only this were true in the real world, then everyone would want to be an archaeologist.

Although Indy is fictional, real archaeologists do live the “exotic, gutsy, authentic alternative to the tamed and packaged life,” writes Marilyn Johnson in her new book “Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble.”

Written as a series of chapter-length travel vignettes to archaeological digs around the world, “Lives in Ruins” is Johnson’s paean to archaeologists and the lives they explore. She reveals not only the excitement and challenges of modern archaeology but also the pitfalls and tedium, including low pay, banal food (bologna and mustard sandwiches wadded into a ball), biting insects and unpleasant diseases. What she doesn’t do, though, is tell us of the politics and power struggles in the field. Surely they must exist, and seeing them would have provided fuller portrait.

As she did in her best-selling “The Dead Beat,” Johnson writes in a charming and thoughtful manner, weaving in her personal observations, insightful quotes from her subjects and a wide-eyed fascination with her subjects. They come across as eccentric (“I have forty-five rats in my backyard to study,” said one), obsessive, driven and fun to be around. One graduate student also told her, “When the Apocalypse comes, you want to know an archaeologist, because we know how to make fire, catch food, and create hill forts.” To which Johnson noted, “I promptly added her to my address book.”

By digging up garbage, uncovering ancient ruins and excavating graves, archaeologists show how we ate our food, honored our ancestors, buried our dead, and built our houses. In short, they tell us about ourselves. Sounds like a pretty good job to me.

Seattle writer David B. Williams is the author of the forthcoming “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” (University of Washington Press).



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