Books : reviews

Marilyn Johnson.
Lives in Ruins: archaeologists and the seductive lure of human rubble.
Harper. 2014

Marilyn Johnson, the author of two acclaimed books about quirky subcultures—The Dead Beat (about obituary writers) and This Book Is Overdue! (about librarians)—brings her irrepressible wit and curiosity to bear on yet another strange world, that of archaeologists. Who chooses to work in ruins? Wha’s the allure of sifting through layers of dirt under a hot sun? Why do archaeologists care so passionately about what’s dead and buried—and why should we?

Johnson tracks archaeologists around the globe from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, from Newport, Rhode Island, to Machu Picchu. She digs alongside experts on an eighteenth-century sugar plantation and in a first-century temple to Apollo. She hunts for bodies with forensic archaeologists in the vast and creepy Pine Barrens of New Jersey, drinks beer with an archaeologist of ancient beverages, and makes stone tools like a caveman.

By turns amusing and profound, Lives in Ruins, with its wild cast of characters, finds new ways to consider what is worth salvaging from our past.