The past has a way of suddenly speaking to us. When images appear, for example, of human hands that archaeologists say were stenciled 40,000 years ago, a haunted feeling of connection and perspective quickly emerges. But many archaeologists themselves seem to experience this sense of connection more or less continuously. As Marilyn Johnson suggests in “Lives in Ruins,” her lively survey of archaeology and the people who practice it, it fuels their dedication to the job, which they desperately need because the actual work and the challenges involved are pretty continuous as well.
Johnson has written two previous books about practitioners of unsung trades: “This Book Is Overdue!,” about librarians, and “The Dead Beat,” about obituary writers. Her new subject occupies a similar niche, one that is only ostensibly narrow. Human history is a broad topic, after all, and there are archaeologists all around the world studying the remnants of virtually every era. But she chases down a colorful sampling and produces a series of enlightening glimpses into the profession.
The author doesn’t just observe academics at conferences giving lectures on ancient recipes for alcoholic beverages, although she does do that, and it’s very interesting. (Scrapings from the bottoms of pots in Midas’s tomb at Gordian in Turkey suggest you mix grape wine, barley beer and honey.) She follows archaeologists to Deadwood, S.D., and Machu Picchu. She takes a college course called the Archaeology of Human Origins and then attends a department goat roast, where she learns how to make a blade from a hunk of obsidian and how to butcher a lamb (a goat couldn’t be procured). She also spends weeks in the field — at digs on the island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean, looking for vestiges of a colonial-era sugar mill, then on the island Yeronisos off the coast of Cyprus, looking for signs that Cleopatra had directed its development.
In the 21st century, as you might guess, archaeology is no longer all pith helmets and plumb bobs. Fortunately, it’s no longer all men either. Johnson describes the schedule of Joan Connelly, the New York University professor who has run the Yeronisos field school digs for 23 years: “During a week in which she and her crew excavated on six of the seven days, she also delivered four separate lectures to outside groups; . . . threw her annual party to thank a hundred or so locals; and hosted numerous guests, including Richard Wiese and his camera crew from ‘Born to Explore,’ four visiting high school students, including her nephew, and me.”
That’s on the upscale end. According to Johnson, Kathy Abbass, who founded and single-handedly runs the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, lives on less than a $1,000 a month, an income that includes her Social Security check. Preservation often requires one underpaid person to obsess for years about some broken piece of history that in many cases — because the licensing process, ecological studies and other pre-dig preparations can take so long to complete, or in Abbass’s case, because her Revolution-era ships are underwater — she can’t even see.
Johnson writes entertainingly, employing many quirky tidbits gleaned from the likably eccentric intellects she meets. Start up a conversation with an archaeologist, she says, and “soon you are talking about bone grease . . . or pointy-headed babies . . . or pig dragons.” Occasionally her efforts seem intended not just to entertain but to sell us on her subject. She can come off as a champion rather than mere chronicler of the archaeologist’s cause. And yet, with respect both to the author’s enthusiasm and the archaeologists’ aims, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic.
“You may think there’s nothing there,” Connelly says at one point about what may lie in the ground, “but there’s never nothing there.” “Lives in Ruins” leaves you with a tantalizing notion: The past is everywhere around us, and the forgotten is always underfoot.
LIVES IN RUINS
Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble
By Marilyn Johnson
274 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.
Not written by, but rather, merely posted by Lou Sheehan