I’ve read Marilyn Johnson’s forthcoming book Lives in Ruins. Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. It’s a collection of lively and enthusiastic portraits of contemporary archaeologists in their professional environment. Some may find the tone a bit too enthusiastic, pantingly so in parts, but that’s a matter of taste. Archaeologists should arguably be thankful to have a friend like Marilyn Johnson.
Still, she’s an outside observer of our tribe, and she approaches us from a very particular direction. Take her introductory statement that “Field school … usually takes place in a desert or jungle … charging tuition, quite a lot of it, usually thousands of dollars” (p. 15). This certainly isn’t true in Europe, and to my knowledge not in the US either. Most professional archaeologists worldwide have never paid to attend extramural field school and have never worked in jungles or deserts. In fact, field school is usually simply a module on undergraduate courses and is organised locally by lecturers at an archaeology department.
This misrepresentation is characteristic of Johnson’s overall approach to archaeology. It wouldn’t be fair to say that she romanticises the discipline. She’s very open about the dirty and strenuous nature of fieldwork, and about the abysmal career prospects. But she definitely makes archaeology out to be far more exciting and adventurous than most of it really is. The rubble we study generally offers very little in the way of the subtitle’s “seductive lure”. But Johnson will have the reader believe that archaeology is “the exotic, gutsy, authentic alternative to the tamed and packaged life” (p. 130).
I should pause here to note that my own strange career in archaeology does kind of fit the Marilyn Johnson model. Living with very little financial security, I do lead expeditions to exciting sites that will never be touched by land development. The words of maritime archaeologist Kathy Abbass quoted on p. 117-118 mirror my own life choices: “So who is in worse shape – the one who mostly followed passion and knows how to live on a shoestring, or the one who continued in a drudge job for elusive economic security and is probably deep in debt, too?” But my point is that you would learn very little about what the Swedish archaeological profession is like by studying my modus operandi. I am an oddity. And so are most of Johnson’s interviewees.
She keeps coming back to those jungles and deserts. Johnson tells us she looked for “a place with an exotic background to learn the basics of fieldwork” (p. 20) as if this demands no explanation. Most of her selected interviewees excavate in far-off corners of the world, but Johnson never tells the reader that this is a minority behaviour within the profession. In fact, the typical archaeologist is found working on a humdrum site threatened by a highway project within 25 km of a major Western city. To the extent that she ever sees jungles or deserts, it’s on her vacation, and she goes there to take time off from archaeology.
Johnson covers such full-time contract archaeologists only briefly and they show up two thirds through the book. Contract archaeology is where all the jobs are, but this book describes it as the last resort of the desperate! “When she was twenty years old, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr … Moran had been so determined to work as an archaeologist that she took a job on a field crew for a [Cultural Resource Management] firm” (p. 183).
I received a pre-print copy of the book for review, apparently because Aard is either a “Men’s Interest Site” (!) or a “Book Blog” according to the illuminating and surprising back-cover box about the marketing campaign. My copy has the unfortunate front cover shown above that I hope the publisher will change in the final print edition. But it’s actually kind of apt for the book.
It’s a photo montage of three objects, all to different scales, and none of which is used or found by archaeologists. There’s an odd slender hammer that looks like it might belong to a shoemaker. This probably refers obliquely to a geologist’s hammer, which is of no concern to archaeologists. There’s a cleanly defleshed undamaged rodent cranium with its lower jaw in place: clearly a specimen from a modern zoological collection which has never been underground. Finally there’s a plumb bob, rarely used these days thanks to digital measuring gear.
This cover imagery, no doubt put together by a non-archaeologist in HarperCollins’s publicity department, inadvertently shows quite well what the book is about: enthusiastically reproducing popular misconceptions about what archaeology is like. Like the Indiana Jones movies that Johnson salutes, Lives in Ruins is fun, engaging and not particularly realistic.
Marilyn Johnson. 2014. Lives in Ruins. Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. New York: HarperCollins. 257 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-212718.