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Review of Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on October 21, 2014 in Archaeology, Book Reviews |
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Lives in Ruins book coverGetting ready for a short Adirondack vacation, I packed the usual:  more books than I could possibly read in 2 or 3 days.  What does an archaeologist bring on vacation to read?  Dusty old tomes containing hidden gems embedded in dull recitations of fact?  No.  I packed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins, and Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Thinking I had room for one more, I noticed the book HarperCollins had sent me with a request to consider reviewing it.  There was a good chance I would, since it covers many aspects of the community I reside in, the community of archaeologists.  The book is Lives in Ruins:  Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson (2014).  Earlier this year, Bill Sandy (whose work is featured in the book) informed my little network of New York State archaeologists about its imminent publication.  So this was a book I already wanted to read.  It went into the suitcase, which was now a little heavy, and made me tilt to the right as I walked.

Later, sitting in our camp next to a mug of coffee, I opened The Art of Drowning (the thumb of my right hand popping it open from the back).  The first poem I saw was “Nightclub”, where America’s former poet laureate says:

“Yes there is this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves to the edge of the stage,
and hands the instrument down to me,
and nods that I should play.”

Elevated but distracted, I put aside The Art of Drowning and noticed the book I had been focused on recently, In the Garden of Beasts.  This story’s waltzing pace swirls the reader around Berlin in 1933, trailing the lives of a father and daughter, American ambassador and ingénue, exposed (somewhat blindly due to their own biases and ignorance) to the thinly-masked brutality of the first year of Nazi rule.  I was engrossed in this book (as I had been in Larson’s other works, The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck).  But I wanted to know more about Lives in Ruins.  I opened this book and my eyes raced across the pages, unable to stop consuming its unfolding story.  It was love at first sight.  “Wanna dance?” she said.  “Let’s go clubbing.”  And I did.  I took off with Lives in Ruins, imagining a stage where a large man played a saxophone that hung from his neck like a golden fish.

I found that Lives in Ruins has no single or uncomplicated personality.  This book covers many aspects of the lives that archaeologists lead, and it follows a wide diversity of individual archaeologists.  To her credit, Johnson intentionally created an even balance in chronicling the lives of female and male archaeologists.  This is a necessary approach to presenting the lives of archaeologists, bringing to the fore the experiences and contributions of women in a field that has long been male-dominated, and which often lends strong male images to popular culture (including news-reporting as well as entertainment).

Johnson has divided Lives in Ruins into four sections.  The first, called “Boot Camp”, deals with a part of the diversity of who archaeologists are, where they work, and what they do.  Resonating with the section title, the first chapter in this section describes an archaeological field school on St. Eustatius, a Caribbean island.  Here we meet archaeologists Grant and Joanna Gilmore (husband and wife, American and English), who study the historical archaeology of an important New World port city.  The next chapter deals with human origins, experimental archaeology, and the nature of inference, tempered through the experience of SUNY Stony Brook archaeologist John Shea.  From here we move on to meet Patrick McGovern, who studies the traces of the contents of ancient vessels, and moving beyond archaeology, uses his research results to recreate ancient beer.  Beer looms large in the archaeological experience, and visiting a conference featuring McGovern, we witness a tasting of the product.  In the next chapter, “Pig Dragons”, Johnson introduces us to Sarah Milledge Nelson, a significant authority on Chinese archaeology (pig dragons refers to Chinese jade pendants with pig heads).  A senior figure in American archaeology, Nelson has been interested women as leaders in the ancient far East.  She also brings the past to the public through writing archaeological novels.

In the chapter titled “My Life in Ruins”, Johnson discusses the bleak fact that archaeologists frequently are underpaid and may suffer through long periods of unemployment.  Here she revisits the Gilmores and we learn of their hard times endured due to the uncertain nature of archaeological funding and the shortage of jobs.  The chapter titled “Road Trip through Time” takes us to South Dakota.  Seen through the eyes of another couple, Rose Estep Fosha and Mike Fosha, it emphasizes a subject many archaeologists can identify with:  dedication to their chosen field and its cultural resources despite hardship and disappointment.  The final chapter in this section, “Underwater Mysteries,” delivers its promise to bring us into the life of an underwater archaeologist, Kathy Abbass, who works in Newport, Rhode Island researching sunken Revolutionary War ships (following the lead that one of them may be Captain James Cook’s legendary Endeavor).  Johnson also mentions Abbass’s assistance with the investigation of the famous radeau, a naval craft found in Lake George, New York.  Context not being far from substance, we are confronted with the fact that Abbass’s work is largely unsupported, and performed on the most frayed of shoe strings.  It is not clear to me from this chapter why this work appears to be so undervalued by the State of Rhode Island.  Comments anyone?

The next section (titled The Classics, consisting of two chapters) features classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly, who excavates on the small island of Yeronisos, off the coast of Cyprus.  The focus of the work is the excavation of a site believed connected to Egypt in the time of Cleopatra.  These chapters follow Connelly around New York City as well as in the field with her excavation team.  Due focus is given to the exacting approach to stratigraphic order and artifact recovery that provides Johnson with a second field school experience.  These chapters illustrate some aspects of an archaeologist’s sense of responsibility to a local community and environment.  They also portray Connelly’s sometime role bridging the archaeological discipline and its popular depiction.

The third section is titled Archaeology and War and provides a vehicle to tell us about something that we might expect:  archaeologists excavate human remains; and what we perhaps don’t expect or may not have been aware of:  archaeological methods are employed in forensic crime scene investigations, and archaeologists work with the U. S. Department of Defense to assist avoidance of significant monuments and archaeological sites during battle (Archaeologists working in New York State take note that this section features the work of Bill Sandy and Laurie Rush, and visits the Fishkill Supply Depot site and Fort Drum).  This section is strongly themed with preservation and cultural resource management, but also features forensic applications that are aptly called forensic archaeology.  We meet the following archaeologists in order of appearance:  Bill Sandy, a CRM archaeologist who has become dedicated to the cause of not further disturbing the burials of Revolutionary War soldiers believed buried at the Fishkill Depot site; Erin Coward, who worked in the recovery of human remains from the 9/11/01 attack on the twin towers in New York City; Kimberlee Moran, a New Jersey instructor of forensic archaeology with a somewhat weird but practical “body farm” in the Pine Barrens; and Laurie Rush, who works out of New York’s Fort Drum.  Rush’s program has been instrumental in reducing the U. S. military’s destruction of archaeological sites in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan (Rush is known for developing playing cards as tools to teach about archaeological sites and artifacts, and has received national media attention for this).

The final section titled “Heritage” contains just one chapter, “Buckets of Archaeologists”.  As implied by the chapter title, we meet a number of archaeologists briefly here (more than you can shake a trowel at), as they leave a conference on cultural heritage and preservation in Cuzco, Peru and journey to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu.  However, this chapter is notable for archaeologists we don’t meet here (but who Johnson tried to involve in her story).  These are the Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis and the American archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer.  In this chapter on heritage, the discussion ranges from the significance, preservation and management of sites deemed extremely important, to issues such as loving these sites too much (by causing their deterioration through development for tourism), to allegations of misappropriating heritage and research results.  This last issue is addressed by reviewing the controversy involving Solis, Haas, and Creamer, in which the claim appears to be that Haas and Creamer unduly took credit for Solis’ research, and capitalized on it by continuing work at similar locations nearby.  Solis discovered the site of Caral, determined by radiocarbon dating to be the oldest city in the Americas (and at about 4600 years old, rivaling ancient Egypt in the same era).  Johnson notes that these kinds of battles erupt due to archaeologists’ large egos, and I am sure many of my colleagues have also made this observation (or failed to as they blundered righteously onward).

What can be said by way of synthesis and extrapolation?  I offer a few observations.  Lives in Ruins at times finds archaeologists in conversation at conferences or other professional gatherings, where disagreements may occur, but where the latest is report by dedicated scholars, and then, eventually, beer is consumed and differences may be tolerated and even respected.  Archaeologists, we find are interested in how knowledge is formed–  where it comes from–  and so we learn about experiments in the replication of stone tools, observations made in the butchering and consumption of sheep, and the chemical analysis of ancient residues leading to the re-creation of various beers and beer-like alcoholic beverages (with subsequent marketing by an astute microbrewery:  read the book to find out who).  My colleagues, it seems, like to hear about this, and then go drink beer together.  I guess we just cannot get enough…archaeology.

Popular culture is a recurrent theme in this book, where we encounter Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear (and her creator, Jean Auel); Indiana Jones (along with waffley archaeologist would-be detractors); and the racist, ancient astronaut theories of Chariots of the Gods.  My comments are along these lines.  First (but not necessarily in order of importance), archaeologists need to continue to debunk Chariots of the Gods and other, similar insults to human intelligence.  Second, archaeologists need to embrace Indy and realize (as Joan Connelly advocates in Lives in Ruins), if Indiana Jones (who “lived” in the 1930s) was alive today, he would be a preservationist and an antiquities-trade fighter.  And a perfect mix of manly and sensitive, I should add.  Third, archaeology can be dry, but Jean Auel has taken our subject matter, made it exciting, and made a lot of money making it exciting.  One point not to miss is that archaeology got Jean Auel excited.  I remember being at a Society for American Archaeology meeting and hearing Ms. Auel tell us this and urge us to thrill the public more with what we find and what we think.  Did we listen?  To what extent can we learn a lesson from Jean Auel and make the past exciting to masses of people?  Perhaps we can even use fiction more fully as a tool for teaching about the past.  You know, like Sarah Milledge Nelson; or, perhaps as deftly fictionalized vignettes integrated with our analyses in popular reports of our work.

A third theme is caring for the material traces of the past, and this is exhibited often in this book.  It is shown, for example, in terms of the care in excavation and recording for which Connelly’s teaching is said to be exemplary; with the concern that Rose Estep Forsha has shown for the preservation of historic Chinese cultural sites in Deadwood, South Dakota; with the devotion that Bill Sandy has shown to document, honor, and protect the graves of America’s Revolutionary War dead (threatened by the development of private property) at the Fishkill Depot site; and in the innovative thinking and programs that Laurie Rush has brought into the military’s cultural resource management and war planning efforts.  In Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey’s character says “if you want to study them you have to save them”; where cultural resources are concerned, this spirit infuses archaeology.  Johnson shows us this.

My last comment on the book’s themes is important for the continuing reinvention and increasing professionalization of archaeology.  In Lives in Ruins we learn of the careers of a number of female archaeologists, and of a variety of hardships and challenges women have experienced, including gender discrimination, the vicissitudes of dual careers with husband-archaeologists, and the lack of financial support so severe that to pursue her calling, a woman may need to live in poverty or close to it.  The idea of a woman doing at least some of her archaeology as a volunteer or with no financial support closely follows this narrative and emerges in various places.  To me, the archaeological profession must address some significant issues.  First, working from the inside out, what can the archaeological profession do to improve the careers of women in cultural resource management, or in the fringe area in which cultural heritage is accomplished without sufficient financial support?  Second, we must work to make the opportunities available to young women who are beginning careers in archaeology as abundant and as good as the opportunities afforded to young men.  In this, mentorship is important to help nurture the normal expectation of a truly great career.

As exhilarating as these ideas are, I was tired by the end of the book and I set it on a table and rubbed my eyes.  Then I became aware of another presence in the room.  It was In the Garden of Beasts.  “Wanna waltz?”  she asked.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that Karma means “the sum total of the person’s direction in life and the tenor of the things that occur around that person” (in relation, of course, to antecedent conditions, whose additive nature affords this version of Karma the potential for change).  Lives in Ruins is about archaeology’s Karma.  It will change yours if you read it.

Lives in Ruins will be released November 11, 2014.

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