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Book review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

livesinruinsBook review of:
Lives in Ruins:
Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

By Marilyn Johnson
Published by Harper in November 2014.

When I was younger I wanted to be an archaeologist. Or, more specifically, an Egyptologist. I’m told this is something a lot of kids go through, but I really went for it. I had a binder full of website print outs about ancient Egypt, I made a “shoebox” about the country that was shaped like a pyramid (for a class project), and was an ancient Egyptian queen for Halloween when I was around 11. I owned it. And then, well, I’m not sure what happened. Over the years, I kept my interest in ancient cultures, specifically Egypt, but my desire to become an archaeologist faded into wanting to be a writer. Which in turn faded into not know what the heck I wanted to do with my life, and here I am now!

Marilyn Johnson’s new book Lives in Ruins is a love letter to archaeology as a profession. In it, Johnson chronicles her time spent among a variety of archaeologists – ones who work for the military, ones who work on digs in Greece, and ones for CRM (cultural resource management) firms, among others. She not only details the ins-and-outs of their careers, but also the passion and love that goes into the job. Archaeology is not a high paying profession, so those who really stick with it do it simply because they can’t imagine doing anything else with their lives.

Not only was Lives in Ruins a great look into the people behind the profession, but it also highlighted some fascinating aspects from the field that I had either never heard of, or didn’t know much about. I particularly enjoyed reading about how breweries have started recreating “ancient booze” based on the samples archaeologists have taken from pottery*. Johnson’s writing never gets bogged down in technical details or terminology, and the result is a compelling profile of the profession.

Lives in Ruins reminded me of what I used to find so interesting about a career in archaeology, and made me wish I had pursued my childhood dream, even if it was just for a little while. Anyone want to join me on a dig?


*This was also recently covered in New Scientist (and picked up by Slate).

Read the Goodreads summary.
Lives in Ruins was also one of my favorite books from 2014; see the rest of the list here.


2 thoughts on “Book review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

  1. Sounds like a great read! I definitely used to fantasize about digging up ancient sites as well haha but I think, sadly, my aspiration stemmed from my childhood obsession with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants lol (one of the characters has an archaeology internship in Turkey, if you haven’t read it). Anyway, great post 🙂
    Hope you check out my debut novel, THE WAITING ROOM!

    1. I’d completely forgotten that one of the girls from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants had gone on a dig! That was by far the best part of that book too.

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