The ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru attracts swarms of tourists, who support archaeology but challenge preservation efforts. (Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters)


Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

By Marilyn Johnson

Harper. 274 pp. $25.99

When Marilyn Johnson reports on a profession, she does it with proselytizing enthusiasm. “This Book Is Overdue!” proclaims that librarians stand at the vanguard of 21st-century literacy; “The Dead Beat” hails a golden age of obituary writing. She’s just as gung-ho in her new book, declaring on Page 1, “There is no better time than now to follow archaeologists.” Johnson is not a thoughtless cheerleader. “Lives in Ruins” soberingly depicts historic sites destroyed, valuable artifacts looted, and archaeologists perennially underpaid and frequently unemployed. Yet it also lovingly conveys archaeology’s romance.

Johnson, a veteran magazine writer and editor, has a knack for enlivening a potentially dry subject with vivid sketches, punchy quotes and lively scene-setting. “Her students call her the god,” she writes of charismatic archaeologist Corinne Hofman. “One told me, ‘Picture her with everyone gathered around, awaiting her instructions. The question is, who gets to wave the fan?’ ”

‘Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble’ by Marilyn Johnson (Harper)

Fieldwork is not for weaklings, we see, as the author joins a dig on a Greek island accessed via a dinghy ride over turbulent waters and a sweaty climb up cliffs nearly 70 feet high. Despite her dutiful caveat that swashbuckling movie archaeologist Indiana Jones is a fantasy figure, Johnson acknowledges his mythic allure in an occupation still dominated by men: “The guys all own fedoras and whips,” a female grad student confides.

This is good fun, but it would be ephemeral fun if Johnson didn’t also possess the journalist’s ability to pinpoint essential information for general readers. We learn alongside her as she enrolls in field school to acquire basic archaeological skills such as digging test pits, identifying pottery shards — and flipping a tarantula off her instructor’s shirt. This particular field school was on a tropical island, and the tarantula didn’t worry Richard Gilmore nearly as much as the relentless pace of development that is a particular threat to sites in the tourist-centric Caribbean. A specialist in historical archaeology (the study of the past few centuries), Gilmore saw a slave burial ground backhoed into oblivion by an owner who didn’t want the archaeological recovery process to slow construction of his vacation home.

Most nations have laws (enforced with variable diligence) to protect historically significant material, which leads Johnson to another specialty. Contract archaeologists are hired by owners and developers to survey sites before construction begins, and their employers are rarely happy to be told about the existence of artifacts that will delay or halt building. In Fishkill, N.Y., contract archaeologist Bill Sandy discovered “the largest cemetery of Revolutionary War soldiers in the country,” which seven years later still sits unexcavated, because the owners want $6 million for the land and there are no federal funds for purchasing it. Sandy gives tours and talks about the site, while a private organization tries to raise money to buy it.

Publicizing historic finds is crucial in modern archaeology, especially in the United States, where government funding for cultural preservation has been declining for decades. Archaeologists have had to become entrepreneurs; consider Kathy Abbass, who cleaned houses to support herself while creating the independent Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project. This “scholar with a marketing plan” has tried to drum up public interest in 13 ships sunk by the British in Newport harbor in 1788 by spotlighting the sexiest one: the vessel that carried Capt. James Cook around the world before he was killed and eaten in Hawaii.

The fear that publicizing important sites in war zones would lead to looting stymied cooperation between archaeologists and the military for years. The 2003 plundering of the National Museum of Iraq was a wake-up call, Johnson writes: “With the blessing of high command, archaeologists [began] to arm U.S. soldiers with enough cultural information to conduct missions, and engage in combat without destroying the world’s archaeological treasures.” The no-strike list compiled during the Libyan conflict of 2011 was a paradigm-setting success; all 242 sites survived seven months of bombing. Today, Johnson notes, the Defense Department “spends more on cultural heritage protection than almost any other entity in the United States.”

The achievements and ambiguities of cultural heritage protection suffuse the closing chapter, as Johnson pays a visit to Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city carved into a Peruvian mountaintop. The beautifully maintained site and its spectacular views are thrilling; its swarms of tourists, less so. “The millions of boots that trample through Machu Picchu,” she reflects, “support archaeology and help make the case for investing in preservation.” All preservationists are grateful for that support, knowing that it comes at a cost.

Heading home from Peru, Johnson thinks about the fierce dedication of the archaeologists she has met. One in particular comes to mind, a Vietnam veteran who became an archaeologist because “it was the opposite of killing.” The prehistoric Native American village in South Dakota where Adrien Hannus prospects for evidence of the residents’ diet will never have the visibility — or the crowds — of UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Machu Picchu. But in such places of “invisible archaeology,” the magic connection to the past that inspires Hannus and his peers is all the more evident: “It was about kneeling down in the elements, paying very close attention, and trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.” Johnson has a good time portraying archaeologists as the rugged sons and daughters of Indiana Jones, but “Lives in Ruins” is most compelling when she captures them in quiet moments like this.