With Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, former Esquire editor Johnson writes a lively love letter to the dedicated individuals who literally dig into the past.
It’s not true that I never went outdoors before I wrote a book about archaeologists. I’ve been outdoors! In fact, I once worked for Outside magazine, though I interviewed for the job in pink high heels and needed, for the entire two years of my employment, a special assistant to translate for me (“crampon,” “neoprene,” “mummy bag”). After many years and two books about indoor professions (2006’s The Dead Beat, about obituary writers, and 2010’s This Book Is Overdue!, about librarians), I’d lost touch with nature and felt the desire to go outdoors. The idea of archaeology had always appealed to me. I didn’t think too hard about the fact that it was a science, that it covered the entirety of human history and the whole planet (on land, but also underwater, and even in space—did you know there is such a thing as space archaeology?). I would get to travel, I’d get my hands dirty, and surely I’d learn as I went along. (That I was out of shape and growing forgetful, I also refused to consider.)
I plunged in with excitement and anticipation: archaeologists, who do their physically and intellectually demanding work with little encouragement and often little to show for their efforts, are a wonderful subject. Much of what we know of human history has been discovered or verified by archaeologists. They contribute immeasurably to our collective cultural memory. Like my other favorite professions, archaeology is less a job than a passionate calling. I felt sure I could find some enthusiastic practitioners and improvise my way through the field.
I knew no archaeologists. Obituary writers, for the most part, have their names in the papers every day. Librarians are numerous and easy to find. Relatively speaking, archaeologists are hermits. There are fewer of them; they are not that easy to locate; they’re scattered all over the world, off in the field, sometimes in remote areas, for months at a time—even the friendly ones can take weeks to answer an email. And because looting and theft are such threats to their work, they tend to be discreet or even secretive about their sites, and suspicious of strangers. The last thing they need is a novice tagging along with a notebook and a camera. I found a sympathetic retired archaeologist and I suggested we go visit some excavations. He explained that this was simply not done; you do not, even as a fellow professional, drop in on someone else’s dig. I asked an underwater archaeologist if I could observe her work from shore. Ultimately she was an open and generous source, but she reared back at this request, as if I had asked to see her tax return. If I wanted access, I had to take the training and the classes and commit to the fieldwork. There was no shortcut.
It took me almost a year to get the first useful bits of research.
Once I found 20 or 30 archaeologists to follow, I had to read until my eyes bled to have any chance of keeping up with their conversation. Each had a different specialty—a time period or a part of the world—that they were deeply engaged in, and whether it was the Ice Age or Neolithic China or a graveyard for Revolutionary War soldiers, I was challenged. These people were broadly and deeply knowledgeable, time travelers who routinely lived in both the modern world and, say, medieval Ireland or Paleolithic Arabia. I stripped some gears trying to keep up. One day, I drove 80 miles to a goat roast and spear-hurling picnic with the human origins crowd, then 100 miles in the other direction to learn about the aquifers above the Nazca Lines in Peru, built in the first century B.C.E. Archaeology was a renewable source of wild edification.
The archaeologists who welcomed me onto their sites and put sharp tools in my hands were a brave lot. I made every mistake you can make in the field. But when, for instance, sealed in a papery Tyvek suit so as not to contaminate forensic evidence, I lay on my stomach in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, scraping a trowel over the remains of a 400-pound pig that had been deliquescing for a year, while I listened to archaeologists and homicide cops discuss the worst crime scenes they had ever processed—in that moment, I thought: this is it, nirvana. It’s hard to convey the appeal of such gross and gritty work, especially since the pig was a stand-in for a murder victim, and my fellow excavators would be applying these skills to human burials, a sobering thought. But I left that site feeling exhilarated and tough, almost cocky. I ached, I stank, I had dirt and rotting organic goop under my fingernails, but I had gained privileged access, and I had a story about my instructors and fellow students who performed almost unthinkable work every day to absorb and make sense of the human messes of the world.
Because fieldwork is grueling and pays so poorly, archaeology is a profession best suited for the young, the fit, and the restless. And yet I found that it has a particular pull for those who are older. Every public archaeology lecture I went to was filled with people like me in their 50s and 60s and beyond. Climbing over the ruins of Machu Picchu with a group of archaeologists, I was struck by the age of our fellow travelers. Appreciating archaeology is a wonderful consolation of age. Maybe history means more to those of us who are conscious of the history we’ve lived through. What we leave behind matters. How else can we measure the humanity of those who have gone before us? And isn’t it a measure of our own humanity, how carefully we tend our ruins?