Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Q&A with author Marilyn Johnson

Marilyn Johnson is the author of the new book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. She also has written This Book is Overdue! and The Dead Beat. A former editor and writer for Life, Esquire, and Outside magazines, she lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

Q: You write, “The Hollywood image of the dashing adventurer bears little resemblance to the real people who, armed with not much more than a trowel and a sense of humor, try to tease one true thing from the rot and rubble of the past.” What are some of the biggest misperceptions about archaeologists?

A: I blame Indiana Jones. People think archaeologists wear leather jackets and fedoras and carry whips, and are always fighting off snakes, spiders, and cannibals.

Based on my observations, I’d say archaeologists wear cutoffs, bandannas, and lightweight boots, carry trowels, and fight off ticks and mosquitoes.

That doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? But they ARE dashing characters, and never so much as when they’re covered with sweat and mud and up to their eyeballs in a trench.

Q: Why did you decide to write about archaeologists, and how did you research the book?

A: I’m interested in people who work hard, and for very little personal gain, to save bits of our cultural history, and archaeologists certainly fit that description. I also wanted to get my hands dirty and have an adventure!

I started my research by going to every lecture and program on archaeology I could find. I read shelves of books, took a college course in human origins, attended local, state, national, and international conferences, and participated in several field schools and got a certificate in forensic archaeology and evidence recovery.

I wrote to every archaeologist who sounded interesting: Hi, I write humorous books; can I come hang out with you? And some of them wrote me back.

Q: Of the many places you visited in the course of your research, are there some that especially stand out in your mind?

A: I could mention two places in Peru, Machu Picchu or Caral, the oldest city in the Americas, or the excavations I got to work on in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, but the site that moved me the most is in Fishkill, N.Y.

It looks like a vacant lot. One of the archaeologists in the book found a graveyard full of Revolutionary War soldiers buried there, and he’s been trying to bring attention to the site ever since. The owner wants to build a development next to the graves, but he’d sell the lot for $5 million. Do you happen to have $5 million, or even $5? Check out fishkillsupplydepot.org.

Q: You’ve also written about librarians. What do you see as the similarities and differences between the two professions?

A: Librarians work inside and archaeologists work outside. Librarians are trained to help anyone who walks through the door, and archaeologists are much more reserved and guarded, because they need to protect the sites they excavate.

But in so many other ways, these are similar professions, full of smart, highly trained, detail-oriented people who are trying to preserve our history for everyone’s benefit. And people have ridiculous stereotypes about both librarians and archaeologists.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ll let you know when I figure it out!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You can be passionate about archaeology without getting a Master's or a Ph.D. The Archaeological Institute of America sponsors lectures all over the country. Local archaeology societies welcome newcomers. Many archaeological websites post field school opportunities for volunteers.

One archaeologist in my book runs an underwater archaeology education center in Newport, R.I.; she’ll train anyone for a very modest fee, and she’ll also let you help search for historic ships sunk in Newport Harbor (see www.rimap.org).  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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