Discover Our Past: From Lives in Ruins to Indiana Jones | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, archaeologists of all sorts lead me down a winding path.


livesinruins102914Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Harper. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780062127181. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062127228. SCI
Taking readers across centuries and around the planet, Johnson provides a collection of linked essays and character portraits centered on the archaeologists who toil in obscurity to discover our past. Johnson is an amiable guide, with a wry sense of humor, an eye for the telling detail, and a great appreciation for the field. In one chapter, she gamely searches the woods for possible places a body might be buried and then helps uncover a pig carcass used to train students. In another section, she risks the unpredictable waters surrounding a Grecian island to learn about a tiny piece of land that plays a role in the story of Cleopatra. A third chapter describes the author’s return to college, where she takes a course in which she learns how to make Stone Age tools right out of The Clan of the Cave Bear. Through these wide-ranging accounts, readers come to appreciate the dedication and skill of archaeologists, what makes them pursue a career in a field with few job prospects and small paychecks, and the wonders they find—everything from the location of Captain Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavor, to recipes for ancient beer. Delightfully rambling, descriptive, and revelatory, Johnson’s completely engaging book is an addictive mix of immersion journalism, scientific reporting, and armchair travel.


Fox, Margalit. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Crack an Ancient Code. Ecco: HarperCollins. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780062228864. pap. $16.99. SCI
riddleoflabryinth102814Readers wanting to stay in the world of archaeology should find Fox’s exploration of the decipherment of an unknown script, named Linear B, to make good next reading. Last used in the Mycenaean period (1400–1100 BCE), the script puzzled linguists and archaeologists for decades. Fox ably delves into and then unwinds its mysteries in her fascinating account of a writing system found on tablets in the ruins of a Bronze Age palace. Like Johnson, Fox focuses on both the personalities and the work, investigating how three people—Alice Kober, a fiercely smart scholar; Michael Ventris, a talented amateur; and Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who made known Linear B—combine to tell the story of the script itself and its decoding. Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College, is the focus of the story and it is through her largely overlooked work that Fox details how Linear B came to be understood. The blend of character studies and richly described archaeology is hard to resist, and the samples of the script Fox provides are riveting.

Holmes, Richard. Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Vintage. 2014. 448p. illus. ISBN 9780307742322. pap. $17.95. SCI
fallingupwards102814Fans of Johnson who are willing to leave the bounds of Earth and travel skyward might find Holmes’s account of the men and women who pushed the edges of technology and derring-do during the great age of ballooning to be just what they are looking for. His lively account combines biographical sketches with gripping reports of ballooning disasters and triumphs, and the result is a quirky and mesmerizing read that well matches Johnson’s work for its broad approach, intellectual curiosity, and delightful tendency to wander. While Holmes looks primarily to the past, and thus his book is not as personally adventuresome as Johnson’s, he does lead readers in and out of literature, adventure, and history, recounting how balloons have been used in war, for science, and propelled exploration. The result is thrilling as well as deeply absorbing and detailed. Wonderful illustrations make Holmes’s splendid book even more enchanting.

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Norton. 2004. 303p. ISBN 9780393324822. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393069198. SCI
stiff102914Like Johnson, Roach has a fine eye for detail, a keen sense of humor, and an extensive approach to her topics. In this book on cadavers, she explores the past and present of human remains in ways that are darkly funny, profound, and intriguing. Chapters are loosely linked and flow from one to the next—each involving, quickly paced, and personal. Readers are taken back in time as Roach discusses grave robbers and early dissection, the use of cadavers to test the guillotine, and the way doctors learned in which direction an incision should be made. In current times, she looks at the handling of bodies as crash-test dummies, the grim examination of remains from airplane disasters, and talks about students in medical school holding ceremonies after their gross anatomy classes end to honor those they dissected and learned from. It sounds ghoulish, but Roach beautifully walks the line between rubbernecking and science, producing an irresistibly readable book that is as much educational as it is entertaining. Like Johnson, her personality shines through, and her narrative is affable and enjoyable company.


Childs, Craig. Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2013. 274p. ISBN 9780316066464. pap. $16. SCI finderskeepers102914
Among the questions Johnson’s book considers is the ethics of archaeology. Time and again she tells the story of archaeologists leaving objects in the ground or under water—waiting for technology to improve sufficiently so that the find can be better protected and studied (most likely by researchers other than themselves). The willingness to abandon an object, to let others claim the glories of its unveiling, speaks to the values of the profession. Childs takes up those values from all sides, asking if unearthing artifacts is ever okay and exploring the costs and rewards of acquisition. He follows treasure hunters and museum curators as he ponders the questions seething under the surface of archaeology: To whom does the past belong and who are merely looters? His is a persistently compelling story, wide ranging in scope, both lyrically written and adventuresome and constantly thought provoking.

MacGregor, Neil. A History of the World in 100 Objects. Viking. 2013. 707p. photos. ISBN 9780143124153. pap. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101545300. HIST/SCI
ahistoryoftheworld102914Readers wanting to dive even more deeply into the artifacts of archaeology need look no further than MacGregor’s wonderful collection. As the director of the British Museum, MacGregor is in a perfect position to share the treasures of human creation, and he does so here in a book that is nothing short of a treasure itself. Filled with photographs and short explanations of 100 objects (mummy cases, jewelry, vessels, statues, coins, a credit card), the book enthralls with stories and descriptions that interweave the history of human religion, politics, and creativity. The British Museum and BBC Radio partnered on a multimedia version of the book. If readers visit the museum gallery site for A History of the World in 100 Objects they will find images and further explanations and be able to listen to MacGregor read about the artifact and its context.

UNESCO. World Heritage Sites: A Complete Guide to 981 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Firefly. 2014. 896p. photos. ISBN 9781770852532. pap. $29.95. REF
MacGregor’s marvelous book shares the objects of the worldheritage102914past with readers. This collection presents the physical locations and structures that form what is arguably one of the most expansive and important “collections” of sites and buildings known to humankind. Many are the subject of archaeological fascination, while others are natural habitats. Every site is treated with at least a brief entry, and many have a full-page listing accompanied by a color photograph. The summaries demonstrate the reasons why UNESCO has listed a location or building and discuss its features and context, explaining what makes it important to the history and culture of us all. Readers will find the lines and geoglyphs of Nasca and Pampas de Jumana, Machu Picchu (both of which Johnson addresses), Chichen Itza, Stonehenge, and more. For those who are inspired by Johnson to wonder about the world and its history as shaped by humans, this guide to our most astounding creations is an invitation to marvel.


Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. color. 115 min. Steven Spielberg, dist. by Paramount. 2008. DVD UPC 097361328249. $19.99. ACTION/ADVENTURE
Johnson reports that many archaeologists adore Indiana indianajones102914Jones, despite his work being nothing like their own. Even after finishing Johnson’s book and learning firsthand how very different Indy is from modern-day field workers, readers are likely going to want a dose of the whip- wielding, swashbuckling, detailed, and action-filled adventures anyway. Replete with exotic locations, tantalizing threads of lost treasures, threats of ancient curses, and the villainy of the Nazis, the movie perfectly evokes what so many picture when they imagine the archaeological life—and the Saturday matinee. Suggest as well Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as it offers even more archaeological riches and lore.


The Monuments Men. color. 118 min. George Clooney, dist. by Columbia. 2014. DVD UPC 043396424883. $14.99. DRAMA
monumentsmen102914Johnson does write a bit about this movie in a wonderful chapter tracing the wages of war on ancient artifacts. Starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and a host of others, it tells the heroic tale of members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program run by the Allies and charged with finding and protecting the looted treasures of Europe seized by the Nazis. Its members consisted of art historians and museum staff who risked their lives to repatriate some of the world’s most important pieces. The movie is less rollicking and adventuresome than the Indy series or The Mummy, reviewed below, but it has its moments of tension and action, plus a great deal of reflection on the topic of who owns art and its place in the cultural consciousness of humankind. Fans of the film might also like to read the books by Robert M. Edsel on stolen art (The Monuments Men and Saving Italy) as well as The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas.

The Mummy. (Collector’s Edition). color. 124 min. Stephen Sommers, dist. by Universal. 2014. DVD UPC 025192250637. $12.99. ADVENTURE
Granted, the central character of the movie is a librarian themummy102914rather than an archaeologist, but she knows more than the so-called experts—except when not to open a book. When she does unlock the Book of the Dead and reads from its pages, that is exactly what arises—the dead in the form of a mummy bent on destruction. This campy, daring, and fun version of the mummy story takes off in high style in a romp that traverses ancient cities and 1920s Egypt. While Johnson never examines the collective archaeological opinion of the reanimation of mummies, this version featuring the mummy Imhotep and his quest to bring back to life his lost love—and in the process kill pretty much everything in his path—should please readers wanting more action with heavy doses of Hollywood-style archaeology.

Bonus Fiction:

clanofthecavebear102914Johnson discusses Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear in some detail, and readers might be prompted to either revisit Auel or try her series for the first time based on Johnson’s appreciative reaction. Readers might also become interested in fictional accounts of archaeologists (or those in related fields), and, if so, there is a range of novels in various genres to suggest, including Erin Hart’s Haunted Ground (which begins the “Nora Gavin and Cormac Maguire” series); the “Amelia Peabody” series by Elizabeth Peters (Crocodile on the Sandbank); Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic; the many Clive Cussler novels, including the “Dirk Pitt” adventures (Pacific Vortex!), the “NUMA Files” (Serpent), and the “Fargo” series (Spartan Gold); Elizabeth Lowell’s Beautiful Sacrifice and Running Scared; the Temperance Brennan mysteries by Kathy Reichs (Déjà Dead); Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels; and Arthur Phillips’s The Egyptologist.

Bonus Nonfiction:

Travel narratives about places of archaeological treasure might also interest readers. Consider suggesting Mark Adams’s Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time; Christopher S. Stewart’s Jungleland: A True Story of Adventure, Obsession, and the Deadly Search for the Lost White City; and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.

Bonus Beer:

In one of her most intriguing chapters, because it makes the ancient world a bit more knowable today, Johnson talks about Dr. Patrick McGovern and his partnership with Dogfish Head brewery to re-create beers based upon the chemical analysis of the remains left in various forms of drinking vessels. To read more and to find out where to get brews based upon recipes over 3,000 years old, see the Dogfish Head information page on ancient ales.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at