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Lives in Ruins


For those who grew up wanting to be archaeologists and those who feel the pull of places locked in time (Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Parthenon), archaeology has a romantic aura and a battered-Jeep glamor. Archaeology is all around us, wherever humans once lived and wherever ground is turned, but actual archaeologists are elusive creatures, hard to spot in civilization and even harder to pin down in the wild. Their work is painstakingly slow and performed under brutal conditions; their work space is, as often as not, a garbage dump or a grave. And in the current bottom-line economy, who has time to indulge them and their piles of rubble? Ah, but in those piles of rot and rubble are a world of stories and discoveries-- the remains of a defeated British king unearthed in a parking lot, or the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers that one archaeologist in Lives in Ruins found between a gas station and a ghost mall.

I followed professionals through the buggy Caribbean and the scorching Mediterranean, into South America, under the sea and up a mountain, onto military bases, and behind crime scene tape. I found archaeologists who were expert in the Ice Age and in colonial times, and experts who had sifted ground in every part of the world from Africa, China, and the Middle East to my own backyard in New York. I rode in bashed up vehicles driven by archaeologists who couldn't help pointing out the gaps in the landscape where pieces of history had disappeared. I excavated alongside archaeologists and learned how they try to reconstruct worlds that were buried and forgotten. Their work is precise and exacting, and the last thing they need in their trenches is a dreamer who can’t tell a rock from a bone. (Human kneecaps, you know, look exactly like rocks.)

Who cares what we leave behind? Obituary writers care, though they capture the lives of only a tiny fraction of the people who die. Librarians and archivists care as well; they try to keep the records of our civilization available and organized, though their resources shrink even as their tasks multiply. And then there are archaeologists, on their knees behind a construction fence, studying the way a foundation collapsed or an ancient skeleton crumbled. They explore uncharted territory to piece together the fragments of an unknown or disputed past. They are the ants of history, combing the earth for crumbs of cultural significance that everyone else missed. The jobs are scarce. The pay is bad. It can be nasty, difficult work, and yet the archaeologist’s life is the dream of everyone in Lives in Ruins, and they can't imagine any other life. One archaeologist laughed as he recounted the problems on one dig in Ethiopia: "We had cattle raids, we had brush fires, we put the car into the river. You name the disaster, we had it." His students' response? "Let's do it again next year!"

Paleoanthropologist John Shea teaches students how to throw atlatls in Stony Brook, NY. You can't understand ancient humans without hoisting their weapons.
Archaeologist Laurie Rush works on a new task for the U.S. Army: preservation.
Seven archaeologists, two law enforcement officers, and me study forensics archaeology and look for bodies in the Pine Barrens (photo ©Kimberlee Moran).
Archaeologist Bill Sandy points out a Native American site in New Jersey.