Science reporter Johnson (This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, 2010, etc.) explores the work of archaeologists.
In her latest endeavor, the author, who makes a habit of looking into atypical subjects and then writing about them with brio and dash, takes on the discipline of archaeology, which is on a bit of a hot streak, thanks to technological advances, war, commercial development, violent weather and warming temperatures, all doing their parts to reveal our past. On her journeys, Johnson attended a field-training school—on St. Eustatius in the Caribbean—where she received a glimmering of how backbreaking, tedious work can be imbued with high suspense. Throughout, she demonstrates a learned hand in her minibiographies of various practitioners of the discipline—e.g., Joan Connelly of New York University, who told the author, “Good archaeology fills in the blanks of history. It tells the losers’ story. It teases out the history that falls between the cracks.” Much like Mary Roach, another sharp writer who often tackles a single topic, Johnson casts her net widely, from the Caribbean to Stony Brook and Fishkill, New York, to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to Agios Georgios, a small village in Greece. However, she’s also mesmerized by the smaller-scale elements: gorgeous blue beads from the wreck of an old galleon, the never-ending steam of lectures and conferences (“The audience at an archaeology lecture is ancient. I watched them stream in, drawn to slides of artifacts and talk of ruins: snowy-haired, with canes and sensible shoes. They listened with hunger”) and the pure, magical allure of the lost: “significant sites that are so humble in appearance, or buried, or otherwise hidden.”
An engrossing examination of how archaeologists re-create much of human history, piece by painstaking piece.