6 Questions For Mount Pleasant Author Marilyn Johnson

Q&A with the Westchester-based author behind the archaeologist expose Lives in Ruins.

You pick interesting subjects for your books: first obituary writers, then librarians, now archaeologists (which, to me, seems to combine the first two). Why archaeologists?

I like people who work passionately to save bits of our culture and history for us. They don’t get paid much, and they don’t get enough appreciation, but they add immeasurably to our collective knowledge.

Was it everything Indiana Jones promised?

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Sure, if instead of pits of snakes and giant tarantulas you substituted mosquitoes, and instead of bloodthirsty cannibals you swapped in impoverished indigenous people. Oh, and an archaeologist would not gallop through a site on horseback snatching up priceless antiquities, but would measure out a square meter of soil and carefully screen, sift, and make a record of it. Indiana Jones gets it wrong in almost every way—and at the same time, he does a great job capturing the spirit of adventure and obsession that fuels archaeology.

What else surprised you about archaeologists?

They’re much funnier than I thought they’d be, and much more knowledgeable and resourceful. If the apocalypse comes, find an archaeologist and stick close. Your average archaeologist could improvise shelter and defensive bulwarks, stabilize a collapsing structure, and find food and water in the wilderness. Plus, they’ll tell you how to brew beer.

What’s the most memorable thing that happened to you when you were researching the book?

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At my first conference, I stumbled into a meeting of archaeologists and military officers who were conspiring together to save sites in war-torn areas. They wanted to keep their bombs away from ancient temples and archaeological sites. These people are leading a whole cultural shift in the military, it turns out. Did you know that ROTC cadets now receive archaeological training, so they can recognize the signs of ancient ruins? 

When people think of archaeology, they think of ancient civilizations like the ones in Egypt or Greece. What can you tell us about archaeology in the local area?

Archaeology is everywhere, and we are very lucky in Westchester to have so many places where Native Americans and European settlers and traders left their mark, everything from rock shelters to a shell midden in Croton Point Park where once-plentiful oysters were harvested. 

How was Fishkill different from the other sites you visited?

The Revolutionary War graveyard at the Fishkill Supply Depot isn’t protected or preserved, or even adequately marked. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d think this was an empty lot for sale on Route 9, across from a ghost mall. It is for sale, but it’s not empty. It contains the largest burial of Revolutionary War soldiers in the country. The archaeologist who found the graves couldn’t believe the discovery wasn’t front-page news. He’s not alone in thinking it might be the most significant archaeological site in the country. 

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