Digging Deep: How Science Unearths Puzzles from the Past (Review)
Updated: Nov 21
Author: Laura Scandiffio
Publisher: Annick Press, 2019
Interest Level: Ages 10 to 17
Reading Level: Lexile 1050L; Grades 5 and up
Retail: $14.95, paperback
Summary: This book showcases six case studies of archaeological discoveries around the world and describes the modern scientific methods that were used to reveal new and important information. It is illustrated with maps, photographs, artists’ renderings, and timelines. Each chapter concludes with a section called, “What we thought we knew and what we know now.”
This book falls into the sub-genre I lovingly call “Gee Whiz Archaeology.” It is intended to dazzle the reader with amazing discoveries and full color spreads. Digging Deep is divided into short case studies that are in turn divided into smaller parts (including informational sidebars) that are easy to read. It has a table of contents and an index. The glossy pages read a bit like like a magazine, and the stories should be interesting to adults as well. I learned a few things!
The case studies included in the book are:
Otzi, a frozen mummy found in Europe
Deadly poison residue found on ancient tools in South Africa
Angkor, a huge city buried in the Cambodian jungle
Northwest Passage shipwrecks of the Erebus and the Terror
The lost grave of Richard III in England
Prehistoric cave art in France (Chauvet)
Modern scientific methods that figure in to the case studies include: forensics, CT scans, carbon-14 dating, LIDAR, ice core sampling, sonar, DNA testing, facial reconstruction, chemical residue analysis, accelerator mass spectrometry, and primary historical document (archival) research.
What I really like about this book is that the examples include research conducted recently. There are examples of multidisciplinary collaboration and female scientists. The overarching theme of discoveries changing what we know, demonstrates that science is not a collection of immutable facts. It is a way of learning about the world. Different lines of evidence don’t always converge into a single story. That is a feature of science, not a bug.
I would have enjoyed this book more had it included an example from South America or Oceania. The single case study in North America is in the far north. Also, the cover art features human skeletons. This is a big no-no for archaeologists in the United States because illustrations of human remains are avoided out of respect for living native peoples. Both of these factors are discussion-worthy.
Parents and teachers might also want to be cautious of the statement, “Our ancient ancestors once lived as hunters and gatherers, but in the Neolithic Period, people began to settle down into villages." This unfortunate choice of words reveals that the assumed audience is of European ancestry.
Finally, keep an eye out for the value-laden words “clumsy” and “sophisticated” in reference to the development of art by our hominid ancestors. This type of language reinforces notions of cultural superiority. Better terms might be “simple” and “complex.”
Faults aside, the focus on science, the naming of scientists, and the descriptions of the research process sets this book apart from a lot of Gee Whiz Archaeology books on the market. It is a solid STEM title for home or school libraries and may even attract reluctant readers.