1792 The 164,000-year classroom

Dig Deep: Connecting Archaeology, Oceans and Us
by Nicole F. Smith, with photographs by Alexander Mackie and others

Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2023
$21.95 / 9781459826083

Reviewed by Grant Keddie


Over my 50 years as a curator in Archaeology at the British Columbia Provincial Museum-Royal British Columbia Museum I received numerous requests from teachers asking me to recommend children’s books about archaeology, especially local archaeology. Alas, there was usually next to nothing available. I answered these requests by going out to numerous schools over the years to talk and demonstrate tool technology.

I always thought it was important to talk to students of all ages to gain an understanding of what they knew, how they thought about the world, and how this knowledge changed over time. Our first lesson was we could never assume that the students knew what seemed obvious to us. This was increasingly true as we saw more students from a range of cultural backgrounds. I was surprised when a Grade 5 student asked me what a bow and arrow was. Modern children simply did not grow up making bows and arrows, or watching the same movies that I had as a child.

Nicole Smith. Photo by Samantha Birosh

There was nothing that honed one’s teaching skills like giving presentations in the same morning to Grade 6, Grade 3, and Grade 1 classes in sequence. It required quick switches in what I was showing and the language that I used. Therefore I appreciate the difficulties of writing a book like this, intended for a diverse range of students and covering much territory.

Dig Deep: Connecting Archaeology, Oceans and Us is composed of four chapters with 29 sub-titled short topics and vignettes. The author, Victoria writer and archaeologist Nicole F. Smith, hopes that the book “introduces middle-grade readers to marine archaeology” — middle grade is usually defined by publishers as youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 — and that they “will discover how understanding our ancient ancestors’ relationship with the ocean can help the planet today, and in the future.” Smith introduces her background in archaeology and gives a general overview. “We will explore many ways people have used the marine environment around the world over the last 164,000 years, and we will learn how this knowledge can be used to improve the health of our oceans today,” she writes.

Chapter 1, “What We Leave Behind,” contains an excellent photo of a young boy pointing to mussels growing on a beach rock. Recent studies on children’s reading habits have shown they are more likely to take an interest in reading books when they contain pictures of children; naturally, young girls are interested in reading books containing images of girls. This book has a good mixture of photos of boys and girls.

Nuu-chah-nulth canoe. Photo courtesy Joe Jack

Chapter 1 also concerns sites in South Africa that provide very early evidence of ocean fishing, as well as a bamboo fish trap from Indonesia, a bluefin tuna bone from Huu-ay-aht territory on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and a shell fishing hook from East Timor. The chapter explains what an artifact is, and which ones are direct or indirect evidence of activities in the past. Specific words are highlighted for students to examine their meaning in the glossary near the end of the book. I would have included a few more words used, for example harpoon, ecologist, excavation unit, and generations. The international perspective includes locations such as East Timor, which students will be unfamiliar with, and teachers or parents might want to follow up with a geography lesson.

“Where do you find examples of the ocean on land?” Smith asks. The answer is, “Sometimes we even find canoes in the rainforest.” Even with the image of an unfinished canoe in the woods it needs to be made clear to students that canoes in the rainforest are all unfinished and in the process of being manufactured, but were then abandoned for a variety of reasons. To make the further connection with the ocean it would have been suitable here to show canoes on the beach as well. In this chapter focussing on the oceans and people, it would have been appropriate to have more images of ocean food such as a good composite image of the marine molluscs mentioned — “brown mussels, peri-winkles, limpets, whelks, chitons and even a barnacle.”

A Haida dugout canoe left unfinished in the forest, probably in the last half of the 1800s. Photo (2015) by Alexander Mackie

Smith points out that people on the Pacific coast of North America used shell like they did in Argentina, as a landscape feature “to create large, flat, dry areas where they could build their towns and villages.” There is, in fact, only very minimal evidence for the use of discarded shells for physical constructions in British Columbia and Washington State. Most shell was simply material left or discarded on village sites.

What is missing in Dig Deep is reference to shell middens, which have been referred to as the archives of ancient coastal lifeways. Middens are mentioned in only one photo caption, where archaeologists are shown screening material from an excavation. Because of the original use of the word midden to mean refuse heap or garbage dump, shell midden has recently fallen out of favour as a name for coastal Indigenous archaeological sites. It is seen as especially disrespectful when the deposits contain ancestral remains. The term shell midden is still in use, but now mostly refers to a type of archaeological shell-rich site feature.

SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay, Haida Gwaii, a World Heritage Site. Photo (2018) by Alexander Mackie

In fact, much of the material underlying old village sites was not deposited as refuse, but comprises disintegrated wood from houses and other wooden structures, ash from heating and cooking fire pits, discarded remains of fire-altered rocks used in cooking, and the remains of food such as shell and bones and plant fibre artifacts.

Dig Deep provides a good diversity of archaeological sites including fish traps and clam gardens, but given that much of the book includes examples from British Columbia and Washington State, a visually-clear, well-stratified example of shell midden features with explanations might have enhanced the book. It includes an interesting image of a Tseshaht whale skull with a mussel shell spear point uniquely embedded in the skull, but no description is provided on the stratigraphy.

Body adornment and the use of ochre for painting are discussed in the short segment on “What Makes Us Human,” but for early modern humans and Neanderthals, it was genetic changes that enhanced our brain connectivity and function and actually made us different from earlier Hominins – though of course symbols enhanced by the use of ochre and body adornments helped develop human cultures.

Chapter Two, “Looking For Ocean Clues,” does a good job of emphasizing faunal material and features, instead of the usual overemphasis on artifacts that one sees in books designed for children. However, the text would have benefited, for example, from discussion of historic trade goods from the Fort Vancouver excavation and a close-up image of a fish spear. The brief discussion of sea level change could have explained how sea level changes have washed away much of the evidence of the past, and will continue to do so with rising tides due to climate change. The section on climate change, “At the Bottom of a Bog,” benefits from the evidence of diatoms and photos of matrix cores and how they are extracted from the bog.

Taking a core sample in a bog, 2013. Photo by Alexander Mackie
Examining a core sample. Photo by Alexander Mackie















Chapter Two also provides a good overview of where we might find coastal archaeological sites but omits an obvious indication: the nearness to a fresh water source. As well, it would be helpful to indicate how archaeologists find old village sites: by observing bays at low tide for evidence of the stone alignments of canoe runs and large scatters of fire-altered rocks that the ocean has washed out of sites and onto the beach or intertidal zone. On the northern coast this is one of the better ways to locate sites where shell midden features are thickly overgrown by the forest.

“How Humans Can Change the World,” in Chapter Two, contains a section on glaciation and mammoths, but I am not sure that mammoths belong here without a discussion of the role of climate change or human activity in the disappearance of megafauna. This is a topic that teachers will want answers to. As well, I thought a few more images of sea mammals would have enhanced this chapter. The only sea lion image included might confuse readers because the caption reads, “Sea lions, fur seals and seals can be hard to tell apart.” If this is not a typo, the last mentioned should be specified as the more common harbour seals. Another part of the comment, “We harvested resources like trees and plants differently,” needs to have the word “other” inserted, since tree are plants.

An excavation, 2014. Photo by Alexander Mackie

I have a few more quibbles about minor things I tripped on. In the section “Opening Our Hearts, Minds and Ears,” Smith states that, “As you can see, even though we don’t have written scientific data going back hundreds or thousands of years….” This is not true, of course, for some societies, and it should be explained that this comment pertains to traditional cultures without a written history. Similarly, in the same section we are told that, “there are people we can ask about how the oceans have changed over the centuries and millennia.” I assume this refers to people from certain traditional societies, but even so, I would omit the word “millennia.” Most people can speak from their own experience and from what they have been told, which might go back several generations. What lasts longer, usually, are remnant stories about catastrophic events such as tsunamis or major battles, or severe winters that killed many people.

People can have knowledge, for example, of funeral rites, animal behaviour, or specific ways of fishing that might have been passed down for thousands of years; but the idea that someone today, without current scientific knowledge, can explain how the oceans have changed over the millennia is a romanticized view. We can, of course, learn from people with local knowledge of animal behaviour that may inform how to undertake better management of those resources, or people who may have observed sea level changes in their own lifetimes.

Next up is Chapter Three, “Learning from our Ancestors,” which uses recent historic information about knowledge gained by children at an early age among Meriam fishing people in the Torres Strait Islands and the involvement of Kanaka Maoli children in building Hawaiian fishponds. This section will be of interest to 8 to 12 year olds and expose them to unfamiliar views of social organization. An excellent photograph shows the large size of the fish pond and young people fixing a stone wall. The section on clam gardens has a good cross-section diagram showing how they are constructed, and illustrations of modern Indigenous families rebuilding a wall. These vignettes work well with the theme of “Connecting Land and Sea.”

Also in Chapter Three, under the title “Many Types of Science, Many Types of Knowledge,” Smith states that, “Today Western scientists (scientists trained in the scientific method) are realizing that there are additional types of science and ways of understanding the world around us.” When she writes, “Some of these ancient practices can help restore the health of our oceans today,” I wish she had given some specific examples for children to relate to. These thoughts require some clarification. Traditional knowledge and ways of seeing the world of any human population can be used in the process of scientific inquiry and testing, but there is no such thing as additional “types of science.” Traditional knowledge can frame or be used in scientific enquiry. For example, Indigenous people might observe seagulls catching fish where tides converge, and after visiting the location by canoe several times, they conclude that a large number of fish appear under specific tidal conditions. This is following the scientific method of observation and testing. Scientists today can recognize the validity of Indigenous knowledge as being as worthy of scientific testing as information from any other source.

Chapter Four, “Archaeology of the Future,” contains a discussion about modern garbage or the study of garbology. In the 1970s I developed a program at the British Columbia Provincial Museum called “Garbage” that allowed schoolchildren to examine, analyse, and identify odd and mundane things that had been thrown away. This proved to be very popular. Readers will relate to the topic of “The Plastic Age,” and consider ordinary things that might be found in their own houses. Short notes titled “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and “Small Steps, Big Change” encourage young readers to follow up with their own actions by making small changes to improve the environment and set the stage for similar action in the future.

An important aspect of archaeology not mentioned in Dig Deep is discussion of the major changes that continue to occur in the analysis of DNA in the study of humans, and specifically in faunal material, hair, fibres, and organic materials found at archaeological sites and sometimes still adhering to artifacts. Much of the new information in archaeology is, and will increasing be, from DNA analysis. In the near future most of the children reading this book will see their own DNA being used for medical analysis and health benefits as common procedures.

While inevitably, owing to space limits, many interesting subjects are minimally covered in Dig Deep, the book contains a resource section with online material for kids to expand upon their learning. It is wonderful that Dig Deep has an international perspective in providing a diversity of topics to explain what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. Given the paucity of children’s books on archaeology relevant to British Columba, I would recommend that Dig Deep: Connecting Archaeology, Oceans and Us be used in schools as a catalyst vehicle to expand upon, alongside the other resources it recommends.


Grant Keddie

Grant Keddie retired in 2022 after fifty years as Curator of Archaeology at the Royal BC Museum. His job involved all aspects of research, collections, public programming, and fieldwork throughout British Columbia. He is known for his wide range of interests related to both human and natural history and for making and using stone and bone tools. He has published many articles from ethnohistory to artifacts and the megafauna of BC, and is author of the popular book Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as Seen by Outsiders, 1790-1912 (Royal BC Museum, 2003). Editor’s note: Grant Keddie has also reviewed Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (1859, new edition 2016), by Paul Kane and edited by Kenneth Lister, for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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