REVIEW BY JOE FLATMAN
I begin with an admission of bias: I have known Raksha Dave for many years, and I was always confident that she would become a major force in archaeology. Her innate abilities both as an archaeologist and as a communicator have long been apparent, and Lessons from our Ancestors is to many of us just further evidence of this brilliance. As an archaeologist, she has an impeccable record of work in many different locations, and as a broadcaster she is one of the most familiar faces of the TV archaeology landscape – there are good reasons why she is currently President of the Council for British Archaeology.
Lessons from our Ancestors takes all of that experience and packages it up in an appealing large-format book for the 7- to 9-year-old age group, the ‘enquiring (and, from my experience, energetic) minds’ demographic who are so active in organisations like the Young Archaeologists’ Club. The book fills a much-needed gap, for despite the scale of interest in archaeology from younger people there are few such publications out there. And while it is aimed at ages 7-9, there is nothing here that a sharp younger, or enthusiastic older, child, tween, or teenager couldn’t grasp and gain value from.
Given its title, and especially its subtitle, it is unashamedly designed to encourage debate and, let us be honest, to provoke. The appearance of any book for younger readers that includes the keywords ‘equality’, ‘inclusivity’, and ‘sustainability’ is going to get noticed, including by those buying books for libraries and by the political masters who increasingly influence such decisions. It would not surprise me (although it fills me with dismay to say so) that in some countries, this book won’t make it into libraries and may even be banned outright. That would be a grave error and a sad loss to current and future students of archaeology, including adult readers. I would beg any who have doubts to stop, reflect, and actually read Lessons from our Ancestors: it is at heart a very good, extremely well-researched and -written (also -illustrated) guide to a range of archaeological sites, artefacts, and approaches drawn from around the world and across both space and time. As the book’s reviewer, I learned things myself from reading it; as a parent, I watched my own child devour it and ask for more. There is nothing here that ought to concern anyone interested in archaeology and, by extension, anyone interested in human behaviour more widely.
Raksha’s naturally easy-going narrative style is apparent throughout, making it fun, accessible, and never preachy. It is just a great exploration of how people in the past lived in harmony (more or less) with one another and with the natural environment – from Australia’s first peoples to the Makah of the modern-day Pacific Northwest by way of Viking traders in the Baltic and horse-borne warriors in ancient China. It includes some superb examples of archaeological science in action, and it ends with a handy question-and-answer section about the practice of modern-day archaeology that will whet the appetite for the next generation of practitioners.
For the doubters who remain, I suggest that the publisher takes the same text and illustrations, and repackages the book in less exciting colours with a duller-sounding title and an anonymous man’s name on the cover: A Global History of Archaeology in 50 Examples by David Ash, perhaps. The critics will probably never notice the difference, because good archaeology is good archaeology – and this is the real thing. For those of us willing to park our biases, though, stick to the real deal, and don’t be afraid to share – buy this book for any young people in your orbit and watch them thank you for it.
Lessons from Our Ancestors by Raksha Dave (illustrated by Kimberlie Clinthorne-Wong) Magic Cat Publishing, £14.99 ISBN 978-1913520946