Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries, by Sarah Albee

As far as I know, I'm the only professional archaeologists who has a children's book blog. So I was delighted when I was offered a review copy of Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries, by Sarah Albee, illustrated by Nathan Hackett (Scholastic Nonfiction, November 10th 2020). I enjoyed the reading of it very much, and learned lots I didn't know, and I think it's a great one to offer the 10-12 year old who has an interest in archaeology.

The book is self-described as a collection of "chance discoveries by ordinary people" that contributed to our understanding of the past. Arranged in chronological order of the discoveries (which has the added bonus of seeing how archaeology has changed over time), these chance finds from around the world are indeed extraordinary, marvelous, discoveries. Included are some that will be familiar to many kids in the US, like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and some that will quite possibly be new, like an Aztec temple in Mexico City, and a South African cave full of the fossils of a previously unknown early human species. They really are all tremendously exiting finds from around the world!

Albee does a truly great job providing historical context for many of the finds (along the way, for instance, you'll learn lots about the history of Thailand, and slavery in New York), and in some cases, the discoverers are brought to life too--like the black cowboy who found the first huge bison kill site in the US--which adds human interest. Lots of vintage illustrations, maps, and sidebars give even more substance to the already rich descriptions of each discovery. The accessible, almost conversational style of the stories allows Albee to include past injustices, misconceptions, and mistakes in a way that's thought provoking without being preachy.

In short, reading books like this is a great way to learn, and there's lots to learn here, not dumbed down at all, and so much more fun than reading books written for grown-ups!

(I only have one professional quibble--one of the discoveries wasn't accidental at all, but the result of cultural resource buraucracy working like it's supposed to. The discovery of New York's African American cemetery occured not by chance, but becuase the laws protecting historic sites worked--a regulatory archaeologist (like me!) reviewed the project, and called for an archaeological survey. And so, though it's a great story, it doesn't really belong in the book....and I wish Albee had used this story to hammered home a little harder than she does the point that many important discoveries are made becuase people know what they are doing and are trained professionals! In fairness, she does make the point clear that the finding of neat things is only the first step, and doesn't get you far without the professionals to do the analysis and conservation....)


  1. I love reading books like this. I hadn't heard of it, but I will be checking it out. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. So neat that you found a book that pertains to your profession and enjoyed it so much.

  3. Thank you for this lovely review. It means the world to me that an actual archaeologist appreciated the book!
    And to your point about the African burial ground discovery: you are absolutely right to call it out as an exception to the "accidental" discoveries. I freely admit that I was on the fence about including it, but my desire to highlight to kids that slavery existed in the north outweighed my reservations about the fact that it didn't truly fit. I decided it qualified as an "unexpected" discovery per the subtitle. :-D
    Again, thanks for this fantastic and thoughtful review!!!


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