Dr. Kevin McGeough (BA ’96) relishes his fall semester Archaeology 1000 class more than any other. He also realizes it comes with the unique pressure of living up to the expectations of his eager first-year students.
“I love it because these are people in their first semester of university, and if they signed up they probably always wanted to take archaeology,” says McGeough. “So it’s easier for me in some ways than other professors because people have already bought into this subject as being interesting. I have the job not to lose them as opposed to catch their attention.”
Archaeology is inherently interesting, associated with a certain cool factor propagated by films and media and McGeough is happy to take advantage of that to discuss his research and what it can teach modern society. He will open the popular PUBlic Professor Series on Thursday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m. at Lethbridge City Hall by presenting, ‘I met a traveller from an antique land’: The Archaeology of Progress, Decline and Collapse.
“It’s part of what I think is our obligation as professors,” he says of public outreach initiatives such as PUBlic Professor. “We can’t always make our research accessible in ways that are meaningful but we should always be trying to do so and archaeology is one of those disciplines that is evocative and garners a lot of public interest and imagination. So we need to think about that and do our best to communicate our work back to everybody.”
His outreach involves some myth busting, breaking down false impressions people may have of the discipline.
“I think the biggest misconception is the importance of the artifact to archaeology and that comes from films and television where people are depicted as desperate for acquiring the artifact. And really, the artifact is just one small piece,” says McGeough.
He describes the opening scene from the original Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the hero navigates a series of hair-raising traps and barriers in order to recover a gold idol.
“For an actual archaeologist, the gold idol wouldn’t really be that interesting at all, rather all the traps and the whole context that surrounds the idol is what’s really interesting to us,” he says. “It also comes from a museum context where people have probably experienced archaeology and where artifacts are often treated as pieces of art. But the thing itself is meaningless if you don’t have the full context.”
A U of L alumnus, McGeough went on to master’s and doctoral studies at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania respectively before returning to teach at the U of L in 2003. He’s been in Lethbridge ever since but has conducted field work throughout the world, including extensive research in the Middle East.
He sees archaeology as much more than digging up the past.
“Our contribution is we have evidence for this vastly huge sum of the human past,” he says. “It’s not only the actual data but also all the models that come out of us thinking about the past, how things have changed, advanced, progressed. We haven’t always been this way, what we see today hasn’t always been normative, so that shifts the focus. You have this longstanding change over time mixed with an understanding of other experiences and you begin to realize our way of life hasn’t always been, nor will it continue as we expect it might.”
He also looks at how people use archaeology to make arguments about the present, how this is both legitimate and can also be cause for concern. One need only look at today’s Middle Eastern issues, political conflict throughout the globe and even the curious politics of former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pursuit of the long lost ships of the Franklin Expedition.
“It makes you ask, whose history is important? What was he saying politically about northern sovereignty, because it’s very strange for a leader of state to make an archaeological announcement?” asks McGeough. “When we are telling these narratives of the past, what are we embedding in there, what kind of politics are we arguing for, either overtly or subversively?”
McGeough’s PUBlic Professor talk is the first in this academic year’s six-part series that will also feature presentations from Dr. Roy Golsteyn (biological sciences), Dr. Goldie Morgentaler (English), Dr. Janay Nugent (history), Dr. Kent Peacock (philosophy) and Dr. Stacey Wetmore (chemistry & biochemistry).
All events are free and open to the public and no RSVP is required. Seating is limited and guests are encouraged to arrive early.