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McGeough is taking archaeology to the masses

Dr. Kevin McGeough sees connecting with the general public as a priority for scholars.

Popular cinema loves to delve into the world of archaeology for fantastical storylines that tease our fascination with history and titillate our sense of discovery. But is archaeology similarly enamored with film and its portrayal of historical science? And if not, how can archaeology, and the rich historical information it gleans, be accurately presented to the general public?

University of Lethbridge professor Dr. Kevin McGeough (Archaeology & Geography) has studied these questions in the past, researching the relationship between popular cinema and archaeology and, along with his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Galway (English), how it is manifest in children’s literature. Now, McGeough is involved in a far-reaching project that attempts to present academic archaeological and historical information to the general public.

The ABC-CLIO Encyclopedia of World History is due to be published this year and McGeough has played a significant role in its production, editing four of its volumes.

“This encyclopedia represents the combined efforts of literally hundreds of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, art-historians, and other scholars (including about 20 faculty and graduates of the University of Lethbridge) to present world history to a non-specialist audience,” says McGeough. “Our goal has been to create a trustworthy source for high school and undergraduate history instructors and students, which provides up to date information that can be readily understood.”

McGeough adds that the project intends to, “present a coherent and inclusive exploration of world history while avoiding the Eurocentric biases and progress narratives that have been typical of previous world history approaches.”

Connecting with the general public is something that McGeough sees as a priority, and this manifests in another project on which he is working; editing The Intimate Lives of Ancient People series. Here, experts of various regions and time periods explore what they know of the close relationships between people in a variety of world cultures.

“To my mind, this type of public outreach is an important component of archaeological work and one that is often left to documentary filmmakers and journalists rather than the specialists themselves,” says McGeough.

His current work on how archaeological information has been disseminated and used by non-archaeologists stems out of a University of Lethbridge Research Fund (ULRF) research grant, titled Navigating Identity on the Nile.

“I am researching what 19th century non-specialists would have known about the ancient Near East and how they made sense of that knowledge in relationship to their own identities,” says McGeough.

He describes how the re-discovery through archaeology and philology of the cultures of the ancient Near East was destabilizing to European conceptions of the world.

“The recognition that once mighty empires, like those of the Egyptians and Assyrians, had long ago collapsed, led to the realization that the British and French empires might one day share the same fate,” says McGeough.

By examining intellectual and popular culture of the 19th century, McGeough gains a whole new perspective on the role archaeology played in reconstructing the past.

“Archaeology became a key component of the colonial enterprise and the ‘rescue’ of artifacts of ancient civilizations from the control of the Ottoman and Muslim inhabitants of the Near East became an important justification of imperialism,” says McGeough.

Through the exploration of a variety of media, such as stage performances, panoramas, fairs, museums, periodicals and popular novels, for example, he gains a greater understanding of how non-specialists may have interacted with ideas about the ancient Near East. Many of the extraordinary storylines involving archaeologists in today’s popular culture grow out of these 19th century traditions and carry with them various Victorian presuppositions about ancient societies.

“By examining the cultural roles that Near Eastern archaeology played in its formative years, I hope to gain a better understanding of the cultural roles of Near Eastern archaeology in its present practice.”