Rated 4 out of 5 by Archaeophile Valuable from an Archaeological Perspective
As a fan of both ancient history and archaeology, this course appeared to be a must for me. Though surprised and discouraged by the multiple negative reviews, I decided to take advantage of the temporary heavily-discounted sale price and purchased the video download for streaming on my iPad. I began by selectively viewing several representative lectures throughout the course, enough to convince me that the entire course was indeed well worthwhile and then proceeded systematically from there. Given that Professor MacEachern is a practicing archaeologist, it is no surprise that the course’s emphasis is more on archaeology than history, especially as much of the coverage relates to prehistoric (i.e. pre-writing) cultures. That focus is fine with me, since the only dedicated course on archaeology (stressing theory, methodology and techniques) offered by the Teaching Company/Great Courses was way back in 1998 by Professor Susan McCarter’s informative “Introduction to Archaeology”, apparently no longer available in any format. Ancient history courses by professors Hale, Harl, Aldrete and others draw on archaeological discoveries to supplement the written record or in discussing pre-writing cultures, but they emphasize findings rather than process.
As for Professor MacEachern’s reputedly bland speaking style, I agree that he is not as engaging or animated as the three lecturers I cited above, among others, but I firmly disagree that words like “slow, halting and dull” fairly describe his delivery. He does occasionally repeat himself and at times offers descriptive detail beyond what is necessary to make his point, but for the most part his narrative should hold the attention of the majority of his audience, and to his credit he speaks without notes or use of a teleprompter. The first seven lectures deal mainly with concepts and classifications of both archaeology and anthropology, some outdated, which may be of only marginal interest to students not active in these fields. Unfortunately, several of the negative reviewers acknowledge that they did not venture beyond this phase of the course. Had they done so, they would have encountered case studies of early civilizations undoubtedly more to their liking.
The video version of this course is clearly preferable, as there are many useful maps, drawings and photographs to re-enforce the narrative, especially in the later lectures, where Dr. MacEachern’s delivery also seems faster-paced and livelier. The lectures on various ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Aegean emphasize the development of the earliest forms of written language and archaeological dating techniques. For example, although reference to kings and specific historical events is almost entirely absent, his explanations for the rise and fall of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are, nevertheless, very illuminating. His approach to the ancient civilizations of India, China and Southeast Asia is similar, with emphasis on archaeologically-based insights. As a self-declared Africanist, Dr. MacEachern’s analysis of Great Zimbabwe (lecture 36), a relatively short-lived society from AD 1300-1450, is the only thorough treatment of what is arguably the most important and imposing precolonial, indigenous monumental architecture in sub-Saharan Africa that I have found in any of the Great Courses. Well into the 20th century there was widespread denial among Europeans that structures of this magnitude and sophistication could have been built by Africans.
The final quarter of the course is devoted to precolumbian civilizations and empires in Mesoamerica and South America, again addressing the rise and fall of those cultures based on archaeological evidence, since except for the Maya, there is no decipherable writing in those societies. For me, the most important and interesting of the cultures described are Teotihuacan in Mexico (lecture 39), the Maya city-states (lectures 41-43) and the Inca Empire in western South America (lecture 47).
My main critical observation is that despite its global coverage, the course’s substantive content could have been presented effectively in fewer than 48 lectures, or alternatively, to fill that number, greater use of relevant historical material might have been added, wherever available and appropriate, to meet the expectations of some of the course’s critics. Nevertheless, I would recommend this course to those who wish to learn more about how early civilizations evolved, developed and ultimately collapsed, as revealed mainly by archaeological methods.
August 25, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Schulzy Only if you like watching paint dry
I am a longtime subscriber to the teaching company. I also consider myself quite a historian, I'm one of the few people you might know who's read the entire six-volume set of the "the history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire". I wanted to put that in perspective, because there are some raving reviews of this course. But please consider, if you go to Netflix and pull up the movie dumb and dumber, you will see raving reviews. I seriously question, if some of these high ratings came from family members. Every once in a while the teaching company makes a big mistake, this is one of them. What the teaching company is supposed to do, is going great links to find the absolute best professors on a given subject for its customers. This is one of those times they failed. I should've known better; this guy probably had the weakest credentials of any professor in their repertoire. I'm not even sure he has a PhD, and he is has no teaching awards, he's in a no-name college in Maine. But I have always loved the subject, so I thought I would give it a look. My wife, who is quite an intellect herself and a lawyer, sat down with me to watch it. It was painful, and I'm not the only one that has commented on this. You found yourself trying to finish his sentences for him. Sure, he may not be an English major, but you don't have to take public speaking, to know that you shouldn't pause regularly, in the middle of a sentence. He even pauses, painful pauses, when there's no comma. Someone else commented that he looked uncomfortable. I would agree with that. But again because I love the subject matter, we trudged through the first three lectures. Oh my God, what a bizarre way to look at the subject. If you can get by the painfully slow style that Prof. MacEachern utilizes, I can only think you might enjoy this course, if you are a archaeology major, and have read 200 books on the subject, and you are looking for a weird twist on the subject. I would still suggest you have a good magazine with you if you're going to attempt to watch these lectures. I guess there is one alternative, somebody could reduce the professor to coffee, it could only help.
April 13, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by WendyLyn An absolutely excellent course!
Professor Scott MacEachern is a wonderful presenter of fascinating facts about ancient states, chieftains, tribes, etc. I have taken some previous courses in archeology and ancient history, and this is far better than many of those.
The Professor does not take lightly his task of helping the student learn: he uses maps, photos, explanatory printed statements, and has a pleasing manner and demeanor throughout which makes the video a delight to watch..
April 1, 2016
Rated 3 out of 5 by HarroArrow Not bad, but could do with restructuring
This is not a bad course, but it is not the best I've watched, which is a pity, because the subject should be fascinating.
If you're looking for a course which paints pictures of the nature of early civilisations, then this may disappoint. The focus of this course is not descriptions of civilisations, but rather to give an account of how archaeology, both field work and archaeological theory, has gleaned on how these civilisations arose. Thus, aspects such as the frequent discussions on whether particular civilisations should be considered chiefdoms or states are given more time than, for example, current thinking on what these entities actually looked like and may have functioned.
Of course, this approach is quite legitimate, but will probably interest students of archaeology more than students of the civilisations themselves. For example, Dr McEachern spends quite a lot of airtime talking about his own work in Cameroon. This is of use in illustrating the theoretical underpinnings of the course, but are not so useful in describing the rise of the more well known civilisations. I am not saying that this is not a legitimate topic to discuss in this context, but mention to illustrate how theoretical matters are prominent.
Thus, the course may feel, to the lay person, quite heavy on theory and perhaps too light on practical matters. This is a matter of taste on the part of the watcher.
I must admit that I am used to a wide variety of presenters, and yes, some are better than others, but generally, I prefer to concentrate on the message, not the method. Having said that, Dr McEachern did not come across as one of the first rank of lecturers, and in part this may have been because, in my view, 48 lectures may have been too long for the content. Condensing to 36 may have been uncomfortably short, but there is a bit of repetition, which does not help to maintain a logical flow to the lectures.
Overall, I think the course is OK, but intending purchasers should understand its aim. Those looking for more descriptive accounts might prefer Dr Brian Fagan's Human Prehistory and the First Civilisations, which I am currently halfway through and am enjoying more. This is not to say that Origin of Civilization is not a great learning experience. It is, but it does require concentration and perseverance, hence the higher scores for course value than the other ratings.
November 6, 2015