Dustbin of history: Britain's approach to ancient history is shamefully Eurocentric, says David Keys

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH Museum's recent decision to establish its first-ever gallery devoted to Mexican archaeology went largely unreported. Yet it represents, potentially at least, the first stage of an intellectual breakthrough in the way this country views world history.

Academia in Britain has traditionally treated most of the world's past pretty shabbily. The allocation of resources has depended on prejudice rather than objective grounds.

In British universities, classical Greece, the Roman Empire and the ancient Middle East account for more than 90 per cent of the teaching of ancient history, archaeology and related subjects. The remainder - 95 per cent - of world history is taught with less than 10 per cent of the resources. This includes imperial China, India, Japan, South-east Asia, black Africa, Australia and pre-European North America, Central and South America. The resources for teaching medieval and early modern history are almost as skewed.

In the museum world the bias towards Greece, Rome and the ancient Middle East, and the neglect of Africa and the Americas, are equally pronounced. That is why the British Museum's decision is such an important one.

Until now only 12 of its 6,000 Mexican and Central American items have been on display, and nowhere in Britain are there substantial museum displays on the Aztec or Inca empires, or on the Teotihuacan civilisation of first- to seventh-century Mexico, which at its peak possessed a metropolis the size of ancient Rome. Most people have never even heard of the 1,100-mile-long pre-Inca empire of Chimu, in South America, whose capital covered six square miles.

Coverage of pre-European north America is perhaps even more bizarre. Most museum displays tend to confirm popular preconceptions of Indian society as concerned only with feathers, tepees and buffalo. The fact that in what is now Illinois there once existed one of the medieval world's greatest cities - a walled metropolis with a population of 20,000 - is ignored.

Black Africa fares worse still. Of the dozen great ancient and medieval African empires, none is properly covered as an individual civilisation in Britain's museums. Although the 13th-century Mali empire was six times the size of Britain, and some of the world's greatest stone buildings were built by medieval Zimbabweans, most museums, educational establishments and publishers ignore them utterly. The result is a thoroughly Eurocentric view of world history, unable to produce the broad appreciation of other cultures so vital to increasing racial tolerance and international understanding.

One of the difficulties is that the ancient civilisations of black Africa and the Americas are still regarded by most museums as part of ethnography - not archaeology or history. So while regions of classical European or Middle Eastern civilisation have their own curatorial departments at the British Museum, the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs, Zimbabwe, Benin (in Nigeria) and aboriginal Australia are grouped together under ethnography, as if their cultures somehow needed to be approached in a different way. The only European subject covered by the British Museum's ethnography department is peasant culture.

This categorisation of non-European cultures as 'ethnographic' started in the last century. The British Museum gave Greek and Roman antiquities their own curatorial department back in 1860. But the worship of Greece and Rome by 18th- and 19th-century Britons had more than mere antiquarian significance. The Roman Empire was seen as the prototype for Britain's own imperial aspirations. The Pax Romana became the Pax Britannica.

The British, French, Spanish and other European empires are gone. Attitudes to the pasts of other continents, formed in imperial times, should also be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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