Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences


Research Spotlight: Professor Kevin MacDonald

31 January 2023

Meet Professor Kevin MacDonald, Professor of African Archaeology and Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Find out more about Kevin's career and research, as well as his love of music.

Professor Kevin MacDonald

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at UCL

I am an archaeological generalist, with specialities in earthen architecture, pottery and animal remains. Most of my excavations have been in West Africa (Mali) and the United States (Louisiana). I came to UCL as a lecturer in 1994 after completing my PhD at Cambridge, and am Professor of African Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology. I became the Institute’s tenth Director in 2022.

Tell us about your research

Currently I work primarily in historical archaeology, including both archival and oral historical research, centred on the global 18th century. Part of this includes long-term research on the polity of Bamana Segou (Mali, c.1700-1861), its political traditions and settlement geography. The other element focuses on African Diaspora and Native American communities along Cane River in Louisiana in the era of plantation slavery. Throughout my years at UCL I have researched the early complex societies of arid West Africa including the Empires of Ghana (Wagadu) and Mali.

What has been your most memorable career moment so far?

Finding and mapping the previously unknown settlement landscapes of Mali’s Segou region. This includes both one of Bamana Segou’s forgotten capitals – Ton Masala – with its triple walls, and various massive tells (earthen settlement mounds) associated with the apogee of the Empire of Mali, such as Sorotomo.

What would you do (for a career) if you weren't doing this?

I would either be a composer of music for film (which is what I originally intended to be!) or a musicologist working on the more obscure composers of the 18th century.

What are your main interests outside of work?

Principally music: I play both baroque & modern violin and viola and make bows for stringed instruments. These bows are mainly copies of historical examples, including the 1769 violin bow of Jeremy Bentham! I also write ghost stories as a hobby – in the tradition of MR James – and may even publish them someday…

If you had to eat one meal, every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?


Which famous person in history would you want to spend the day with?

My Gr-Gr-Great Aunt Beata Doreck (she is in the Oxford National Biography). She was instrumental in the kindergarten movement and in founding teacher training and primary education in the UK during the late Victorian era.

Where are you happiest?

In ruins - anywhere.

What book is currently on your bedside table?

Thomas Twining’s Letters: the Record of a Tranquil Life.  Twining was a clergyman, antiquarian scholar, and amateur violinist in the late 18th century.


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