Transylvania professor Chris Begley is exploring the world from North Broadway to the biosphere

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 1, 2014 

Transylvania University professor Chris Begley does a good part of his life's work thousands of miles away, finding items that no human has seen for thousands of years.

Now he thinks there might be similar riches closer to home in Kentucky's rivers.

His newest project focuses on what he calls "the archaeology, history and living cultural heritage of Kentucky's navigable waterways, such as the Ohio, Kentucky, Salt, Licking, Big Sandy and Green rivers."

At first he will focus on 19th-century steamboat wrecks along the rivers. But he also will branch out into prehistoric uses of the river, flatboats, ferries, locks and dams, and river-related manufacturing such as the shell-button industry along the Ohio River.

He plans to involve in the research students in fields from archaeology and history to folklore in the research, and to seek public participation.

Before his focus turned to Kentucky's rivers, Begley, 47, made a name for himself on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, seeking archaeological sites that showed a complex society could rise up even in the jungle — complete with homes, civic spaces and ball courts.

More recently, Begley turned to underwater archaeology. In Croatia this summer, Begley participated in the international collaborative underwater sciences field school.

"A lot of it's pretty regular diving, except you have other tasks" such as working with a dredge, taking notes or drawing, all while keeping track of depth and decompression requirements. Those skills might prove helpful in the waters of Kentucky's rivers in Begley's new endeavor.

At Transylvania's Hazelrigg Hall, Begley's office is lined on one side with books and on one wall with photos including one of a mountain-climbing expedition in Peru.

While he enjoys teaching in a classroom, Begley — a Letcher County native who, as a child, considered underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau his hero — said there are some life lessons that can best be taught elsewhere.

He said his ventures outside the Transylvania campus help students "get to experience ... in a way that brings in adventure and treats you like a grown-up who can do these things and make a contribution."

"Even the ones that are not active are capable of much more than they think," Begley said of the students.

Some of his early hiking and camping was done, not abroad, but in the hills of Letcher County.

His paternal grandparents were Eastern Kentucky environmental activists Joe and Gaynell Begley. They were interviewed in Studs Terkel's book Hard Times, and Terkel would later describe them as "highly educated, in the best sense of the word, people as to what our lives are all about, and sense of community."

The lesson about community was not lost on their grandson.

A Transylvania alumnus — who received a four-year William T. Young scholarship — Begley spent a year working as a reporter for the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle. He did his graduate work at the University of Chicago.

He cites University of Kentucky archaeologists, including Kim McBride and her husband, Steve McBride, as early influences.

Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, remembers a young Begley working on the excavation of the Lextran site on High Street. She and Steve McBride, now site archaeologist for the Camp Nelson Education and Preservation Foundation, were directing the fieldwork.

"He was obviously a bright fellow, very eager to help us," she recalled.

Begley is not a movie-version archaeologist. Don't call him "Indiana Jones," because the moniker and its accompanying images of a whip-snapping, pistol-toting cowboy are anathema to those in the profession who don't actually go a-wandering after the Lost Ark.

However, Begley had a brush with movie star Ewan McGregor in 2001, when he helped guide the Star Wars and Moulin Rouge actor on a Honduran adventure with British survival expert Ray Mears on the BBC series Trips Money Can't Buy.

When Begley started visiting in the early 1990s, the Honduran rainforest "was nearly unexplored from an archaeological point of view," he said. The problem was that unexplored also meant no roads or even navigable paths. Begley would walk five or six days carrying a pack.

Teaching at Transylvania, Begley says, allows him to pursue all his interests in a single liberal arts environment. It also gives him rein to teach courses with subjects as varied as 19th-century explorers, travel writing and sustainable development in addition to continuing his expeditions to Honduras and, more recently, pursuing underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean.

"The liberal arts are very important," Begley said. "It's that kind of education that creates informed citizens."

On breaks from Transylvania, he also teaches courses on subjects such as indigenous justice.

Begley and his wife, Soreyda Begley, founder and designer with the Lexington Fashion Collaborative, are writing a book about Lexington fashion history. The couple have three children.

"We'd kind of like to get people thinking about what their personal style is, and what the options are out there ... in our region, what they can do to develop their personal style using local designers," Soreyda Begley said about the book, which should be released April 1.

Her husband is always in the midst of planning the next trip, Soreyda Begley said. When he reads a book about a new place, she can tell he's figuring out how to get there.

"His passion is to travel and go see things," she said. "He can't just read about it. He pretty much always has some packed luggage ready to go."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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