From pyramids in Egypt and Mayan temples in Mexico to Roman ruins across Europe and cave paintings in Southern Africa, historical sites hold a special place in our travel itineraries. Whether the quest to understand the past dominates your holidays or you simply enjoy ambling through the odd ancient amphitheatre as part of your vacation, you’ve probably engaged in some historical tourism during your travels. But are you the right kind of historical tourist?
With millions of people flocking to the world’s greatest historical sites, our love of the past and our mission to engage with it is stronger than ever. But in our enthusiasm we are at risk of jeopardising the places we treasure so greatly. Archaeology Travel’s Thomas Dowson sat down with us to share more what historical tourism is and how we can be better at it.
Meet your historical tourism insider: Thomas Dowson
Thomas Dowson trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). His research focused on prehistoric arts of southern Africa and western Europe. In the mid 90s he moved to the UK where he set up the world’s first postgraduate degree programme on rock art. Other research activities include the contemporary significance of the past, which continue to influence his work on Archaeology Travel. Thomas travels widely and deeply to find more perspectives to the way sites and museums are experienced.
1. Tell us a little a bit about how you got into archaeology.
I was born in Zambia, raised in Zimbabwe, and as a child I spent a lot of my time out on farms and doing things like searching nearby rocky hills for rock paintings. So when the time came to choose something to study at university, I chose archaeology. I wasn’t sure I wanted to become an archaeologist, but somehow that’s what I found myself doing! Once I’d finished studying, I started working at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and then Southampton University in England. After a while I decided to leave the academic world – it no longer sparked enough excitement in me.
Instead of staying in academia, I decided: “That’s it, I’m going to run a B&B in France,” – just like the many others escaping life at the end of the ‘90s! I opened up my B&B in Normandy, and while I was there I set up a website called Archaeology Travel as means to attract people to that area of France and to stay at my B&B. I didn’t stick with the B&B, but I stuck with the website.
2. Which area of archaeology is your area of expertise?
My specialty was actually cave paintings in southern Africa, but I also did leading research on cave art in France. Although my B&B wasn’t located anywhere near France’s caves, which can be found in southwestern France (Normandy as some may know is in the north of France), I did eventually start doing guided tours to the caves.
As I was based in Normandy and writing about the region on my website, I researched a lot of aspects of Normandy’s past; I looked into the area’s WWII history, as well as its Roman history. That was more or less when I started becoming more interested in other eras and periods of prehistory.
3. You mentioned WWII, which brings me to my next question: What does the term archaeology encompass?
That’s a very interesting question, and different archaeologists will give you different answers. Some may be surprised to learn this, but not all archaeologists agree what archaeology is.
The popular perception is that archaeologists are people who dig around looking for old bones and stones in the ground. As an archaeologist you often get asked the question: Have you found any dinosaurs lately? Archaeologists don’t look for dinosaur remains – that’s what palaeontologists do. But even those who know that archaeologists do not look for dinosaur bones probably think it’s all about digging up artefacts. As I said, different archaeologists will give you different answers, but my answer to ‘What does archaeology encompass?’ is: archaeology, at its core, is a way of engaging with the past.
It’s also important to remember that archaeology is a developing field, like medicine or engineering. It’s not your stereotypical Indiana Jones type wandering around the desert picking up bones and artefacts. And because it’s an ever-changing field, what constitutes archaeology changes too.
It’s part of everyone’s itinerary, but what is historical tourism?
4. So, in a nutshell: What is historical tourism?
Historical tourism is a rather generic term, but it is what it sounds like: it’s about visiting historical sites. But it’s also so much more sophisticated than that, and one of the ways I’m trying to show that is through my website Archaeology Travel. I want people to think differently about why they’re traveling, why they’re going to certain places and what they’re doing once they are there.
5. Can you tell us a bit more about how you see historical tourism?
There’s a tendency to visit historical and heritage sites so that you can tick them off a list. UNESCO World Heritage sites are a good example of this. Deciding what to see when visiting a new place based on a top 10 list can often mean you miss out on the stories behind some of the most amazing historical sites. Of course, a lot of people do try and find out more about the places they’re going to visit, but I think we can do a lot more to help people get more out of historical sites.
An example of this is the Colosseum in Rome. It’s arguably the most famous historical site in the world, but it’s also one of about 250 Roman amphitheatres around the world that you can still visit today. You can learn just as much about the role of Roman amphitheatres in Roman culture from other amphitheatre sites.
Instead of only visiting the historical sites that make the top 10 cut, I believe people should visit smaller, and lesser known sites too. Because that’s historical tourism; getting a more realistic picture of what history was, not trekking across the world to see just one example of it. I also think that the sites beyond the obvious can give you a more complex view of history.
Of course, if you visit Rome, I highly recommend seeing the Colosseum but know that it’s only part of a bigger picture. When you visit the Colosseum, go behind it. Right behind the Colosseum you’ll find the training grounds for the gladiators – so if what you’re most interested in when it comes to the Colosseum is the gladiator battles, the training grounds will likely be more interesting to you.
The Trevi Fountain is another great example in Rome of there being more to the site than what meets the eye. People the world over come to see this beautiful baroque fountain, they throw a coin in, the City of Rome says thanks very much, and the tourist ticks it off their list.
But, the Trevi Fountain isn’t just a place to make a wish, it’s also a phenomenal remnant of the Roman era that was built on in later periods. If you go behind it, you can still see remains of the Roman aqueduct that fed that fountain and if you go beneath it, you can find a city’s worth of ruins from the Roman era! When you start looking beyond the standard list of things to do, you get a bigger picture of history; you get a different story.
6. Is there an easy way to make sure you get more context when visiting a historical site?
It’s good to remember that everyone has different levels of interest in historical tourism and people are going to be interested in different things. Let’s stick with Rome and her Colosseum as an example; people who are interested in art might be more drawn to the art museums the city is famous for, as opposed to its historical sights. As an archaeologist, I would advise anyone and everyone to go and experience the Colosseum too because of its historical value – you can go and learn something from the Colosseum without my level of interest or enthusiasm for it! But you should go and see the Colosseum out of curiosity, out of a desire to know how it forms a part of history – and not just to tick it off a list.
7. Historical tourism forms such a big part of many people’s travel itineraries. Where do you think this fascination with the past comes from?
I don’t know why, but yes there is a healthy general interest in the past. Some individuals have no interest at all and couldn’t be bothered with historical sites and museums. But as a society we have ideas about the past and we want to know where we come from. We are fascinated with ancient artefacts and buildings. Some of us at least want to know how our predecessors lived.
At school we’re taught to be interested in our histories and we’re taught that it’s important to learn about the past so that we can learn from our mistakes. I’ve always thought that’s one of history’s biggest fallacies; because as many historians and archaeologists have pointed out, we don’t learn from the past, more often than not we repeat it.
Nevertheless, that’s certainly one part of why people are interested in the past, because we’re taught to take note of it so we don’t make the same mistakes. But that’s not all we should get out of historical tourism. We’re pre-conditioned to think about the past in certain ways, but if we can get beyond that we can get a deeper, more meaningful understanding of it.
When you go to the Colosseum, it’s difficult to look at it and think about the mistakes you should learn from it. If you take into account the wider context of the Colosseum, if you go behind and beyond, you can get a deeper understanding of what life was like in Roman times and also how our lives today are affected by what the Romans came up with. To borrow a famous question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
Becoming better visitors to historical sites
8. One of the concerns around historical tourism is that a lot of the sites people want to visit are very fragile. Do you think we should change the way we visit historical sites?
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught those of us in the tourism industry, it’s that the restrictions when it comes to visiting historical sites are here to stay, in some form or another. Aside from the importance of the conservation of these sites, it’s clear to everyone that having millions of people trample over some of our most treasured historical sites was never sustainable. When we visit ancient sites like the Acropolis or the Colosseum, we must remember that it’s a privilege to be able to do so. I don’t think that we should shut these sites down altogether, who would we be saving them for? But during our visits we should remember that we’re lucky to be there.
9. It’s clear that you’re passionate about the field of archaeology. What do you love about it?
I used to love finding new sites when I worked as an archaeologist. Now that I am involved in something quite different, I have become more interested in the relationship between tourism and historical sites. As a society, we have this growing awareness around responsible travel but there are still problems with the way we interact with archaeological and historical sites. Some of the most obvious examples are people scratching their names into walls or pocketing stones as keepsakes. This will shock many people, but it still happens. A lot! So, in the interest of preserving historical sites and keeping these sites open to the public, I’m interested in how people relate to the past and why they visit historical sites.
10. Why do you think people still try and leave their mark when they visit a historical site? Surely by now people know not to!
There are probably as many reasons for this as there are instances! One of the problems is that these sites already have a lot of graffiti, and that might feel like an invitation of sorts. And, of course, the act of leaving your mark on something is not something new. A hundred years ago people wouldn’t have thought twice about scratching their names into something. Just look at the prehistoric caves in France; some of the earliest graffiti there goes back to the 1700s! And those etchings are now historical documents in their own right. These are interesting for historians because thanks to people wanting to make their mark, we know who went there when – thus adding information to the more recent history of these sites. But we can’t have everyone recording their visits today. Conservationists say as soon as there is graffiti you have to remove it as soon as possible as more will certainly follow.
11. How can people be responsible visitors of historical sites?
There’s a famous saying that sums this up nicely: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
12. We’ve talked a bit about responsible tourism, but what about respectful tourism?
Being respectful at all historical sites is certainly something we need to pay more attention to. Whether it is how we physically interact with the remains of a site or how we behave at a site that has a sensitive history.
Auschwitz is a prime example of a place where it’s exceedingly important that tourists are mindful of how they behave. When you visit Auschwitz, you’re given clear guidelines on what’s appropriate and what’s not. For example, you’re not allowed to take selfies while on site.
Museums in Athens also encourage respectful tourism with certain guidelines; for example, you’re not allowed to stand next to statues and mimic their poses for photos – of course people still try it, but it’s not allowed.
13. A lot of the maintenance of historical sites and the rules around respect are down to the historical sites themselves. Do you have any examples of particularly well maintained, well managed historical sites?
Some sites are particularly well set up for receiving visitors, for example, they have raised walkways for visitors so the site isn’t damaged by foot traffic. The physical interaction with a site is, I believe, what makes it a pleasure to visit, things like having good information boards really do make the difference.
One of the most common things I hear people saying when visiting a historical site is: “What are we looking at?” If you don’t offer enough information, people are just walking around for the sake of it. So, sites that offer a lot of information are better. They are, however, the ones that usually have more money available to them, which helps a lot.
One example of a well maintained historical site is Scavi D’Egnazia in Puglia, Italy. It’s an incredible site! It’s big, important and it was occupied from ancient times right through to medieval times. It’s got a beautiful museum with amazing exhibits and the site has a prehistoric cemetery, an amphitheatre, some early basilicas and domestic architecture. They’re all low level ruins, but you can take a walk around the site, with good information boards to support what you are looking at. It’s one of my favourite historical sites.
14. It must be tricky to research a site and make it easy to visit. How do historical sites balance research and tourism?
Good examples of well known sites that I think get this right are Pompeii and the Acropolis, which are both active archaeological sites. The Acropolis is more of a reconstruction project. Over the years it has been altered frequently and it suffered severe damage during conflicts between the Venetians and Ottomans in the 17th century. So, archaeologists are working now to restore it.
In Pompeii, archaeologists are still looking for and finding new artefacts. Some sections of the site are open for visitors, others are closed to the public while archaeologists are carrying out excavations.
There are also sites that are being excavated as part of current archaeological research projects. You can only visit these when archaeologists are working there. Archaeologists will often take time out from their excavations to show you around. That’s a good model, and it’s one that is being adopted more and more. I certainly encourage people to look out for those opportunities to go and see an active site with an archaeologist!