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Designing an Archaeology Vacation for Tourists

Peter Sommer on Archaeology Vacations

By

Kale

Group on top of the Ottoman castle at Kale in Lycia

Peter Sommer (c) 2005
In this contributed article, archaeology tour operator Peter Sommer of Peter Sommer Travels describes how he designs the perfect tour to provide tourists with an exciting and educational introduction to the archaeology of the world. An archaeologist by training, Peter Sommer fell in love with Turkey in 1994 while walking 2,000 miles from Troy to the battle of Issus, retracing the route of Alexander the Great. He has taught at Birmingham University and Istanbul’s Bogazici University and written travel articles for various newspapers. Two years into a PhD at University College London, Sommer was seduced into television to work on In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (BBC/PBS). As a documentary producer, he has shot around the world for films like Millennium: A thousand years of history (BBC/CNN), and Commanding Heights: the Battle for the World Economy (PBS/BBC). His most recent credits include Britain’s Finest Castles, Britain’s Finest Ancient Monuments (Channel Five) and Weapons that Made Britain (C4). He has recently completed a 12 x 1/2 hr series for the BBC, Tales from the Green Valley, about life on a farm in the year 1620.

How do you go about making an archaeological tour? A number of first rate ingredients are required - great sites, seamless logistics, and a passionate and knowledgeable guide. Perhaps the biggest element of all for me when planning a tour is the story. I don’t want to simply arrange a route around a series of isolated historical ruins, instead I want to weave a fascinating tale, a historical back-story where each ancient city we visit is like a jigsaw piece that sheds ever more light on the region’s history and culture. Some stories are intrinsically obvious like travelling across Turkey in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, but others require much more careful consideration.

It all starts with a ‘recce’, going out to make an on-the-ground reconnaissance of the sites in a proposed tour area. To me this is like a marvellous adventure, I’m like a child in a sweet shop trying to decide where and what I should start with, perhaps something Greek or maybe Byzantine, perhaps a small but untouched temple standing romantically lost in olive groves or a giant Roman city, like Ephesus, packed with tourists. I love the energy and buzz of visiting new sites, but on a recce I am preoccupied with all the practical things that need to be thought through, especially how to pick and then unite the most special of sites into a compelling and cohesive tour.

I remember the first time I ever led an archaeological tour back in the spring of 1996. I was asked by a UK travel company to step in as tour leader eight days before a trip exploring ancient Caria in Turkey. At first I declined because I hadn’t visited half the sites on the itinerary and wouldn’t dream of taking a group anywhere I hadn’t been. When they called the next day and asked me again, I agreed provided they fly me out the next day and hire me a jeep with driver so I could tear around the sites on a whirlwind recce. It was a baptism of fire, but one that has stood me in very good stead. One of the most important lessons I learned was it doesn’t matter how much you know of a site’s history if you don’t know your way around.

In fact the first thing I do when I get to a site is let all the history disappear from my head. For me the first walk around a site is all about practicalities, not least where do I want to begin. More often than not I choose to avoid the specified main entrance and approach a site from a different angle – both physically and historically. I like to enter on an ancient road if possible, like the sacred way leading to the temple of Apollo at Didyma. I like to create a sense of drama, as at Stratonikeia, a Hellenistic foundation in Caria. A mile away from the main entrance I take groups on a small path through trees, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which suddenly caves away into a vast theatre with a breathtaking view. If the site is overgrown, and in rural Turkey one goat path looks pretty much like the others, sometimes it’s just a case of finding the best way around.

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