Travelers Accounts and Formation Processes

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies by my fellow WARP staffer Scott Gallimore: “‘The Saddest of Ruins’: Travelers’ Accounts as Evidence for Formation Processes at Hierapytna, Crete.” Scott considers travelers accounts of ancient Hierapyta on Crete, the site of his dissertation research, as evidence for archaeological formation processes. 

This is a cool project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it provides a useful archaeological and intellectual context for early travelers’ accounts of the ancient landscape. Traditionally, scholars have recognized the value of these account and often bring them into their consideration of a region as something of a bridge between antiquity and the modern era. Many early travelers, particularly those explicitly interested in antiquities like Cyriac of Ancona or the much later William Martin Leake provide a faint echo of our own archaeological interests and archaeologists have often borrowed their perspectives (critically, of course) as a way to see landscapes radically changed my industrialization, mechanization, and other transformations of the modern world. At their best, scholars have sought to understand the various perspectives that these “early” travelers and porto-archaeologists brought to their seeing and writing; at their worst, scholars have seen earlier travelers as another source of “data” to be mined in an effort to reconstruct some kind of authentic ancient past. 

Scott’s article offers a different approach to how ancient travelers can and should be used. They represent a guide to understanding time and process in the long gap between the creation of ancient buildings and our work to reconstruct and recognize archaeological remains. In particular, Scott is clever in noting how travelers often tend to recognize short-term transformations to the local scene ranging from earthquakes, attacks, or changes in political or economic regimes. They are less savvy when it comes to understanding long-term change, but this is actually better for archaeologists. Many early travelers present static, rusticated, and ruined backdrop against which they set their moralizing views. The curious thing is, as Scott shows quite cleverly, this backdrop provides points along a continuum that actually subvert the travelers intentions by revealing more gradual but no less significant processes so crucial in the production of modern archaeological sites. 

In other words, the tension between the short-term catastrophes and the enduring ruins in the earlier travelers provides an intellectual framework for formation processes that tend to oscillate between moments of dramatic collapse and long periods of gradual deterioration. Whether this is universally true, is open to debate, but there is definitely enough anecdotal evidence for archaeologists to be familiar with this kind of tension: walls will continue to stand as long as the building has a roof, but when the roof fails, the walls will absorb water into their matrix and erode much more quickly.

Once you finish enjoying Scott’s article, be sure to check out the rest of this issue which includes a series of articles on the archaeological challenges associated with the division of Cyprus. Some good perspectives offered here. I’ll write up something on these 

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