Home > Mediterranean Archaeology in North Dakota, Travel > Being a Tourist in the Eastern Mediterranean

Being a Tourist in the Eastern Mediterranean

I just finished reading Philip Duke’s short book, The Tourists Gaze, the Cretans Glance: Archaeology and Tourism on a Greek Island. (Walnut Creek, CA 2007).  Aside from the cool title, the book provides a succinct overview of the relationship between archaeology on Crete and tourism with a main emphasis on Bronze Age, Minoan sites.  There is a nice review of the book over at Archaeolog.

What interested me the most was Duke’s effort to problematize the relationship between archaeologists, the tourist industry (ranging from efforts of the Greek state to present archaeological sites to small, local businesses), and the foreign tourist.  The boundaries between these groups, of course, are fairly artificial: even Duke in his role of tourist ethnographer become in some contexts a tourist himself.  This same feeling comes to anyone who spends part of every year in a foreign country working as an archaeologist; the feeling of shifting from coddled tourist to specialist interlocutor occurs quite regularly as one passes from one environment to the next.  The complex interplay between being a tourist and an archaeologist is particularly pronounced when leading undergraduate and even graduate students around Greece and Cyprus in the summer months.

For example, as a group, we’ve been flummoxed when an archaeological site is poorly marked, lacking on-site (or even published!) documentation, overgrown, or simply confusing.  In some cases, of course,  the challenge of working out the relationships between the evidence preserved on-site is invigorating and rewarding.  In many more cases, however, it is just confounding as the myriad of complex site-formation processes conspire to obscure the process of excavation, the relationships between the visible remains and features, and the overall significance of the site itself.  At these moments, there is a natural desire to be led through a site and a willingness to accept the hegemonic presentation provided by signs, labels, paths, and pamphlets (whether produced by an archaeologist or a member of the tourist industry or whomever). 

In other cases, especially at popular destinations which tend to be thoroughly presented, the presentation itself becomes the basis for a critique.  Even a beginning archaeology student can often see through overly nationalistic or tremendously simplified presentations of sites. In fact, at some sites in Greece and Cyprus, I’ve come to anticipate the relatively simple presentations and use them as the basis for discussion the visible archaeology in much the same way that thoughtful tourists would respond to Evans’ reconstruction of the Minoan palaces at Knossos. 

Finally, putting together itineraries for students forces one to consider explicitly the basic tourist infrastructure that contextualizes site visits.  For example, a stretch of lovely (if touristy) taverna restaurants will often make a site a more appealing destination.  The requirements for a tour bus or even good access by road conditions the narrative of site visits even for even a group of experienced archaeologist.  In fact, the accessibility of a site regularly features in the larger archaeological narrative.  Sites that are more difficult to access or presented in confusing ways encourages a sense of remoteness, exoticism, and intellectual privilege derived largely from the contrast to the well-marked sites visited by the “average tourist”.  So, even the most intellectual visitor, tourist, or archaeologist often draws upon expectations promoted by the “hegemonic” narrative produced by the tourist industry in all its manifestations.

Of course, the hybrid state of the typical archaeologist/tourist is precisely the position that allowed Duke to critique the “tourists’ gaze” so well.  The real charm of his slim volume is that it seems like a nice addition to the reading list for our own study tour/field school next summer. 

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