Bio Note: Thomas Dowson grew up in Zimbabwe and trained as an archaeologist in South Africa, specialising in the study of prehistoric art. He has taught archaeology at leading universities in South Africa and England. In 2010, he founded Archaeology Travel, a website that provides a range of resources and information about exploring the past. You can follow him on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram, where he shares his experiences of visiting archaeological and historic sites around the World, from humanity’s earliest times to the not so distant pasts.
What is so great about archaeology? How did you become a professional archaeologist?
Archaeology means different things to different people. Some people are fascinated by the prospect of life on other planets, others are fascinated by past lives on planet Earth. I am definitely in the latter group.
My pathway into archaeology was quite straight-forward, really. I grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, and our house was next to a rocky outcrop that had a shelter in which Stone Age people had made paintings.
Although I do not remember any specific details of those paintings, they must have had an impact as I would often try and replicate them in art classes at school.
So perhaps it is not that surprising when I went to university in Johannesburg that I jumped at the opportunity to research Southern African rock art.
What has your academic career been like? What discoveries or research of yours are you especially proud of?
After ten years of research on Southern African rock art at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I moved to England, specifically the University of Southampton, where I set up the World’s first postgraduate degree program in the study of rock art. That is something I greatly enjoyed doing.
I have found some quite remarkable rock art sites in South Africa. That is not that difficult to do as there is still so much to find. But I am proud of the research I did on rock art, at a time when rock art research was not that well respected in archaeology.
I was one of a few researchers who quite early on showed that cave art was not just “pretty pictures", it was a source of information that could be used to construct hunter-gatherer histories. In South Africa in particular, the hunter-gatherer communities had been written out of that region’s history, and archaeologists were complicit.
Although things have moved on a lot since I gave up academia, my research still informs current discussions. Just this week I read about a conference that is promoting a new way of looking at rock art, an approach I proposed in 2004.
What led you to make the transition from an academic to a cultural tourism business owner with your company Archaeology Travel?
When I began my career as an archaeologists, rock art research was not considered “real archaeology". Consequently, unlike many archaeologists, much of the earlier part of my career was involved with a more general, public audience.
When I moved to England, rock art research was becoming a more respectable area of research, but it was also becoming “more academic".
There was a definite shift in the character of rock art research. It was becoming much more prosaic.
It took a while for me to realize that I much prefer touring with people from all walks of life and sharing with them my knowledge and passion for the past.
And in walking away from academia, that for me had almost exclusively been Stone Age and rock art, I discovered other periods of the prehistoric and ancient past.
Not to reveal any secrets of the trade – but how is your approach to cultural & archaeological tourism unique?
I doubt I have any secrets, but I suppose my approach is to reveal secrets. The idea behind the “Archaeology Travel" website was to get people to explore beyond the obvious and well known sites.
I like to use Roman amphitheaters as an example. The Colosseum in Rome is perhaps one of the most iconic of all archaeological sites – after all, it is quite spectacular.
After that, there are a few others that are similarly well known, the amphitheater in Nîmes is surely one.
The iconic status of the Colosseum means everyone wants to visit it, and they should. But many people hold this desire to visit the Colosseum without realising there are over 200 other Roman amphitheaters. While none of these match the scale and preservation of the Colosseum, they are nonetheless interesting to visit.
For me, one of the most spectacular presentations of archaeological ruins is the very meager remains of the amphitheater in London.
Seeing these other amphitheaters, along with the Colosseum, can convey what the Roman Empire was all about more than anything else.
More people seem eager to explore other cultures/periods of history through tourism but at the same time there is growing political upheaval worldwide. What is the potential and future of cultural tourism against this backdrop?
One of my pet hates about the way people talk about archaeology and history is that we learn from the past.
If the political upheavals of our time now show us anything, it is that we very clearly do not learn from the past.
Over the last few years there have been some milestones in the memory of the First and Second World Wars. Every year we see our leaders attending commemorative events at the battlefields and cemeteries of these two wars. And yet mainstream reporters are currently running out of adjectives to describe what is going on in Syria?
Far too often visiting archaeological and historical sites merely serves to confirm our perceptions of our place in the World today. Instead, I believe our explorations should be disrupting those perceptions. The past should confront us not comfort us.
You have recently explored Bulgaria’s archaeology, history, and cultural tourism. What made an impression on you?
The incredible diversity of archaeological and historical sites. And the amount of money that has obviously been invested in these sites.
Why did you think Bulgaria is a worthy international cultural tourism destination, and decide to lead guided tours there?
People are always looking for something new, and for many of us in the English speaking West, Bulgaria is still a new destination.
And if anywhere confronts our preconceived ideas, it is Bulgaria’s history.
What is the best kept secret of Bulgaria’s past? Or are there perhaps too many of those?
“Neolithic figurines fascinate me, and the Balkans has some great examples. That said, I was not prepared for the display of figurines on display in the Neolithic Dwelling Museum (Stara Zagora), I had not read anything about this particular collection of figurines, or seen any photographs of them. So to walk into the gallery and see the enormous glass display case filled with figurines of all shapes and sizes was the very best surprise of my time in Bulgaria! This photograph shows just a fraction of what is on display.” Photo & caption: Thomas Dowson, Archaeology Travel
“While visiting Bulgaria I saw some amazing sites, and one of them was the ancient city of Kabyle. This extraordinary site is definitely at the top of my list of sites to return to. And this is one of those sites that has benefited greatly from investment. The walkway constructed around the one side of the Roman military buildings is a stroke of genius. Walking along the bridge you get a wonderful view of the ruined buildings on one side and a beautiful view over the Thracian Valley to the mountains on the other.” Photo & caption: Thomas Dowson, Archaeology Travel
Do you have any advice for international visitors deciding to explore Bulgaria’s archaeology, history, and culture?
Yes: go now while there are fewer tourists!
Why specifically would you recommend visiting Bulgaria? Would you say Archaeology Travel’s Bulgaria Tour will be a great way to experience Bulgaria, and why?
Bulgaria has had a lot of EU money to develop its archaeological and historical sites, and with good reason. One of the consequences (surely intended) of this investment is that visiting a good many sites is not only very easy, but it is also rewarding.
The history of Europe has tended to focus on what happened in the West. For anyone interested in humanity’s past, specifically the history of Europe, visiting the sites of Bulgaria offers a new perspective on this continent’s past.
The tour I have devised with the Bulgarian tour company Atlantic Tour is an excellent introduction to that history. The tour takes in sites that cover an 8,000 year time span, from the Neolithic to the recent past.
That history is very clearly one that belongs on the European continent, but it also has its own distinctive elements. And this shows in the changing art and architecture of the last 8,000 years.
Besides seeing some spectacular archaeology, the tour covers some spectacular parts of Bulgaria itself, from the Black Sea coast to the dramatic mountains near Sofia.
But for me, the highlight is getting to stay in a hotel that was built amongst the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, Sofia’s Colosseum.
“Sometimes I think we get far too precious about ancient ruins. I was delighted to see how the remains of Serdica’s Roman amphitheater have been incorporated into to a function area of the hotel that now stands above these remains. As long as the remnants are not being overtly destroyed, I think more sites should be used like this. Instead far too often they are fenced off, making any engagement with the past facile and meaningless. And, I just love seeing Roman amphitheaters, in whatever state of preservation.” Photo & caption: Thomas Dowson, Archaeology Travel
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