Anyone who has ever visited an archaeological site must ask themselves the same question ‘Haven’t I seen all this before?’ and looking at archaeological sites in general; the comment isn’t too far off the mark.
Some years ago, a family were visiting a site in Cyprus, one of the key strongholds for several empires and nations over the millennia. You can barely turn around on the island without tripping over some ancient monument and the island is rightly proud of its attractions. But on this occasion, the curator, who looks affectionately on those that visit his site, was shocked to hear a small boy say to his father ‘Why have we come back here, we saw this yesterday!’ The father reassured him that this was Paphos and he was confusing it with Amathus in Limassol. The boy insisted though that the rocks were all the same, the look of the place was the same and the signs were all the same.
A little like the boy in ‘The Emperor Who had No Clothes’, isn’t this lad perhaps opening our eyes to the underwhelming impact of many very important sites?
Perhaps so, but what can be done about it? Ancient sites can be split into two categories; those that have something unique about them such as the Acropolis in Athens and Ephesus in Turkey and those like parts of Roman Britain; Caerleon for instance, or Soli in Cyprus that require a huge amount of imagination to work out what was there from the lines of stone barely visible through the earth. A good way of looking at it is to consider the holiday snap. Which would you put in an album; you, stood with the Parthenon behind you, proudly demonstrating; ‘This is Athens’, or you stood by a pile of stones somewhere which could be just about anywhere!
Certainly for the money they charge, few people are going to want to hire a car on holiday to drive to a site that is hyped up by the guide books, cough up a further five or ten pounds each to look at something that could be a building site anywhere in the world.
Some places are trying their best to make the most of what they have. Take Jorvik in York. There’s not a lot of Viking York left to see but what there is, they’ve accompanied with an interactive performance where visitors can get an idea of what it really looked like over a thousand years ago. You get all of your senses involved, with the smells of the time, a chance to taste Viking food and to wear Viking clothes. Jorvik is one of the most successful attractions in the UK, possible in Europe and it’s all because visitors get the full picture but without the complete rebuilding or renovation of the site.
Abroad, we have several reconstructions; the theatre at Kourion, the library at Ephesus, the temples on the Nile but they leave us with a sense of being cheated too. One is reminded of the story of the small boy who was eager to tell his mum how he’d been on one of the oldest sailing ships still afloat. It wasn’t until he’d answered his mum’s searching questions of how it could have survived so long that he began to realise that the renovations meant he had been on a reconstruction where so much had been replaced, it wasn’t the original ship at all.
The historians in charge of sites the world over have got to realise that in this world of virtual reality, 3D TV and more, they’ve got to raise their game or the treasures they’ve worked so hard to preserve and bring to the public will simply return to the earth once more.