Interview 002: David Thomas, Archaeologist.

David Thomas' Travel Shelf. Illustration by Bryn Beary.

[Note on Interview 002: I was first introduced to the Minaret of Jam in Professor Sheila Bonde's course on Islamic Art and Architecture during my final semester at Brown. Two years later, I found Jam again, this time printed on a flyer posted in the halls of Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. The flyer advertised the Summer 2006 excavation of the Minaret led by archaeologists David Thomas and Alison Gascoigne. I was hopeful to get the chance to dig at Jam, and have the once in a lifetime opportunity to see, in person, the Maryam inscription on the exterior of the Minaret.  The 2006 dig was postponed until 2007 and my Afghan visa ultimately went unused.  But I kept in touch with David (thank you Facebook!) and, a decade later, asked him to share his thoughts on travel with us.]

Currently: David is the Manager of Metropolitan Heritage Programs for Aboriginal Victoria.

Located: 37.8136° S, 144.9631° E


The Interview.

Illustration by Bryn Beary.

1) What is the most remote place you've ever traveled to?  How did you get there?  (From departure point to arrival.)

Jarma, in southern Libya. I was working on David Mattingly’s project out there between 1998-2001. Sanctions were in place, so we had to fly to Derba in Tunisia and cross the border to the Roman site of Sabratha. We then revived the project Landrovers and drove 700 km south into the Sahara. One year I travelled with a friend overland by bus and service taxi from Jarma to Pella in Jordan, with a detour to the Siwa oasis in Egypt – that was fun!

2) What place/s do you get nostalgic for?

Lots – I spent a fair bit of time in Slovenia when I was a kid. Bohinjska Bistrica, up in the Julian Alps, was a second home. I miss the Near East, especially the desert fringes, Pella in Jordan and Tell Brak in Syria – probably the best digs I’ve been on.

3) When you travel, what are your favorite travel essentials?  Do you have any favorite/trusted brands/items that you make sure you always have with you?

Peptobismol – I always get sick!

4) How much stuff do you usually travel with?  I.e. Do you always travel with a carry on suitcase?  And how do you pack?

I’m a fairly light traveller – whatever I can stuff into a rucksack.

5) Do you bring books with you when you travel?  If so, paper or electronic? How many?  How much thought do you put into your selection of travel books?

Always; real books – I enjoy the opportunity to read, free from the distractions of tv / radio. One of the best things about being on dig is swapping books and being exposed to a wide range of literature I mightn’t’ve come across before. I read Touching the Void one season in the Sudan! Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in Turkey; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in Libya, only to find that I’d got a dud version with 50 crucial pages re-printed / missing! Anna Karenina in Syria; Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation (I tend to read hefty tomes when I travel!).

6) How do you research/prepare for a new trip you are talking?  What are your go-to resources for planning a trip?

I always used the Lonely Planet guides as the first stop source of information.

7) What is your approach to travel?  That is, do you plan out most of your activities/time ahead of time, leave everything to chance, or do some combination?

I was generally working on an excavation, so that meant I didn’t have to do much thinking in advance, just get there, then get a feel for the place and do a bit of recreational travel after the project finished. I usually have a few things I want to see, and come across other stuff along the way.

8) Do you have a place that you have returned to over and over again?

Pella – I first went out there in ’95 and most recently in ’09; 5 dig seasons, 2 survey seasons and 2 seasons digging nearby, plus numerous visits when I lived and worked in Jordan.

9) What is your first memory of place?

Good question! There’s a photo of me sat on a stony beach in the Adriatic on my first birthday in ‘72; I have vague memories of Warsaw in ’75, although they might also be ‘photo memories’; I clearly remember going to Denmark in ’79 – reconstructed Viking village, the Viking ship museum at Roskilde, Legoland… it was amazing.

10) Tell me about a trip you took recently that you enjoyed.

I spent a week in the US last year, giving some lectures at the Oriental Institute in Chicago and in California en route. It was mid winter, so beautifully snowy and cold in Chicago, which I really liked. LA’s not my sort of place!

11) What are a few secret/hidden/favorite places in the city in which you live right now?

I like Sydney Rd, which has quite a Middle Eastern flavour, and some of the dingy bars on Brunswick St. The Botanic Gardens are pretty, and some of the bluestone cobbled laneways are cute, but I’m not a huge fan of the city (despite it regularly being voted most liveable in the world) – I prefer Sydney, which doesn’t win me many friends down here!

12) How does your profession as an archeologist affect the way you approach travel/explore our world?

I think you’re always looking; you can see different layers, literally and metaphorically, to a place; you notice re-builds and things that don’t quite fit, and generally have a story why.

13) Are there things you collect when you travel? (i.e. globes, atlases, maps, copies of a particular book printed in the language of the country you are traveling to, etc.).

I used to collect woven badges, and stamps; I usually bring home a rug or two. I rarely had much money when I was digging, and couldn’t carry much as I often went from one dig to another, so that limited my options. My photos are the big souvenir, I guess. I’m a competent photographer, rather than a great one, but I have been lucky enough to get to some pretty exceptional places, which is why people are wow’ed by my photos.

14) What are a few things you never travel without?

Camera; diary; penknife; maglite (torch). I also always traveled with music - back in the day, a Walkman and box of bootleg cassettes... Which would get shared around on digs like the books; each trip became associated with a particular song or album. Soundtracks for trips included Hole's Celebrity Skin on the train south along the Nile in Egypt, Nick Cave's Boatman's Call rattling across the Syrian desert and Pulp's His and Hers in the Sudan!

15) What is one place you haven't been to, but would like to travel to one day?


16) What is the last trip you did research for?

A short family holiday at Lorne, along the Great Ocean Coast road.

17) What is a favorite book (and/or writer) on travel/voyages/exploration/experiencing new things?

Danziger’s Travels; Freya Stark; William Dalrymple

18) What was it like to dig at the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan?

Amazing. It’s a magical place. You feel totally isolated but continually in the presence of one of the world’s most spectacular structures, which is over 800 years old. The landscape is barren and rough, but the mountains are surprisingly colourful, due to the minerals. The local people were so kind and welcoming to us. They have such a tough existence, but did everything they could to help us.

19) Why do you travel?

I’m curious; I’m interested in places which haven’t been swamped by the worst aspects of Western culture / commercialism. I’m drawn to places which are isolated and bleak, but also beautiful, at least to my eyes. I enjoy the solitude, not understanding the banalities of local conversations, or being cut off from world news which is so often depressing. It’s in my blood – both my parents are geographers and we used to leave Northern Ireland, where I grew up, every year during the ‘Marching Season’ in July to escape the sectarian bigotry and ritualistic goadings. I guess I feel alive when I travel, that sense of flying by the seat of your pants, taking a punt on something and not being quite sure how it’ll turn out. I enjoy the freedom – I’ve travelled a lot on my own, in between digs, and often wished I could share special places with someone, but I suspect I’d be a challenging travel companion, especially if I haven’t eaten. I push myself too far sometimes. You need a special bond and understanding of each other to travel successfully with someone.

Filed under Interviews

a curious person still searching for the poem that Nezami Ganjavi wrote about the prince who toured his kingdom only to find crumbling structures, causing him to reflect on the transience of life.

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