As I sit on a stone, gazing at the ruins spread out below me, I can feel myself slipping into one of my favorite fantasies. What if I had been the first modern person to discover this? What if I was a kid and I found this place, and it could be my fort? I allow myself to indulge in the fantasy for a few more minutes before I hop down from the rock and set off to explore.
Whether you’re being towered by Great Pyramids, beholding the beautifully sculptures in bas relief at Angkor or imagining the druids at Stonehenge, ruins are one of the pleasures of travel. If these “old rocks” turn you on, here are few tips to get the most out of your visit to an ancient ruin:
It’s all about the Environment
Culture is sometimes defined as the way in which people adapt to their environment. So begin your visit to a historical site by surveying your surroundings. If you can, perch yourself on a high place and look down on the site. This will give you an overall idea of the lay of the land. You can look down on the ancient buildings and see how their placement relates to one another. Historic sites often reveal a surprising degree of urban planning.
Check out the surroundings. Are there low hills or mounds near by which may be other structures that have yet to be excavated? What landmarks punctuate the horizon? Are there mountains, rock formations, bodies of water that would have been incorporated into the world view of the people who once lived here? Would they have waited for the rising or setting sun to align with these landmarks to know that it was the start of a particular season? Reach into your pocket and pull out a compass. Are the buildings aligned to one of the cardinal points (often they are)? If so, what does that mean?
Early societies tended to be agriculture based, so it’s worth taking note of the plant land animal life around you. In many cases, the same staple crops that supported the people who built these ancient cities are still being grown locally today. In other places, you will find elaborate ruins surrounded by barren land – a living (or rather “dying”) testament to the long human history of overtaxing the environment.
Look Up, and Down
Ancient peoples did not enjoy the benefits of electricity. So if you have the opportunity to visit a historical site in the evening, you will be looking up at the same stars that the residents of these ancient developments admired a thousand or more years before. (Unless of course, there was a stellar event- such as the supernova which was visible in 1054 and may be recorded in some native American petroglyphs). Are there any features of the night sky that are particularly prominent? Would that have been incorporated into the spirituality or world view of the people who once lived here? Discovering archeo-astronomy is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my travels.
Looking down can be even better. You see what was thrown away, or left behind. I’ve found pottery shards, awls, stone scrapers. It’s thrilling to find these things, to hold a stone tool in your hand and know that it sat in the maker’s hand in exactly they same way. Pick them up, study them, enjoy them, but don’t take them with you. In situ, they are fascinating and meaningful. Back in your house they will only collect dust.
Connecting the Ruins to the Modern World
Planning ahead can help you make the most of your visit to the ruins. Pleasant temperatures, good light for photos and visible (and audible) animal life will be best in the early morning and the late afternoon. But that can make for an awfully long day. Find out ahead of time if your ticket will allow you to leave and re-enter. Is your lodging close enough to sneak home for a siesta and come back? Is food available at the site? If you arrive late in afternoon, can you use the same ticket the following day?
Sometimes it’s worth having a guide or booking a day tour (which will also take care of the transportation problem). Talk to fellow travelers who have gone ahead of you and follow the tips for arranging a day tour.
Finally, take your time. Ruins can also be great places to enjoy nature. Some of the most beautiful birds I saw in Central America (not to mention giant iguanas and howler monkeys) were at Mayan ruins.