The zodiac boat hurtled over the waves, each crash showering us with the cold, salty waters of the Black Sea. I could no longer see the bobbing lights of the American research vessel we’d just left. We had launched an underwater robot whose duty it was to comb the ocean floor in search of ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks. Ahead, two more miles through the stormy waters, was our home for the project, a Ukrainian ferry that was housing part of the research team.
Except for the stars and occasional flare of a cigarette, we were alone in the dark, all conversations muffled by the motor and the splashing waves. This moment, representing my first introduction to the life of archaeology, is burned into my mind as one of my more vivid memories. On that tiny boat bouncing through Ukrainian waters, I embraced my calling—a never-ending desire to wander the globe, to study its people, landscapes and animals. I had begun a fascinating journey to understand the world.
What does archaeology have to do with taking better travel photos? I am an environmental archaeologist, a subspecialty of a profession that studies past human life, in which I explore the interrelationship between man and environment. For the past 15 years, I have both participated in and directed archaeological research projects looking at the connection between people and nature.
Archaeology is a diverse field and includes ancient cultures, human evolution, technology and other obscurities such as human interaction with glaciers or the study of bugs from prehistoric graves. There is an ancient topic out there for anyone with an inquisitive mind. I specialize in mountain communities but am interested in the full spectrum of ecosystems—jungles, deserts and tundra have in their own ways impacted that mysterious component of human life that we label as culture.
When not researching ancient peoples, I work as a photographer. I collaborate closely with museums, laboratories and excavations to help tell stories of science and discovery. Scientists are not always the best at explaining their work, and photography offers a clear visual translation of highly technical topics. Archaeology is an interesting field in that it requires a complete context to fully understand an excavation. The landscape, climate, geology, food resources, animals and modern communities all must be considered.
It is this concept of all-inclusiveness that also makes travel photography a unique practice. To tell a complete story of a location, all of that place’s characteristics must be explored. Because of the close similarities between approaching archaeology and travel photography, I’ve found the two to be a natural and fascinating duo that, when combined, can create a powerful and detailed narrative.
Since that first project in the Black Sea, my job has led me to roughly 30 countries on four continents. I’ve lived on boats, in villages, with bears and amongst teargas. Describing my career tends to evoke the travel montage from “Indiana Jones,” but it’s never that romantic. Excavating in the snow or at 120 degrees hurts, there are endless pages of paperwork to be written, I collect tropical diseases like Boy Scout badges, and I frequently must do battle with that lethal war machine, bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the perks are spectacular. Traveling the world as an archaeologist has not only allowed me to visit locations that I would have never imagined, it has also taught me how to explore and perceive different places in a unique way.
Slow It Down For Better Travel Photos
I often feel that we move through the world too quickly. While traveling, we acquire superficial glimpses of life and of places, but we don’t truly get to know them. Great photography is all about patience, and I think that this mantra is especially important when traveling. If we can slow down, embrace details and really focus on one community or a particular theme, it becomes possible to work the scene, as you would with a landscape, and to explore it in greater depth.
Between 2011 and 2012, I spent several months living and working out of a Maya village in the remote Toledo district of southern Belize. Along with my wife and fellow archaeologist, Rebecca, we were working for Dr. Claire Novotny (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), who was exploring a dense part of jungle for previously unknown Maya sites. We were stationed in an old British farmhouse, a crumbling skeleton of cement walls with no doors or windows but plenty of bugs and the occasional snake. Every morning we would rise before the sun, meet with local guides, assemble some excited students from the village school, and head into the rainforest seeking signs of something ancient.
Working in the rainforest with different villagers every day was like getting a series of behind-the-scenes tours. We got to know what made the village function and what didn’t. We learned about rivalries, friendships, traditions and taboos. We formed a bond with the community, something special and much deeper than could have been attained as tourists simply passing through. By combining our observations with the archaeological discoveries, it became possible to tie the modern community with those of the past and to see what events and situations shaped the culture and village we had come to love.
My time in Belize taught me the importance of speed and scale both when traveling and while photographing. Moving through a new place, especially somewhere exotic, can be overwhelming and difficult to digest. However, by slowing down, focusing on details and allowing a single location to reveal itself, it becomes possible to see it more completely. This is particularly helpful in chaotic locations like a market or train station, where over stimulation can make it difficult to focus. Slow down, take a seat, and let the scene unfold by itself.
Archaeology teaches us that every community is a complex system with multiple players. In order to understand a place, we must consider what goes into making it function, who the characters are and what events in the past transpired to create the scene that is visible today. Context is key in this matter, and without it we are left with a stack of pretty pictures or broken pots, void of a story.
Get Off The Beaten Path
Moving through the world as a field scientist provides opportunities that are not always available through regular tourism. There are excavations in every corner of the world, even Antarctica, and on most occasions, they are located far off the beaten path. There’s something special about being planted in a place you otherwise wouldn’t visit, some frontier town or village, and given the opportunity to truly discover it, to intimately know what makes it special and unique.
Every single place on the planet where people have settled, past or present, has a story to tell. Highlights on the tourist trail might possess the most famous stories, but if you are willing to ask the right questions, use a different perspective and take the time to listen, anywhere can produce a stunning narrative or image. The relatively unknown places also tend to be the most surprising. Somewhere popular or famous always has a reputation that precedes it and will let us know what to expect before we even arrive. A remote or unexpected location can be a blank slate that allows true exploration and discovery to transpire.
Sometimes it isn’t always possible to leave home, travel across the world and plant roots in a new place for months at a time. But traveling slowly does not always mean staying in one location; it’s not an itinerary recommendation, it’s a mindset. Visiting multiple locations can be just as revealing as remaining in a single place. It can allow the development of a narrative that extends beyond border and culture. While it is important to study a place in detail, it’s equally crucial to understand how that place compares to others and fits into a larger story.
One of my favorite aspects of archaeology is in noticing similar behaviors, adaptations, or rituals in societies that are on opposite ends of the world. When traveling, it is often easy to romanticize the foreign or exotic and to focus on the differences between cultures. To me, though, it’s the similarities, the little things that we all do, that I find most fascinating.
Rediscover The Familiar
While archaeology has provided many opportunities for me to see foreign places, I recently returned to my home town after almost a decade away. Having grown up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I began my career by, and have heavily focused on, researching prehistoric peoples of the nearby Teton and Wind River Mountains. These are all locations that I have known and explored since I was young but have now learned to see in an entirely new way.
Cees Nooteboom once wrote a beautiful passage about how after visiting Venice for the first time he was saddened, knowing that the moment of excitement and wonder was forever stolen. No matter how many times he returned, that instance of discovery and his feelings at first sight could never be recreated. I used to sympathize with Nooteboom, believing that revisiting a familiar place, no matter how special, could never live up to that first experience. However, over time, I have found that I was mistaken. When I returned to my home mountains as a scientist, I was there for a new purpose. It was no longer about perfect camping spots or “bagging” peaks; it was about looking closer for specific clues of ancient mountaineers. With this new task at hand, a new perspective was provided to me, offering the chance to rediscover my home mountains.
Similarly, photography can offer another approach for reimagining a familiar place. When capturing a location, the experience and images created there can change drastically depending upon the interests and focus of the photographer. Bill Bryson taught us years ago that it’s all about the mindset of the journey. Whether it’s between trees in your backyard or between stalls in a foreign market, a camera and an idea can offer the freedom and excitement of seeing a place as if for the very first time once again.
Archaeology, A Vehicle To The World
I use archaeology to travel and to understand, and photography to share what I’ve learned. This is the combination that has worked well for me, but there are plenty of other options out there. If you can find an opportunity that interests you and can carry you around the world, take advantage and go! Combining archaeology and travel photography has allowed me to explore the many facets of a place and to look at its people, architecture, food and setting to paint a complete picture.
People often ask me why I think archaeology is important. How is it relevant in today’s fast-paced and technology-focused world? I typically respond by answering why I travel, believing that the two are interrelated. It is because of context and perspective. It’s the opportunity to embrace diversity and to be able to see people, events and places in both my own life and afar, and to understand where they fit amongst time and place in our fascinating and complicated world. Oh, and because being the first person in hundreds or thousands of years to see something or hold an object or step foot into a place is a pretty cool feeling.
See more of Matt Stirn’s work at mattstirnphoto.com.