Rick Pettigrew has his sights set on some pretty big travel goals for 2020 and he wants to take you with him.
Grab your favorite Indiana Jones outfit, folks, this is no riverboat cruise. He’ll be on tour in Oman, Malta, Peru, Britain megaliths, Iran and the Maya cities of the Yucatan, something he calls “an exciting year.”
Pettigrew is executive director of Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI), a nonprofit organization in Eugene that started offering tours in 2017 to complement its film festival.
“As this is a totally noncommercial enterprise, our tour program is set apart from others by our commitment to storytelling and expert guidance,” he says. “We believe that a tour should be far more than a photo-op or checking off a bucket list.”
While many international tours are worthy ventures, Pettigrew says he likes designing tours that are not like the others.
“Our goal is to inspire and excite people about the fascinating stories of the human past and thereby fulfill our nonprofit mission to raise awareness about our place in history,” he says. “And if we can have fun doing it, the tours are even more memorable.”
He defines archaeology as “the study of the human past through examination of physical remains.”
So, Pettigrew chooses locations like Iran, which “sits in the cradle of civilization and has lots of amazing ancient sites and monuments,” he says.
Unlike neighboring countries, where dictatorships like the Taliban blew up precious historical sites, the Iranian government is repairing and restoring ancient sites to make them more presentable for tourists, Pettigrew says.
“They hate terrorists and revere ancient sites,” he says. “Iranians are very proud of their cultural heritage, which stretches back more than 5,000 years.”
Some of his favorite sites to visit include:
Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, set afire by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.
The tombs of the ancient Persian kings, cut into a cliff face with elaborate bas-relief sculptures.
The Bisotun UNESCO World Heritage Site, a large panel of cuneiform inscriptions cut into a rock face in three languages by order of Persian king Darius the Great around 520 B.C., which was the key to deciphering the cuneiform writing system.
The Chogha Zanbil ziggurat, the world’s best-preserved ziggurat (massive ceremonial stepped tower), constructed by the king of Elam in 1250 B.C.
The ruins of the ancient capital of the Persian empire in Susa, one of the earliest cities in the world.
The National Museum of Iran in Tehran, with wonderful displays of real artifacts and artwork from thousands of years of culture in Iran.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.
Zeinodin Caravansarai, where camel caravans used to stop for the night and is still used as lodging for modern travelers.
The Towers of Silence, where devout Zoroastrians used to place their deceased on hilltop platforms to be exposed to carrion birds.
The Old Town of Yazd, with mudbrick architecture and narrow streets as constructed 1,000 years ago.
“The pleasure of traveling in Iran is very pleasant and warm,” Pettigrew says, “because the people there are very warm and welcoming, especially for Americans.”
He says traveling in Iran is very safe, and other reputable organizations organize tours there, including the Stanford University Alumni Association, the Archaeological Institute of America and Road Scholar.
“Unlike places like Italy, street crime is basically nonexistent and terrorist incidents are much rarer than they are in places like London and Paris,” Pettigrew says.
A ‘guide’ to guides
ALI uses guides who are experts on their topics, “wellsprings of information and full of stories to tell our participants,” Pettigrew says. These guides include archaeologists, filmmakers with deep experience in the sites, and local guides with years of experience at the sites we visit.
He says local tour guides provide a “special flavor” for tours because they “intimately know the local lore and the culture, beyond just the basic history of each site.
“I’m often directly involved, too, to share my own background knowledge of the sites and the history,” he says.
Don’t plan to bring your trowels and shaker screens on these tours, though. Instead, the tours are intended to “see the world through the lens of archaeology, so the sites are places that have significance in the human past,” Pettigrew says. “We don’t normally get involved with actual archaeological research beyond visiting some sites where archaeologists may be working. Those opportunities will be rare, but we are happy when we can find them.”
Instead, tour participants see lots of artifacts at cultural heritage sites and in museums. “Our tours are opportunities for our participants to get hands-on experience at real places where history happened, for their personal growth and development.”
Each tour has its own length and itinerary, but they typically last between eight and 16 days. The number of days depends on circumstances like the theme of the tour, the selection of sites to visit, the local geography, cost, and logistical opportunities and constraints.
Most tour participants are near retirement or already retired. “These are people who have the interest, time and resources to go on guided tours,” Pettigrew says. “In our experience, these also are people with inquisitive minds and a sense of adventure. They often are fun to travel with.”
In fact, he says that sharing the pleasure of the tours with fellow travelers is the best part of the trip for him.
One memorable moment was an impromptu birthday party in Yazd, Iran, during their first Iran tour in 2017.
“Our resourceful people managed to come up with a birthday cake, complete with candles and a birthday greeting on top. We ceremoniously convened at a table in the hotel courtyard, sang the birthday song, took pictures and had a gloriously good time.”
While this moment stood out for him, he also enjoys something that’s much more common: People arriving at a very cool site and standing in amazement with mouths agape. And the rest, they say, is history.