Category: The archaeologist… (page 1 of 3)

The archaeologist in the proper clothes


The morning fog has not lifted yet, keeping the black earth in its grasp just a bit longer while I stare at my feet. The dirt I’m standing on is blotchy from different kinds of soil mixed together by an earlier force. Possibly a shovel, or bigger machinery when the road was built. While I crack my brain about whether or not it was machinery, meaning the dirt came from elsewhere than this area, cars are speeding past me. The result is a low buzzing sound that tries to get my attention but I’m still too sleepy to notice.

The first thing to do is throwing cans and other garbage out of our trenches. During the past night, multiple of these things have found their ways out of passing cars and into our excavation. When working next to the highway, there is a high possibility that trash will come flying at you while working. The drivers on the road can barely see us. We’re located a little below the road, with large piles of dug up earth between us and the actual asphalt.
I stretch my back and observe the walls of my ditch. I’m not even able to look over them because of my limited height! As this results in a limited view, I decide to look at the sky. It is clear weather and the blue sky promises a nice warm day.
Working next to the highway also forces us to wear safety helmets, which are not unnecessary when garbage comes flying at you at non-specific times, and bright orange workclothes. I pick up my shovel and start to scrape up centimeters of dirt at the time. I feel like humming, and wish I had some chain-gang-songs to keep myself into a rythm. Working 6 to 8 would work as well. But my ditch does not have any wifi, so there is no Youtube to listen to.

While the clothes are made to protect us, the only thing they do right now is keep us warm. A bit too warm. Suddenly I hear a thunk. An empty can of Cola falls into my ditch, the last drops of the sugary drink spills on my clothes. It reminds me again why proper clothing is absolutely necessary.

The archaeologist playing with lego


“Yeah, so my 24 year old daughter is playing with Lego’s.” My mom makes it sound so… childish. So let me rephrase it in a better way: “My daughter who is an archaeologist is rebuilding the site where she was last summer with Lego’s.” That sounds so much better actually. “And after she is done with that, she is building a tiny museum to see what a proper setting would be for possible exhibitions.”


Some archaeological sites require modelling to have a proper look at them. Modelling is a job that requires an eye for detail, whether it is done with supplies to do model building, by computer, or (in my case) with Lego’s. Building models is quite essential to archaeology, as it could help theories whether or not some buildings could have been built in certain proportions, or to calculate the size of a site. However, when modelling archaeological sites purely for fun, Lego has proved to be a very helpful source of equipment. The tiny plastic blocks have actually proved so succesful that the largest historical model built with Lego, a complete reproduction of the city of Pompeii, is currently on display in a museum. And that is only one of the many reproductions, as there are also complete models of the Colosseum, the Acropolis, and even part of Hadrian’s Wall. The results look amazing, and actually quite lifelike. A bit like a an impressionistic painting in 3D.

So as you can see, it is not that weird for a young archaeologist to play with Lego and it is actually very entertaining. Creating, breaking down, creating again, considering endless possibilities in a way that many museums cannot. With Lego you can truly ‘just try it out’, without spending millions of euros. So why not see what the possibilities of a museum could be by just moving pieces, tearing down walls, and starting all over again the next day? Walk around the mummies, tapestries, and other neat little trinkets that are even smaller than usual as they are in fact very fake, very plastic, and very Danish. Lego doesn’t state their age limit is 99+ for nothing.



The archaeologist and the museum

This month, the Rijksmuseum of Oudheden will finally again be fully opened to the public as the Egypt-exhibit will finally be renovated. To satisfy the first thirst for knowledge, the public has been able to see the brand new Greek floor and the first contemporary exhibits since december 2015. We talk to curator Ruurd Halbertsma about these brand new floors that many of us have enjoyed in their old, and their new state.

The new permanent Greek exhibit shows the broad range of the Greek influencei n the world (RMO, Mike Bink)

The new permanent Greek exhibit shows the broad range of the Greek influencei n the world (RMO, Mike Bink)

The Greek-exhibit opened its doors again in December 2015, and now the first temporary exhibits are open to the public. Are you satisfied with the renovation?

“I am very satisfied. This renovation has been a process that took around four years to finish, and when I heard that we would be renovating the whole building I asked myself: What would I really want to do with the museum? To answer that question I went back to the Greeks and the way they looked and dealt with art. That brought me to Aristotle, who looked at art as a philosopher but also as a biologist. He considered the possibility of art to let people feel enthusiasm and even ecstasy by the concept of ritmos, in which art has a certain flow. You could see it as a combination between surprises and moments of peace.”

Was the renovation needed? Were you searching for a more timeless or more youthful approach?

“Actually, we went back to the roots of the museum. Daily life is already filled with screens and constant sources of information, so we decided to keep all that technology out of the exhibits. We do have an audio-tour but there are no interactive components in the exhibitions. Now, the object is the central point of your visit.”

“Another problem was that we had asbestos in the walls, which every old building has. So when the renovations started, it took seven months to remove it. That gave us possibilities to start all over. And now we have a large open space for temporary exhibits while all the permanent exhibits are located around the central stairs.”

The new permanent exhibit, Classical World, has a brand new room and it’s blue. Why blue?

“We wanted a colour that would do justice to the sculptures. And blue is a colour that is associated with Greece, with the blue sky and the sea. So it is purely an aesthetic choice.”

The statues are the main focus point of the new exhibit, but they are not protected by glass or anything. Are you not afraid they might get damaged by kids?

“Our statues have never been behind glass or anything, and we have never had any problems with damages or children touching them. People respect these artefacts, and just in case something might happen there are always guards to keep an eye on them.”

The statue of Hecate (RMO)

The statue of Hecate (RMO)

What is your favourite piece in the exhibit?

“That is a difficult question, but if I had to choose I would say the statue of Hecate. It is the piece that is featured on the new poster. Hecate was created in the golden age of the Greek-styled sculptures, but the one we have is a Roman reproduction which shows the impact of the Greeks on other cultures. Another important aspect is that the Hecate was part of the collection of Rubens, and the piece was also part of the first museum when it was still located in the Hortus. So the Hecate features the history of this museum, as well as the history of Greek art.”

The Egypt exhibit is still being renovated, what happened to all the artefacts that were on display?

“Our Egypt collection is around 10.000 pieces large, although not all of these are on display in the museum. To store such a large amount of pieces, you would need an incredibly large depot especially if you were to store the large sculptures and the mummies. That depot would need temperature-controlled rooms, guards, everything a museum would have actually. To store it that way would cost an incredible amount of money, and therefore we did not do it. We loaned our collection to the museum of Bologna, where the pieces are on display until they can return to the renovated wing here.”

What is the new plan for the Egypt-exhibit?

“From what I know there will be a more thematic story, and less artefacts on display. That way the story will be more clear, and the objects will be displayed in a more accessible way.”

Male portret from Cyprus (RMO)

Male portret from Cyprus (RMO)

With the museum now almost done, what kind of special things are waiting in the coming study-year?

“The Egypt-exhibit reopens in October with the First Ladies of Egypt-exhibit, and we also want to renovate the Provincial Roman exhibit. We will never be done with changing and perfecting things in this museum, but this large renovation was very much needed. We hadn’t changed the permanent exhibits since 2000.”

“If we would ever have more space, I would like to see an exhibit on the history of archaeology as a science, and on archaeology as a ‘collection-profession’. But that would be a plan for the future in the most ideal way.”

Can we expect any temporary exhibits on cities as Palmyra, with all the destruction going on right now?

“We will be having an exhibition on Nineveh, which has also been partly destroyed during the war in Syria and Iraq. This exhibit will be done in cooperation with the Louvre, the British Museum, and the museum of Bagdad and it will be purely about archaeology and not about the war. We do not want to be silent about these cities and the destruction going on there, but we also do not want to give the attackers more and more attention because that is exactly what they want. So when doing exhibits like Petra, on cities like Palmyra that is a bit of a problem right now.”

The archaeologist and the books


It never occured to me before just how many books about archaeology are written every year. And that if I want to stay involved in the speciality of studies of the ancient world, I should read at least half of them. My current path may be leading elsewhere, but it does not truly exclude a career in either archaeology or writing and therefore I should put some effort into keeping up to date with the field. Which brings me to the personal library of almost every archaeologist. And I’m not just talking books, although I will focus on that later, but also about the endless wave of papers, news, articles, and so on that archaeologists have to read to be able to gain knowledge about the newest data.

Now focussing on the books. When starting your archaeological library one should start with a certain expertise, although it is really tempting to just buy everything. When established what you will be (mainly) focussing on, there is the next problem: Do you really want to buy everything? When can you assume an opinion or a technique outdated? Do books and research from 1800 still matter? Or should one read every single book that has been written about the Illiad? These are questions that will determine the size of your library, and the hatred of others when they have to help you move if your house becomes too small. I myself have started with a couple of books that are considered to be modern pieces that cannot be missed. Fik Meijer, the Odyssey (of course), a couple of standard study books. I’ll be honoust, my personal library is now about one bookshelf, and it is mostly focused on history instead of archaeology but I believe that those two could go hand in hand especially when reading. When you are curious about northern-Europe, I will always recommend Michael Pye whether or not you are an historian or an archaeologist.

There is no way to build a ‘proper archaeological library’ as every reader has his/her own prefered system. Whether or not to keep the books seperate from other books on a different shelf or in a different bookcase, and whether or not to organise it with a system is completely up to you. Often archaeologist decorate the shelves with pictures from digs or small archaeological tokens or finds from museums or the field, but that also depends on the archaeologist in question. The most important thing is to read the books on the shelves and not just have them as trophies as keeping up to date with the field is hard enough as it is. And books just collecting dust has never helped anybody.

The archaeologist in film

There are many movies that involve history. Night at the Museum, Schindler’s List, Michiel de Ruyter, are only a couple of names. However, there are not that much films that involve archaeology, and even less films that involve archaeology in a archaeologically correct way.

So how historically correct is 300? (Source: Warner Bros.)

So how historically correct is 300? (Warner Bros.)

“Ooh you study archaeology? That is so cool, I always wanted to be like Indiana Jones when I was young.” How many times have archaeologists not heard this? Indiana Jones is still the top 3 of IMDb’s top 40 of archaeology-movies. Followed by other well-known titles as The Mummy, Jurassic Park (when will people learn the difference between dinosaurs and archaeology?), and even Pirates of the Caribbean.  But how archaeologically correct are some of these famous films really?

Provenance, Indy?
Indiana Jones, probably the most well-known archaeologist in the world, is at first a professor. In  Raiders of the Lost Ark you will see Jones give a lecture on a Neolithic site mentioning the dangers of folklore and treasure-hunters. This is actually a very realistic lecture, and many young archaeologists will have had similar lectures about case studies and the dangers that lurk around. It sounds a bit hypocritical though, as this warning comes from the world’s most famous archaeologist who does nothing when it comes to documenting finds and places. Indiana makes sure finds end up in museums, and therefore he is the good guy. Technically speaking, Indiana’s work is a form of archaeology, but this form has not been used since the Grand Tour went out of style. So you would think a movie made in 1981 would know the difference between treasure hunting and proper archaeology. And Indiana rarely had the time to make proper notes about provenance as he mostly ran from the sites as fast as possible after obtaining treasures (often chased by German enemies and large rolling stones).

Archaeologists may act differently than Indiana, but when asked in 2007 by a Lycoming College project almost all participants in the research answered that when thinking of archaeologists, they saw a man in the desert wearing khaki clothing and an ‘Indiana Jones hat’ digging for lost treasures to put these in museums. It might hurt even more, when the same research showed that most people think destruction is ‘okay’ if it means getting access to these treasures. Thank you Indy.

So what about provenance? It seems to be one of the most important things when it comes to archaeological finds, and the word is often used in Museum Studies. Indiana Jones does not seem to have heard of it though, because it means taking notes, photos, or at least some form of a soil sample before running off with some golden object. No wonder people think taking cultural heritage and selling it online is perfectly okay.

The ruins of Sparta. (Thomas Ihle)

The ruins of Sparta. (Thomas Ihle)

Spartans vs. mythical beasts?
Let’s get one thing straight: the film 300 (yes, from that famous line “This is Sparta!”) is not based on any historical or archaeological record. This Battle of Thermopylae is based on a comic book. Unfortunately, a lot of people who saw the movie don’t know this and think it is based on the legendary battle that took place in 480 BC.

A good movie can’t work its magic without some villain, some heroes, and some general fiction. This is where 300 differs from reality. Starting with Leonidas himself. Leonidas seems to be the only ruler, but Sparta always had two kings that ruled with equal power. And the army was not 300, but over 7000 men strong. Greek soldiers from other major city-states joined the Spartan king in his battle.

But of course, this is not what people think about. They wonder about the mythical warriors of the Persian army. Did the Persians really use rhino’s and elephants? No, they did not.
Elephants were not used in warfare until the 4th century BC, and this practice started in India. It took a while for the strategy to come to Persia so Xerxes could not have known of this beast as a tool of war. How about rhinos? Well, Rhinos cannot be truly domesticated or trained like horses and elephants. And have you ever seen a rhino? Those animals are like walking tanks, no way you can spur them!

So no war-beasts, no magic, and no freaky-looking mutant-creatures. The Immortals, however, did exist. They looked nothing like samurai, but they were indeed Xerxes personal bodyguard and made up the elite-troops of the Persian army.
The final, and very disputable, thing is the size of Xerxes’ army. The narrator of the film says that they were ‘in the millions’, and ancient sources do comply. But more recent research done by writer Tom Holland states that it was a maximum of 500.000 soldiers, coming from every corner and tribe of the Persian empire. The end, with the shower of arrows, is correct. In 1939 archaeologists found large numbers of Persian arrowheads and human remains, identifying the spot where the last Spartans died. During this final battle, king Leonidas was already dead…

Photo credit: Dr._Colleen_Morgan via / CC BY

What archaeology really look like. (Dr._Colleen_Morgan via / CC BY)

Learning… Always learning
There is one thing that is completely archaeologically correct about The Librarian’s franchise: we learn, and then we learn some more in the real world. They also talk about curiosity, knowledge, and proper storing (no touching!) of ancient artefacts. In all fairness, it seems that this franchise (which is now shooting the third season of its new tv-series) has done its research on archaeologists and their work. But a movie wouldn’t be a movie without something going wrong… So of course there are traps, moving walls, some romance, lots of treasure, you know: normal film-stuff.

So how archaeologically correct is The Librarian really? One thing has to be said for the movies: they get the mix of archaeology just right. Archaeologists do not only work with ancient pottery, human remains, or treasure. We use a mix of historic sources, linguistics, ancient artefacts, and strange locations. And archaeologists are no treasure hunters!

When it comes to proper archaeological reseach, it is true that Flynn is much more interested in information than Indiana Jones. Indiana does not do research, and focuses on just getting the treasure. Flynn at least stops to spot an arrowhead and wants to collect it as it is a diagnostic find. Remember that word from all survey-work done?
And the rest? Well… It is still a movie, which would probably not sell well if there wasn’t some action in it. And for some reason, archaeological remains really hate action. Something with breaking and getting lost forever.

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