A week ago I visited Leiden to attend the 10th Experimental Archaeology Conference, organised by EXARC and held 20-22 April 2017. This was my first visit to the Netherlands in years, probably my first proper visit and definitely the first time that I have experienced the wonders of Leiden.
EXARC is an organisation which binds together archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeologists and others who explore ancient technologies and public engagement. Needles to say, a conference organised and attended by their members, with all in all about 120 students, archaeologists, artists, museum and research centre representatives converging upon a wing of the University, was a coalition of madness most beautiful. I shall refrain from going into too many details, but amidst the bread-breaking and cup-draining, many ideas were exchanged, future potentials investigated and new acquaintances made.
My intent here is also not to write a detailed report on the conference, since the event was well covered on social media such as Twitter, and there is even a Storify on it by Rena Maguire. I also think that posting photos of people standing in front of a projector does not make for the most captivating blogging material. Therefore I will focus on what happened after the two days filled with short lectures and presentations. I will relay some of my impression of the conference field trip and my time spent walking along the canals of Leiden. Once for a change I will also let the pictures do most of the talking.
Saturday – Open-Air Museums
After heaving spent Thursday and Friday in lecture rooms, followed by a communal libation, as is the manner of all decent conferences, most of the participants (myself included) gathered on Saturday morning and loaded themselves on a bus bound for the archaeological open-air museum Prehistorish Dorp at Eindhoven.
After some time spent staring at the flat grassy fields, we arrived at the ‘Prehistoric Village’, which has been founded as an open-air musuem in 1982, and has since then expanded to include time periods from the stone age to medieval times. We were warmly greeted with second breakfast in the form of coffee and apple-cake in a medieval-ish tavern. We were given tours around the place, enjoyed the demonstrations of some of their artisans, got to wander around the place and were finally served a delicious lunch in a longhouse.
What impressed the most was short lecture given by the museum’s resident textile worker – Anton Reurink. The man is a lexicon of knowledge and skill relating to linen and wool processing, spinning and weaving. Furthermore he seems to be a good teacher. I would love to be able to spend some more time learning from him at a later point.
The other impressive point was a sizable reconstruction of a Germanic longhouse, which they call the ‘Chieftain’s house’. It is a relatively low and wide structure which upon entering has an interesting effect of appearing much larger on the inside. The fact that we were served a delicious lunch by the central fireplace also helped to endear it to me.
All in all, Prehistorisch Dorp is a fairly large are with many reconstructed buildings, set in a pleasing environment by a large lake. One often finds water fowl mingling with the visitors. The houses cover different time periods and activities such as domestic buildings and various workshops. The management has made sure to put some life into it by adding an animal pen to the costumed museum interpreters and volunteers, as well as keeping gardens.
Having left Eindhoven, we also visited the site of an open-air museum in the making at Vlaardingen. There, as the first stage of construction, the Department of Archaeology at the University of Leiden has built a Neolithic house as an experimental project in stone age tool use. The project is quite unique in the fact that relied only on period appropriate tools. They also involved in the project not only students, but local volunteers as well, therefore turning the construction in an effective public outreach exercise.
That concluded our Saturday trip, but I still had a whole day left before my flight back to Dublin.
Sunday – A Man About Town
A made use of Sunday to visit museums and stroll across town in a most leisurely manner, getting almost purposefully lost lost whilst ambulating in between various points of interest.
I managed to pay visit to two museums. The first was the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities), which holds the archaeological heritage of the Netherlands, as well as a large collection of artefacts from Classical Antiquity, Egypt and the Near East. Despite falling into the category of large national museums, established in the early 19th century, it comes across as fairly modern. One can easily loose 2-3 hours in there. A useful tip: if you happen to study archaeology, you get in for free.
The other museum was Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology). This again is huge, with pleasingly designed exhibitions and seems to be well-visited. It presents different cultures across the globe. Sadly, I could only get through most of the ground floor before the establishment started closing around 5 pm. On the bright side, this gives me another reason to return to Leiden at some point.
What I would like to mainly point out is my impression of Leiden as a city, since it appear to be quite a rare gem. Having spent some time walking around the quaint streets and canals, I just could not help myself to like the place.
As a city it truly is fascinating with plenty of green spaces in the form of parks, urban gardens and people having front-yards instead of backyards, by placing flowerpots, garden tables on the wide sidewalk in front of their door. At the same time, the network canals, bridges, locks and docks just makes you stop and marvel at this sort of urbanism. In how many cities do you happen to spot somebody rowing a canoe through the centre?
The architecture is a wonderful mixture of buildings pompous and mundane, sacral grandeur and secular elegance, spanning a swath of time from the 16th to the early 20th century. Most of this seems to be well preserved and maintained so that the unique character of the city may be perceived.
Despite all of this, the city does not seem to be overrun unmanageable numbers of tourists. Leiden definitely does promote itself as a tourist destination and has much to offer to its visitors. Yet despite that, it does not exist for tourists alone. It is a thriving university city. People actually live in the historical centre. They seem to do this in a dignified manner, sitting on a bench with cup of coffee by the door of their house on the canal. The houses are not just occupied by shops, cafes and restaurants, although there is no shortage of any of those.
Cities are very peculiar places. A few of them seem like very interesting places and some just feel like some sort of punishment inflicted in the name of progress. Many might be fun for a visit, yet upon closer examination, one quickly realizes that they might impractical as a living space. Here this does not seem to be the case. Have I actually stumbled upon a city which more than just a human ant colony or agglomeration of service providers? Have the Dutch been hiding something from us all along? I might have to go back to investigate this mystery.
That would be it for this time. I hope to do some travelling again soon and I also hope that I may come back to Leiden at some point.
Also, some of you might have noticed that I now have a logo, which I am adding to my photos. I will slowly incorporate it into other elements of this site.