What is archaeology? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the scientific study of material remains (such as tools, pottery, jewelry, stone walls, and monuments) of past human life and activities.” The Oxford dictionary has a similar definition: “The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.”
Neither of these actually define what archaeology is really about. For example, both definitions ignore the fact that historical archaeologists – that is, archaeologists working on periods for which written evidence also survives – make use of texts and inscriptions, too, like historians and classicists do. The use of the word “study” is also ambiguous: one might be forgiven for thinking that archaeologists mainly describe and catalogue artefacts and structures.
Archaeology is, as Renfrew & Bahn right stress in their book, a highly varied discipline. Archaeology is anthropology, it’s history, it’s a humanistic discipline, it’s a science, or even all or none of the above. It deals with cultural heritage management and outreach. It involves fieldwork, trips to the museum or an archaeological depot, and long stays in a library pouring over books and journals.
I’ve recently been re-reading Michael Shanks’s Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline (1996), which is my favourite book about archaeology. I’ve written about it before. As Shanks put it in his introduction (p. 4):
the past is not simply discovered in archaeological remains. Archaeologists deal with source materials and these require interpretation. How interpretation proceeds depends upon the amount of evidence, the ideas and preconceptions of the archaeologist, their interest and aims. […] Archaeologists do not discover the past but take shattered remains and make something of them.
Shanks underscores the active element in the work that archaeologists do. He emphasizes that the past is not just reconstructed, as if it were already there, waiting to simply be unearthed. Influenced by constructivism, he emphasizes that the past is actively constructed. As he puts it (p. 5):
The remains of the […] past are decayed ruins; they are not to be seen primarily as “expressions” of something else (such as a Greek spirit, or the social practices of the fifth century). Our sources, material and ruined, are both partial and indeed not identical with “the past”. The ruins of the past are resources with which knowledges may be constructed by archaeologists, historians and indeed anyone with the interest and energy to acquire the necessary skills.
Shanks writes that “a significant aim is to reconstruct and understand the social context of material things, rather than stopping at their inventory, dating, classification and admiration” (p. 5), which is something that all professionals dealing with the past would probably agree with: it’s not sufficient to just study the remains of the past, but to work towards understanding it. We need to explain the past, and do so reflexively (that is, be open about how and why we arrive at our conclusions).
One of the ways that archaeologists seek to understand how people lived in the past is through experimental archaeology. How were people able to construct the pyramids or Stonehenge? How long did wattle-and-daub buildings survive before they had to be replaced? Experiments can yield valuable insights into how people in the past lived and did things. It’s even better if these experiments can be made visible to a large audience.
An archaeological theme park
Located just a short train ride’s distance from Leiden, in Alphen aan den Rijn, is the archaeological theme park Archeon. It’s a large park that covers three main periods of Dutch history: (1) prehistory from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age; (2) the era of Roman occupation of the Netherlands south of the country’s main rivers, and; (3) the Middle Ages. Each of these periods takes up a particular part of the park and the main route leads visitors from the Mesolithic area all the way to the very end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance period. It’s a walk through time.
There’s also a small museum that caters especially to children, giving them a chance to interact with actual artefacts and (animal) bones. The work that archaeologists do is explained here briefly, but mostly it gives people a chance to walk past various interactive displays and handle some material for themselves. There is also an introductory video that gives a brief overview of what to expect in the park. There’s also room for temporary exhibitions; when we were there, last week, there was one about the archaeological remains of the German Atlantic Wall in the Dutch dunes.
But the main attraction here is of course the park, which is an open-air museum featuring reconstructions of important archaeological sites and features unearthed in the Netherlands. You start in an area featuring a small hunter-gatherer-fisher encampment from the Mesolithic, where visitors are encouraged to board reconstructions of prehistoric canoes and paddle across the pond.
Here, as in all other parts of the park, are also re-enactors, dressed in period-appropriate clothing and engaged in various activities. One of the men was demonstrating how to start a fire by rapidly turning a wooden stick inside a hole using a bow. After his demonstration, he invited the onlookers to give a try, too.
Sometimes, the re-enactors also engage in new experiments. When I visited the park a few years ago, there was a girl in the Mesolithic area stirring a pink substance in a wooden bowl. I asked what she was doing, and she revealed that she was making a paste out of goat brains to test a hypothesis: could a paste made from brains have been used to soften tanned leather?
As you walk on, you come to areas that are devoted to different periods of the Neolithic, featuring houses that are all based on archaeological finds. Signs are few and far between: there’s usually one for every major feature in an area, providing a date, the basis for the reconstruction, and a brief description. For further details, you have to rely on the re-enactors. I like the interactive element here: visitors have to ask questions to the re-enactors if they want to scratch beneath the surface, to understand why the creators of the park have made certain decisions.
Areas devoted to the Bronze and Iron Ages eventually give way to a wooden fortification wall and towers, with a sign saying that we’ve entered the area devoted to the Romans, who laid claim to the Netherlands south of the major rivers. Visually, this area is the most impressive, featuring a Gallo-Roman temple, a large Roman bath house, and a roadside inn (where you can also get a pizza, which is definitely not a Roman invention!).
The park also organizes a number of “shows” at set times. A schedule is handed out when you purchase your tickets, but you can also find an overview on the park’s website. When we went last week, we mostly attended the shows in the Roman area. A re-enactor dressed as a centurion performed a military drill with children in the area’s forum. At the Gallo-Roman temple, offerings were made to the goddess Nehalennia (of Germanic or Celtic origins).
After the priestess had officiated at the Gallo-Roman temple, we were all invited to head to the arena, which consisted of a wooden amphitheatre off one side of the Roman bath house. Here, we were treated to gladiatorial combat. There was a good show before the fighting even started, with the (female) owners of the gladiators riling up the audience before the two men came to blows. The choreography of the actual battle was well done, with one of the gladiators even getting “wounded”, which sent (fake) blood streaming down one of his legs.
Leaving through another gate, a short path takes you to the park’s medieval area. Again, this part is organized in chronological order: you’re taken from buildings that date to the early medieval period to a shopping street with houses that are based on structures that date from the very end of the Middle Ages or beginning of the Renaissance. You’ll see a blacksmith’s forge, a shoemaker’s shop, and can even have some refreshments in the park’s reconstruction of a medieval cloister.
There is a lot that I haven’t covered in either the text or the photos. The long and short of it is that Archeon is well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. It’s like walking through a nicely illustrated book on the (early) history of the Netherlands. If you’re familiar with the archaeology of this country, it’s interesting to see how known sites and buildings have been reconstructed here.
As frequent readers of this website may know, I tend to be very critical about archaeological museums. In one article, I lamented the fact that archaeological museums often pretend to be about the past, whereas archaeology is rather – to paraphrase Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley – a social practice in the present. An archaeological theme park with re-enactors is a good way to emphasize this: apart from the museum, there are no “original” artefacts here; everything is a (re)construction, and visitors are invited to actively engage with it.
Of course, it isn’t perfect. Shanks and Tilley have emphasized that by presenting displays like this, visitors may inadvertently believe that this is simply what the past looked like, without questioning the choices behind the (re)construction. The re-enactors and the signs can go some way toward dealing with this problem, but it requires a critical stance from the visitor that they might not necessarily realize is needed to engage fully with what is presented to them.
In the end, though, an archaeological park like this is a valuable way to engage people with the past. A visitor gets the chance to walk through different periods of history, entering buildings and handling objects, while talking to re-enactors who really try to get into the minds of people of the past. It’s a good and worthwhile experience.