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.