As an archaeologist who specialises in the archaeology of the Mediterranean – the ancient cultures of Greece, Italy, Turkey and Cyprus – he shares his knowledge within ACASA and teaches at the departments of Archaeology and Ancient History. “But I am also increasingly focusing on the field of heritage within archaeology,” Gert Jan says. “This entails investigating the importance Antiquity still has today, more so than investigating what happened in Antiquity itself. It is also connected to the question of how we know what we know about Antiquity.”
What I find important within the field of archaeology, and what is not emphasised often enough, is that you learn to reason based on insufficient data. We never have enough. In science, people have the tendency to want to gather more and more data, but in corporate life, etc., you see that you often only have a limited amount of data to work with. The same is true for the field of archaeology.
“While I was writing my PhD thesis, I mainly concerned myself with what we know about the past. It became increasingly clear to me, however, that the way in which we study Antiquity is driven by questions we find important in the present. For instance, we think that pottery is important because our museums are filled with it, but we do not actually know whether pottery was deemed important in the past,” Gert Jan explains. “I therefore began to investigate the relationship between our contemporary preoccupations and how they influence the way we look at Antiquity. This is a field which is much broader than just archaeology.”
“This approach also tells you something about present-day people and the issues we encounter today. Within the field of archaeology, for instance, a lot of attention has recently been given to the topic of migration.” Of course, this is very much a topical issue, but Gert Jan highlights that it is actually a perpetually important subject: “Antiquity is highly relevant because it gives chronological depth to problems such as this one. They did not arise within the past ten years; the entire Mediterranean has always known migration patterns, along with all of the related issues.”
This chronological depth also features in what is currently his favourite course to teach: Heritage in Context. In this course, the circa thirty students who take part in it must all choose their own heritage topic and place it on the ACASA Heritage List. However, the list is capped at fifteen items, so the students must convince each other of their topic’s importance and undertake the selection process together. “This is always a very interesting process to witness,” Gert Jan says.
Fieldwork: from Brabant to ancient Troy
Of course, the Archaeology programme has more in store than compiling Heritage Lists. Straight away, in their first year, students get to do a field course in Veldhoven (Brabant) in which they take part in the excavation of both a Roman and a Medieval settlement. In their second year, they can then tuck into one of the projects in Greece or the Czech Republic. Gert Jan adds that his own field research at the site of ancient Troy actually constitutes one of the fieldwork options in the Master’s phase.
You have probably seen a reconstruction of the Forum Romanum at some point in time. All sorts of presuppositions play into this because we only have limited information. How do you decide which shape a roof might have had if the roof was lost to time? Digital archaeology gives us the tools with which we can test various reconstructions and estimate their probability.
Why is fieldwork so much fun? “Fieldwork is really exciting. It feels a bit exotic. It is a bit like unwrapping a present: you have no idea what could be inside. You arrive in a field somewhere (whether this is in Veldhoven or in Greece), you start digging, and the field may end up containing incredible things. It could also contain nothing at all. Additionally, the romantic image of physically handling the material and being active, often in fairly primitive circumstances, is attached to fieldwork. That aspect really does make it a lot of fun.”
“Archaeology students are people who are interested in objects and because of our collaboration with the Allard Pierson, you will start working with objects straight away, in your first year. We also house the 4D lab (the fourth dimension that is being referred to is time), which is occupied with 3D reconstructions and digital approaches of excavations and objects.”
“Archaeology thus always contains a highly practical side. You have probably seen a reconstruction of the Forum Romanum at some point in time. All sorts of presuppositions play into this because we only have limited information. How do you decide which shape a roof might have had if the roof was lost to time? Digital archaeology gives us the tools with which we can test various reconstructions and estimate their probability.” This teaches you to reason and draw logical conclusions based on insufficient data – a very important skill in your future career, Gert Jan emphasises.
An inspiring degree programme
The UvA gives this degree programme lots of opportunities to utilise the expertise of, for instance, Media Studies scholars to assist with such things as digital archaeology projects. “In my opinion, the strength of the Amsterdam archaeology programme lies in the fact that it is embedded within a broad Faculty of Humanities, which allows us to collaborate with all sorts of specialists from related fields, not just at the UvA but also at the VU. More so than Leiden and Groningen, we are embedded in various connections with programmes and connected fields.” This means that as a student, you will have access to many different kinds of expert knowledge and you can choose your own distinct approach within your field, from focusing on a more historical approach to a digital, material or theoretical one, Gert Jan explains. “The most inspiring side of this programme is that we continuously receive input from other fields.”
When asked what Gert Jan enjoys the most when it comes to his contact with students, he unhesitatingly gives a clear answer: “I find it amazing to see young people starting the programme full of enthusiasm and ideas and to then see how they develop themselves. It never gets old. As time goes on, you see them choose electives and an approach within the field that they may never have considered beforehand. At some point during the Bachelor’s programme, things fall into place and they realise which direction they want to go in within the field. This is really great to see.”