The Dutch in the Ancient World

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We got out early this morning to take the train to Leiden. I was very pleased to see that the train system in the Netherlands works supremely smoothly and easily — good train systems are a passion of mine. Leiden was only 45 minutes away, which would have been a suburb in the Seattle area, but they don’t really have suburbs in the Netherlands. They have a town, and then blip! you’re in the middle of farmland, and then without any obvious transition you’re in another town. Since I am not fond of suburbs, this delights me. They also have bike lanes everywhere, including on the highways between one city and another. We actually saw people using them, too. The Dutch are serious about their bicycling.

The cost of our two train tickets to Leiden was €46 round trip… so I finally had something to spend my €50 note on! It’s only been sitting in my wallet for three or four years. It was fun to get a chance to use it finally, especially on something exciting like an excursion to the Museum of Antiquities.

The inside of a train; there are three pairs of blue-upholstered seats on the far side, the farthest pair facing back toward the camera and the other two pairs facing forward.  The walls and backs of the seats are various shades of grey,  There is a luggage rack above the seats, and a strip of blue soffit lighting below the ceiling.
On a Dutch train

We arrived at Leiden Station, picked up sandwiches for lunch from one of the six or seven different little sandwich stops the station contained (I don’t know how they all stay in business, but they seemed to be thriving), and set out for the Museum, exploring downtown Leiden along the way.

A windmill, with buildings behind it.  A canal occupies the entire bottom of the frame; its farther bank curves to the left.
Windmill and canal, in Leiden

Leiden is a cute little place. It’s got poems in random places on the walls of buildings — we only saw one, but I’m told there are plenty — and it has the indefinably friendly feel of a good college town. There’s a buzz to college towns; the feel of a place where there’s not only always something happening, but usually five or six different things happening. We saw a lot of pretty canals — narrower than the ones in Amsterdam; there were small boats parked along many of these, but you couldn’t put a houseboat along most without blocking them. There were a few exceptions — big canals that did have houseboats — and also a couple of large squares that appeared to be the central shopping district. All of this was clustered together near the train station, while the university seemed to be spread out along smaller streets further out from the center. We made our way out onto one of these smaller, mostly residential streets; and shortly afterwards, we found the museum on it.

A narrow street, with one lane for cars and a narrower lane for bicycles. There is a crosswalk in the left foreground.  The street is lined with buildings in a mix of old and new styles.
The downtown Leiden shopping district

Immediately on arrival in the Museum of Antiquities, there’s an open-plan gift shop with a small temple of some kind directly behind it. They just imported the entire temple from the ground up, in much the way the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has moved the Temple of Dendur into the building (this was a much smaller one, though). There’s a small area between the temple and the permanent exhibits which houses the current temporary exhibit — right now, that’s a beautiful collection of gemstones, but since the descriptions were only in Dutch I couldn’t get much information about them. Inside, through a set of glass doors, the permanent exhibits have descriptions in both Dutch and English, which relieved me… I wasn’t sure at the beginning whether the whole museum would be only in Dutch. But it wasn’t.

Books arrayed on tables in the foreground, and a temple made of brown stone in the back.  There is a dark blue-grey sarcophagus to the right of the temple.
Gift shop and temple in the lobby of the Museum of Antiquities

Past the glass doors, we found a spiral staircase that wraps around a glass elevator, both of which take you to the two upper floors of the museum. The building has a very weird ceiling, with an older, tiled roof clearly visible indoors, and a glass roof simply thrown on over the top of it, so that some of the area which would once have been in a courtyard or some similar outdoor space is now enclosed. I later discovered that the Maritime Museum did something very similar. I never found out whether this is common in the Netherlands or why it was done in these two cases, but it intrigued me at both museums.

An inside corner of what was once a courtyard, with roofs covered with brown tiles sloping away from the camera. A corner of the modern glass roof can be seen at the top of the picture
Weird ceiling, with indoor roof tiles covered by a modern glass roof

The ground floor of the Antiquities Museum houses its Egyptian collection, which is extensive. This confused me no end for a while, since I had never particularly heard that the Dutch were all that active in Egyptian antiquity research. Certainly they hadn’t colonized Egypt or anything. A plaque midway through the collection cleared up some of the questions: apparently the museum had been found during the heyday of European Egyptology, and a handful of Dutch archaeologists (of the quasi-amateur variety common in the Victorian era) had gone out of their way to make sure their country didn’t miss out on the craze. They went off to Egypt and began sending back stuff. Mostly, as was common in that time, indiscriminately as to type and utterly without regard to the wishes of anyone in the country where the items were found in the first place.

A rectangular slab of stone with a rounded top  Two eyes of Horus are above a deep niche containing a human figure, with a jackal on either side. Below these are a row of carved heiroglyphics and three rows of humanfigures.
Stela from the museum’s Egyptian collection

There’s a good deal of discussion currently taking place in Europe about what to do with this sort of antiquities. Most of the colonial powers of the 19th century have collections of plunder in their museums — stuff that originates in less powerful countries with a rich ancient heritage, and which was picked up by private tourists during the colonial period and delivered to their home nations. The artifacts are usually housed in western European museums like this one. Their nations of origin want them back.

The museums in question, many of which built their whole reputations around having an exceptional collection of antiquities from Greece, Egypt, or other countries with a storied past, are often pretty reluctant. They accept that the original countries have a claim, but they are understandably unhappy about the idea of giving up their prizes… and so far, few have actually done it, though many have admitted it’s probably the right thing to do. The collection of sculpture from the Parthenon, which was once known as the Elgin marbles after the English earl who brought them from Greece to England, are the most famous example of this debate, and support is growing in Britain for their return to Greece. But at the moment, they remain in the British Museum.

A black urn with a handle on either side. There are four figures in red. The second from the left is being crowned with a laurel wreath.
Beautiful Greek red-figure urn

I have no idea about whether there is any similar discussion about the status of this Dutch museum’s Egyptian antiquities, but if so the museum isn’t talking about it in public. They admitted to the unsavory origins of their collection, but that’s as far as it went. They also have a section of Greek sculpture and painting; the vases in particular were really beautiful. I’m not sure at all how they acquired the Greek stuff; if it is mentioned at all in the museum, I never saw a reference to it. Also plundered, I would assume, but I admit to being grateful for the opportunity to see them. I intend to travel to both Greece and Egypt in coming years, but until I do, the western museums are the only chance I have; and the art is exquisite. For the moment, since I have no power to get the art returned, I acknowledge the privilege which made it available to me.

A partially-bald man with a full beard and a thoughtful expression.
Greek bust, supposedly of Socrates

The remaining two floors were mostly filled with local finds, which lifted off my shoulders any moral concern about their origins. There was a considerable Roman collection, of artifacts discovered in the Netherlands, from the period when the area was a Roman province. It contained fascinating items from the legions camped in the Netherlands — everything from elaborate and beautiful helmets to simple pots and pans.

There was a collection of religious Roman sculpture, which I compared with interest to the Greek versions. Most Greek statues were naked or near-naked, and the proportions were either very precise, or else the muscles were slightly exaggerated to be more perfect than natural. This makes a lot of sense for the Greeks, who believed that the human body was the ultimate standard of beauty and should be perfected as far as possible — both their representations in painting and sculpture and their actual bodies, which they honed in the gymnasium. The Romans cared a lot less, and often were somewhat less than exact in the bodies they sculpted… but they were incredibly exact about the folds of fabric in the garments worn by their statues. These were done with great precision, and often very beautifully. When the Greeks had their statues wearing anything at all, by contrast, it was much less precisely carved, because their focus was on the body beneath.

The museum also contained an extensive temporary exhibit on the Roman emperor Domitian, second son of the emperor Vespasian. Vespasian won the imperial crown by being a successful general, but had no familial link to the Caesars. Domitian, without the ancestry to cement his hold on the throne by the traditional route, went on a massive campaign of building in order to make himself seem more like a legitimate emperor. The people and the army loved him. But he was dictatorial in the extreme with the Senate, who didn’t appreciate this from an upstart without lineage, and eventually they had him assassinated for it. The exhibit about his life borrowed items from many countries, and it was fascinating — Domitian was not an emperor I had ever known much about before, which I gather was their point in making an exhibit about him: most people don’t. A well-balanced explanation of a complicated and interesting man. The exhibit on his life included items from his infamous Black Banquet, which was one of the most impressive pieces of social terrorism I’ve run across in quite a while, and I was fascinated to learn about it. (Especially since the items themselves, all entirely black, were both beautiful and chilling.)

On the left, a bust of a man with short curly hair and a disapproving expression, on the left.  On the right, a block of stone on which is carved the name "Vespasiani".
Bust from the Domitian exhibit, of his father Vespasian

The story of the Black Banquet goes like this: at one point in order to scare the daylights out of the senators who kept opposing him, Domitian held a dinner party for all his worst enemies. Everything at this party was black — the room was painted black, the curtains were black, the only minimal light to see by came from funeral lamps, and the places were marked by miniature marble tombstones containing the guests’ names. The guests felt absolutely certain that this was his way of telling them that he was going to poison them all at this very banquet, but they still had to eat everything in front of them — otherwise he’d just have them executed anyway, for defying him, and probably much more painfully. So, trembling in terror, they went through the whole horrific dinner and somehow managed to make stammering conversation throughout.

A set of black ceramic bowls, a black plate with a vertical rim, and an oil lamp.
Items from Domitian’s Black Banquet

As it happened, none of the food was poisoned, nor did he execute his guests afterwards. But the following day, he had the miniature marble tombstones delivered to each guest’s house as a memento of the party… and a reminder of what he could do to them if he chose to.

I have to admit, I do get a sense after that for why the senators felt they had to assassinate Domitian before he got around to doing it to them. But I have to admire anybody who could put together something like that. It’s a masterwork of manipulation.

On the top floor, there was a detailed exhibit about the very early origins of the first people known to live in the Netherlands — the Mesolithic reindeer hunters and fishermen who moved around this area before humans had begun to build long-term settlements. Their archaeologists have discovered some wonderful artifacts from this earliest period of their national history, and it fascinated me. I’ve always been really interested in early humanity, and there were stone tools that dated back to the Neanderthals in the region, as well as modern humans only a little later. They also had finds from Doggerland, the area which was open land between the Netherlands and the British isles during the ice age, when sea level was substantially lower than it is now because so much water was locked up in polar ice caps. Dutch trawlers and diving exhibitions have discovered many artifacts from the human settlements in that long-ago land that’s now under the North Sea, and this museum contained a bunch of them.

We left the museum after a stop at the gift shop… and I realized several blocks away that I didn’t have my phone on me. I’d been carrying it in my hands since I had no pockets and the museum required us to leave all bags and jackets in a locker, and I figured that I must have set it down while browsing the gift shop at the end of our visit. Even though our Covid tests weren’t good any longer — they’d been valid for entrance until 1pm and we stayed in the museum longer than that — a very kind guard let me scramble back inside to search for it, and a museum employee helped me look. The phone was discovered right beside a pile of one of the books I bought as a gift, and I thanked both my helpers profusely.

Shakespear's Sonnet 30 (link in caption), carved in capital letters and seen from below the lower right-hand corner.
Shakespearean sonnet on a Leiden wall

Tonight, after a stop at J’s Canalside home for dinner, we got results back from our second-to-last Covid tests of the week — well, it’ll be J’s last, but my second-to-last because I need a PCR test tomorrow in order to get on the plane to New York on Sunday. Today’s test, on the other hand, should allow us into the Maritime Museum tomorrow. This is the thing I have most wanted to see in Amsterdam since arrival, and I’ve saved it for last — stay tuned!

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