Universiteit Leiden

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Field school Oss

Home sweet home, by Arjan Louwen

Picking a shovel is a most delicate job. (Photo: Arjan Louwen)

Excavating in the Oss-region always feels a bit like coming home. This medieval town in the southern part of the Netherlands has hosted many an archaeological project from Leiden University since the 1960’s and generations of archaeologists from Leiden have had their first experiences in fieldwork in the Oss-region, myself included. While training their archaeological skills these generations of students from Leiden in the process helped develop a long term history of an archaeological region that has not met its equal in Europe yet. From prehistoric barrow landscapes, early metal working and dozens of Bronze age/Iron age farmsteads to entire settlements from the Roman period and the periphery of a Late Medieval town. This year’s students added yet another exciting chapter to this long saga of archaeological discoveries and I had the privilege of training them.

Field class in using a tape-measure (Photo: Joanne Mol)

A day in the field

It is Monday morning, 6:30 AM, and my colleagues Richard Jansen and Minja Hemminga pick me up by car for the journey to Oss where we will be joined by the most enthusiastic teacher I’ve ever met, Mark Driessen. The students will travel by train and will only arrive at Oss station at 9:30 AM so we have plenty of time to collect the vans, prepare our makeshift classroom on site and most importantly: a cup of coffee. When we pick up the students at the train station we meet 16 pairs of tired but excited eyes. Most of them have been looking forward to this moment the entire year and are curious about the days to come. While sipping on a strong cup of coffee or tea the new generation of Oss veterans is being instructed on the archaeological rules of engagement and the portfolio they have to produce during the week. After the instructions it is time to pick a shovel, and like with the military, provide it with a proper nickname. Some  students go for simple and short names like ‘Henk’ or ‘Frits’ but especially some of the boys choose exotic names like ‘Shaninka’ and look already in love with their new best friend.

Documenting profile-sections (Photo: Arjan Louwen)

Time for some serious work, since the students have only five days to learn the most basic skills of a field archaeologist. We begin the training by making and documenting a profile-section because that is how an archaeologist gets acquainted with the geological build-up of the subsoil and most importantly: to determine the right archaeological level. It is a challenging exercise to begin with but at the end of the first day the students have already gained several important skills and insights. In the days to follow they will also learn how to set-out excavation trenches, working with a mechanical excavator, cleaning the surface by shovel, interpreting archaeological levels, making field-drawings, produce proper photo-documentation, writing daily-reports and, last but certainly not least, how to excavate, document and interpret archaeological features. The first day in the field is concluded by a 20 minutes’ drive through the wonderful scenery of the valley of the river Meuse on our way to the small hamlet of Dieden where we will be spending the nights during the fieldwork season. The evenings in Dieden are relaxing with cold beer, dinner and occasionally an excursion to archaeological sites in the Oss-region and the city of Nijmegen.

One of the students (Jesper de Munnik) explaining the process of making a field drawing (Photo: Roelant Jonker)


Looking back, the Field school in Oss has been a great success in many aspects. We discovered several interesting archaeological features like prehistoric/Roman pits, wells, ditches and several Medieval granaries. And the open (dig-along) day that was organized at the end of the excavation helped improving the societal awareness of archaeology as a means to discover one’s deep past. But personally I feel that the greatest success of the Field school was achieved from an educational point of view since it involved students and staff members coming from different directions working closely together and sharing the excitement of scientific discovery. Also the enthusiasm of many different staff members and Phd-students helping us out for a day or more really made it into a joined effort. I think a noteworthy chapter has been added to the long saga of archaeological excavations and archaeologists in the Oss-region indeed.

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