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Archaeologist teaches Honours Course in The Hague: “The past is still alive.”

This semester archaeologist Dr Marike van Aerde teaches an Honours Course at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs in The Hague. “In the course, archaeology meets current issues.” For a course like this, the word interdisciplinary fits like a glove.

Global networks

Marike is an expert in the world of the ancient Silk Roads and she teaches a course on this topic at the Faculty of Archaeology. The Honours College coordinator of Archaeology recommended the course to her colleague of Governance and Global Affairs, and “it all worked out. The course is called The Early Silk Roads: Archaeology and Global Networks.”

The Governance students are completely different form Archaeology students. “Their focus is on politics, management, and global governance.” This gives them their own unique perspective: from the present. “They look at archaeology in order to explain the present. During the discussion in the first lecture, I found that our different perspectives can complement each other. The past is not as compartmentalised as we often think.”

Watchtower in Dunhuang, along the Silk Roads, Gansu Province China (in situ)

Sensitive issues

Her enthusiasm is contagious, when she describes the first lecture. “We started with the ancient Silk Roads themselves.” Then she immediately jumps to the present. “Modern-day China uses a lot of references to the Chinese past of the Silk Roads. But,” she stresses, “the historical record is never that straightforward. From archaeological data we know that China was in fact one of the last empires to join the Silk Roads network.” Especially for students of international governance, these heritage-related issues can be relevant. “This is a very sensitive issue for Chinese officials.”

Linking past and present

The different perspective of the Governance students also helps Marike to take on a different perspective. “It is very easy for archaeologists to stick to the past, and not look beyond our research.” In this course both students and the lecturer have to link the past with the present. “We discuss questions like ‘how do people and governments today use history and archaeology in their politics?’”


Another topical example Marike uses is the idea of globalisation. “The rise of globalisation nowadays seems to give many people a nostalgia for a past, in which they believe everything was more contained.” The fear of losing one’s identity is one of the reasons of this nostalgia. “People may not realise that even back in 200 BC there already existed a huge global network. There was a network all across the African and Eurasian continents.” Already in the first lecture the Governance students were interested in learning these facts and making these links.

Merchants with camel, Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, 2nd century CE (whereabouts currently unknown, looted in 2015)

Current issues

The whole course consists of seven lectures, focusing on the regions, cultures, and heritage along the earliest Silk Roads. In the first half of each lecture, Marike teaches the students about archaeology. “The latest excavations and newest discoveries. I also share my own stories.” The second part focuses on current issues to combine with the knowledge of the past. “Climate change, and its influence on cultures and governments, for example, but also destruction of heritage.”

The final lecture will be something else. “I will take archaeology students with me for a debate. So we will have governance students and archaeology students discussing together!”

Living heritage

The main message Marike would like the Governance students to go home with is: the past is still alive. “On the one hand, you have the large narratives: a global network. But we also focus on specific sites.” She gives the example of how some local African communities, like the Maasai, hold ceremonies at sites with carvings that are several thousand years old. “This is a case of living heritage. For us as archaeologists, we need to engage with this. For governance students, they need to be aware that the present isn’t just something that is compartmentalised, but that it comes forth from the past.”

About the Honours College

The Honours College is an additional programme for ambitious and inquisitive Bachelor students who are looking for more challenge alongside their regular studies. See for more information the website of the Leiden University Honours College.

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