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Leiden Classics: Caspar Reuvens, the world’s first professor of archaeology

Leiden archaeology is booming. Our archaeologists take part in major international projects covering not only the Netherlands but large areas of the globe. Caspar Reuvens (1793-1835) was also keen on this division: he had one foot in the Netherlands and the other in the Mediterranean world.

Law and classical languages

This hero among Leiden archaeologists started his education as a Law student in Leiden. But his heart was really in the classical world, so he went on to study classical languages and quickly make his name in this field. In 1815 he became a lecturer in classical literature in Harderwijk. It was not only ancient texts that fascinated Reuvens; visits to famous museums in England and France gave him a love of antique and prehistoric artefacts.  

First in the world
In 1818 he became Professor by special appointment of Archaeology at Leiden University, this was the first post of its kind in the Netherlands, and also in the rest of the world. Reuvens was just 25 years old. Historians and classicists were at that time primarily interested in the classical Mediterranean world and Egypt. Reuvens, however, was also very curious about the treasures that might be found on Dutch ground. This preference  resulted in his standard work on Dutch antiquities.

First excavation in the Netherlands

Recente opgravinigen bij Romeins Voorburg

Recent excavations of the Roman harbour at Voorburg-Arentsburg

Reuvens led the first major archaeological excavation in the Netherlands, from 1827-1834: the excavation of the Roman settlement Hadriani (Roman Voorburg). He recorded the finds using a new scientific system, a system with which he was far ahead of his time. It is thanks to his precise methodology that later generations have been able to make new interpretations of his discoveries. As a matter of fact, very recently Leiden archaeologist Mark Driessen built upon Reuvens’ work: he has just published his analyses of the Roman harbour from his own 2007/2008 excavations.

New archaeological museum

Etruskisch beeldje. 2e eeuw voor Christus. Collectie RMO

Etruscan statue of a boy with goose, 2nd century BC. Collection RMO

Inspired by his visits to the British Museum and other European museums, Reuvens was also involved in the classical Mediterranean world. He believed that the Netherlands should have an archaeological museum that would exhibit art and ancient objects. The young Reuvens lobbied Leiden University, but at the same time he realised that the project would need extensive funding, and he made impassioned pleas to the government and to King William I.

First Director RMO

The King was impressed with the plan and, with his blessing and financial support, Reuvens organised many excavations and acquired large numbers of antique objects. These artefacts were to form the basis of the collection with which the King founded the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in 1818. As one might expect, Reuvens became Director of the Museum.

However, he was not to enjoy a long career he died at the age of 42 from a stroke - but he left behind an impressive legacy. A visit to the RMO on Leiden’s Rapenburg is well worthwhile. As well as valuable collections from the classical world and North Africa, you can find there important exhibits from Dutch archaeology. This was exactly the combination that so delighted Reuvens.   

(30 oktober 2014 - LvP)


See also

Study in Leiden




Laatst Gewijzigd: 05-11-2014
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