Eric Moormann on classical archaeology

Portretfoto Eric Moormann
People often say the past helps you make sense of the present, but I say the opposite is true: the present brings the past into sharper relief
Eric Moormann

Eric Moormann, professor of Classical Archaeology (2002-2021) owes his international acclaim to his ability to see the bigger picture. He breathes new life into the story of antiquity, with the present helping him bring the past into sharper relief.

The ink on his manuscript had barely dried and the words ‘Hora est’ had yet to be uttered when Eric Moormann experienced one of the highlights of his career. With a Niels Stensen Fellowship in the pocket, he set off. “Most people use the grant to conduct research abroad, but I decided to do what German archaeology refers to as a ‘grand tour’ and set off for the Mediterranean.”

He spent three months travelling around Turkey and the Middle East by public transport, followed by four months exploring Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Spain. “I saw all the famous monuments and excavations. The question now is whether, given the current political climate, how much of their beauty will remain. I cherish those travel memories. It was a real coming-of-age experience for me on both a scientific and a human level.”

What did your travels teach you?

“I gained a wealth of knowledge on various monuments, from the stunning medieval mosque in Damascus to the Roman Palmyra in Syria. I also learned how to adapt to and interact with people from other cultures. I didn't have a single bad experience along the way; in fact, it helped restore my faith in humanity.”

Ultimately, Moormann decided to specialise in Greco-Roman antiquity and spent most of his time abroad in Italy. First as a student, then as a doctoral candidate in Naples (researching Pompeii), then as head of the Antiquity Department at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (1992-1997) and finally as head researcher on the Via Appia.

For a classicist, you don't spend a lot of time with your head in the books, correct?

“I love to read and I love libraries, but the literary side – studying texts – has only played a minor role in my career. I also wouldn't say I’m a die-hard field archaeologists who spends his days excavating. To satisfy my curiosity for antiquity, I approach antique objects like a philologist and try to read and understand what I see as best I can. That’s much more interesting to me than the technical side of excavation.”

But it does come into play?

“Absolutely. And the methods are becoming more and more sophisticated. When I worked on the excavations behind Canisius College, here in Nijmegen, as a young student, everything was measured and registered by hand. For our large-scale NWO study of the Via Appia, we are using GIS systems and taking resistance measurements to determine whether there's anything in the ground worth digging up. We’ve found several graves with skeletons, which we had examined by physicists. They discovered that two of the skeletons were a mother and son. I’ve never done that kind of technical research before, nor am I trained to do it, but it does give us fascinating new information.”

Is there anything left to discover along the Via Appia?

“A lot of research has already been carried out but so far the results have been limited to small areas only. Now, for the first time, we are taking a closer look at a two-kilometre stretch of road in the hope of tracing the emergence of monuments and graves along the road over time. In a sense we are writing a cultural biography of a stretch of road as a pars pro toto. Imagine strolling down the road and seeing Mr Jansen's grave and next to it Mr Pieterson's grave. Then you notice that Mr Pieterson's grave is quite a bit smaller than Mr Jansen’s and that the entire Pieterson family is buried there, which suggests that its much older. You also see that Mr Jansen has an elaborate headstone. This is how the remnants of monuments tell stories to this day.”

Has the way we view antiquity changed?

“Interestingly, the classics no longer hold the same ivory-tower position they enjoyed for centuries. Greek and Roman culture was the cradle of civilisation, along with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Now we have to consider another 2,500 cultures. And rightfully so – our society has changed. That’s one of the most important developments for my profession, that the classics are no longer considered general knowledge. As I become increasingly familiar with it, I see the distance between classical culture and the world around me growing. This is also true among, for lack of a better word, the elites. Forty-five years ago most people weren’t exactly excited to talk about classical subjects either, but now it’s no longer a common topic among the more culturally developed segments of society.”

What does that require of you as an antiquities scholar?

“I firmly believe we can still learn from those cultures. We just have to try harder to bring those stories to light. I've tried to do this by participating in public exhibitions such as Luxe en Decadentie aan de Golf van Napels en Herculaneum [‘Luxury and decadence in the Bay of Naples and Herculaneum’]. It forces you to think about how you can bring this period to life for people today. We did this by consciously focusing on the positions and experiences of different societal groups: men, women, children and slaves. Fifty years ago the focus would have been on just one group: men.”

So the present influences our view of the past?

“Absolutely! People often say the past helps you make sense of the present, but I say the opposite is true: the present brings the past into sharper relief. Take the debate about slavery and the understandable pain, grief and loss it still causes generations to this day. That got me thinking. We often used to read things like, ‘That's what slaves were for’, in texts about classical antiquity. Now you think more about how you phrase things like this.”

Can you give an example?

“We're currently working on an exhibition in Leiden about the emperors who had the Colosseum built. Since 1990, when an inscription was discovered in the Colosseum, we know it was ‘built with the spoils of Jerusalem.’ In 70 AD, the Roman army put down a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem and sacked the famous temple. While ‘spoils’ may suggest they took gold, the reality was much worse: they enslaved some of the Jews, transported them to Rome and used them as slave labour to build the Colosseum. It was literally built with the blood, sweat and tears of Jewish slaves. That reminds me of the football stadiums being built in Qatar. How many people have died there already? Thousands! Such a comparison with the present makes the past seem much closer and more poignant. It teaches us to look at things in a new way, which is one of the aspects I love about my profession. So I hope we’re not stuck in an ivory tower.”

What if, like the Coen statues, people start demanding that the Colosseum be torn down?

“That would never happen, but it might prompt a more detailed discussion of its macabre origins. We shouldn’t live our lives feeling guilty, but we should be more aware of things like these. In ancient times, statues were removed all the time by the way. Emperor Domitian, who finished the Colosseum, was so reviled that after he was murdered, all references to him were officially erased by the state. This means the state ordered the removal and destruction of all inscriptions and portraits.”

There is no shortage of gruesome stories in antiquity. Horror plays an interesting role for archaeologists like Moormann. Many of the objects and buildings he studies in Pompeii and Herculaneum have been preserved by a protective layer of ash and lava. “It’s like a form of disaster tourism: the volcanic eruption gives us a window to antiquity. It may sound sentimental, but every time I’m in Pompeii, I’m hit by the realisation that this place was just suddenly wiped from the face of the earth. It’s incredibly humbling.”

Have there been any failures or disappointments in your career?

“The Mount Nemrudproject in Turkey, which I started in 2000. It's a holy site at the top of a mountain, with colossal stone sculptures of Greek, Armenian and Persian gods. Over the course of three summers, I spent eight weeks on that mountain with colleagues. Extremely isolated and deep in Kurdish territory. We had Sundays off and would sometimes head down the mountain into the village, but there wasn’t much to do there either. I remember thinking: this isn’t going anywhere, I quit. Besides we weren't allowed to go back anymore. After three or four years we’d become persona non grata. Years later, a colleague from Leiden managed to set up a nice project there. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had stuck it out a bit longer. But I just didn’t know how to make it work.”

What are you most proud of?

“I think my publication about Nero’s Golden House, a palace with 150 rooms near the Colosseum. This book, written under the guidance of my mentor Willem Peters and with the help of my Leiden colleague Paul Meyboom, is still used by the field to this day. I’m also proud of my book on the representation of Pompeii in literature, film and music. I hope I owe my international name and fame to making unknown or poorly described material available and accessible. I’ll never go down in history as someone who discovered new sites, but I hope to make a contribution in this way.”

What is your greatest strength?

“I’ve always wanted to put objects in their proper cultural-historic context. While this may seem trivial, it leads to major insights and panoramic views of, for example, how and why houses, palaces and temples were designed and decorated in a certain way. My strength lies in careful observation, reflecting on what I see and asking questions.”

Eric Moormann will retire on 8 May 2021. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, his farewell address will be postponed until 10 June 2022.

Text: Bea Ros. This article was first published in Radboud Magazine.