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Ian Simpson’s Leiden Experience: ‘Engaging with heritage can be a matter of cultural survival’

Ian Simpson is a relatively new face at the Faculty of Archaeology. Starting as an assistant professor in the Heritage and Society department in 2018, he is one of the faculty’s members in critical heritage studies and looks both at the past as well as the future. ‘I study how heritage can be employed in present day problems of participating in society, sustainability and environmental belonging.’

Ian Simpson processing finds in Jerash, Jordan.

Winding roads

It was a winding road that led Ian to our Heritage department. Getting drawn into archaeology in the ‘90’s, Ian was inspired by theoretical debates raging at the time. ‘I got fascinated by questions like how and why human culture changed over time and how we can actually know this.’ Ian started studying archaeology and anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. Originally from Wales, growing up in a postcolonial society had its own influence on his trajectory.

‘I discovered that the Middle East is a very important place for studying the deep past.’ Diving into the field of Near Eastern Archaeology, Ian quickly became disenchanted with the subject when he ran into the issue of orientalism. ‘It was through studying critiques of orientalism, imperialism, and nationalism that I got interested in critical heritage studies. That also meant getting interested in Islamic archaeology, a rather recent and overlooked field.'

A magical place

After doing his doctoral research at Stanford University, Ian took his chance when an Assistant Professorship in Heritage Practices opened up at the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden. ‘I jumped at the occasion. This Faculty is a magical place, very interdisciplinary, and has excellent facilities and resources. Leiden has the different branches of archaeology, strong in critical heritage studies and museum studies. Leiden University also has cultural anthropology and a long tradition of Arabic and Islamic studies.’

People enjoying the Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts.

Jerash from multiple perspectives

One of Ian’s current projects focuses on the city of Jerash in Jordan. ‘I’m exploring the continuation and transition of what was the Byzantine city to the early Islamic city, from the 6th to the 10th century, and using archaeology to understand religious exchange.’ Instead of the traditional separation of Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic Period, Ian looks at the site holistically. ‘Urban life continues, yet also changes in significant ways. This has long been misunderstood, partly because of interpretative frameworks in academia.’ It was generally assumed that many towns in greater Syria went into decline around the Islamic conquest. ‘But this was based on a series of myths about economic decline and religious conflict.’

Aside from an archaeological perspective, Ian also works on this project from a heritage standpoint. ‘We engage local school children in the excavations at Jerash. The aim is to create better links between the education section and the heritage site and a sustainable use of heritage.’ The children join in simulated excavations, after which they discuss and present their findings, all supervised by Jordanian archaeologists. ‘They learn to become the authors of their heritage, which can be empowering.’

Digging for wellness

‘Heritage is a question of digging for wellness, when it comes to developing an applied research process where you find ways of using heritage to address social issues.’ However, Ian recognizes that digging for wellness can often be a privilege. ‘Engaging with heritage in many places in the world is more a matter of cultural survival or dealing with trauma. How can community heritage be used in ways that can help to address trauma, and contribute to healing processes? When does heritage fail, when does it work? That is what I am interested in.’

'We are seeing the contradictions of envisioning a sustainable society while consumption and wealth depend fundamentally on petroleum, which I study in the Arab Gulf States.'

Environmental futures

Ian recently wrote an article about environmental citizenship, which leads to another of his interests. ‘Environmental futures: studying how heritage is employed in present day problems of sustainability and environmental belonging. We are seeing the contradictions of envisioning a sustainable society while consumption and wealth depend fundamentally on petroleum, which I study in the Arab Gulf States.' However, the situation in the Netherlands is not so different. ‘We are below sea level and it costs perhaps a billion euros a year to keep the country from flooding.’ Ian is encouraging master students to explore this theme, while attending conferences by the RCE on the topic.

‘The situation in the Netherlands is not dissimilar to these Arab Gulf States. In their case, they cannot desalinate water or keep cool using air conditioning without depending on fossil fuels. It is easy to voice criticism, but the ‘West’ had the advantage of hundreds of years of developing infrastructure while exploiting resources near and far. I wouldn’t think like that without an archaeological perspective.’

Pass on the trowel

In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Ian Simpson passed on the proverbial trowel to Mike Field. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of March 2020.

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