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The National Museum of Antiquities

If we disregard the many dolmens in the north of the country, the oldest building in the Netherlands is the Temple of Taffeh, which dates from the dawn of the Christian era. When I was 7 years old, I saw it being built — that is, I saw it being rebuilt at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden in 1978, after the temple had been taken apart & removed from its original site in 1960, as it otherwise would have been submerged forever in the reservoir of the new Aswan Dam. Further Egyptian highlights in the museum include a line-up of mummies & mummy cases and the statue of King Tut’s treasurer Maya & his wife Merit. Notable objects from the Near East are a sculptural portrait of King Gudea of Lagash, a statuette of a praying Sumerian man, and a collection of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform, the earliest form of writing.

National Museum of Antiquities
Greek stelae & statues

The museum’s classical collection is noted for its Greek statues, stelae, vases, dishes & amphorae, but the finest object in the exhibition dates from Roman times: the Gemma Constantiniana, a cameo of considerable size, depicting Emperor Constantine the Great in a two-centaur triumphal chariot, together with his next of kin, celebrating his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. The museum not only concerns countries far, far away; the exhibition in the attic shows the archaeological history of the Netherlands, featuring many interesting finds, for instance the Dorestad Fibula, a spectacular 8th-century filigree brooch. A special department is dedicated to the archaeology of the Netherlands in Roman times. The must-see there is the Simpelveld Sarcophagus, which looks like a miniature Roman villa on the inside. It takes half a day to see everything at the museum.

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The Gemma Constantiniana is also known as ‘The Great Cameo’, a reference to its size & magnificence. There are only two other cameos of a similar classification that have survived since antiquity, the Grand Camée de France and the Gemma Augustea. They are found respectively at the National Library of France in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


The Great Cameo, which had belonged to painter Peter Paul Rubens in the 1620s, was on board the East Indiaman Batavia when it shipwrecked in 1629, but it survived both the accident and the mutiny that followed. After the cameo was salvaged, it was taken to India, Sumatra & Persia in the hope of finding a potential buyer. In the 1650s, after more than two decades of failed deals, the cameo was returned to the Dutch Republic. In 1823, King Willem I purchased the cameo and donated it to the Royal Coin Cabinet, whose gemstone collection is now in the National Museum of Antiquities.


To me, the highlight of the Archaeology of the Netherlands exhibition is a bronze torc, an import from the Rhineland area, dating from 800–500 BC. It’s at least 2,500 years old, but it still looks modern today.