In Memoriam: Olivier Nieuwenhuijse

Olivier Nieuwenhuijse (16 november 1966 – 15 januari 2020)

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of our dear friend and colleague Dr. Olivier Nieuwenhuijse, yesterday Wednesday January 15. Olivier was a brilliant and ambitious archaeologist specialized in the Near East and has been active for the Centre for Global Heritage and Development since the early days in 2015. He was always full of ideas and the starting Centre - in need of good plans - was just the place for him. While it became impossible to work in Syria because of the war, Olivier was persistent and looked for ways he could work with Syria, if only from a distance. Socially skilled as he was he had a large network of archaeologists in Syria. Olivier realized there was a huge potential in Leiden. Leiden archaeologists had been active in Syria for a very long time. As common and ethical conduct implied archaeological finds had always been handed over to Syrian authorities and deposited locally. In the case of Tell Sabi Abyad this was museum Raqqa. Although the archaeological objects were in Syria, Leiden (but also other European, especially German research groups) inherited the archaeological records and occasionally took molds from objects for research purposes. Museum Raqqa faced the fate many archaeological museums in Syria experienced: it was plundered during the war. With the data available in Leiden Olivier set up a project trying to reconstruct the inventory. He did this with the help of Syrian refugee archaeologists in the Netherlands and abroad and through email contact with his colleagues remaining in Syria. This pilot project called ‘Focus Raqqa’, funded by the Prince Claus Fund, had very promising results including the sharing of data with customs in order to mitigate the looting and illegal trade of Syrian cultural objects. Steps are now taken to continue this work.

Another influential LDE project Olivier initiated was ‘Scanning for Syria’. He did this together with Dominique Ngan-Tillard, a geo-scientist from TU Delft. In this project the decomposing silicon molds from original Tell Sabi Abyad cuneiform tablets that had been made by Olivier’s wife Renske Dooijes (National Museum of Antiquities) were recreated through 3D technology. Although the original objects had been lost in the war, now we could at least produce these copies, paying homage to the information value of these objects. This project can also be considered an act of resilience and, especially the chocolate copies we reproduced for sale (profit going to refugee students in the Netherlands) attracted a lot of media attention.

We are very grateful to Olivier for these important projects that helped built our Heritage under Threat profile, but most of all we are grateful for his inspiration, energy, courage and friendship. Olivier is not a person to forget easily. He was eloquent, witty, smart and he liked to attract large audiences to his work. A remarkable man who played an important role in Syrian-Dutch relations, Syrian cultural heritage and Syrian resilience and post war reconstruction.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.