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Professor Doctor Willem Willems

19 July 1950 – 13 December 2014

Appreciation by
Timothy Darvill

Willem Johannes Hyacinthus Willems, a luminary of European archaeology, died after a short illness in December 2014 aged 64 in his home town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Willem was well known across the world for his commitment to archaeological resource management and the promotion of heritage at local, national and international levels. A champion of making archaeology relevant to the modern world and bringing people together in common cause, he will be remembered for his numerous publications, his contributions to conference sessions, round tables and expert panels, and as a diplomat capable of building bridges over even the most troubled waters.

Willem grew up beside the River Meuse in a village close to the German border that was still partly ruined by the campaigns of the Second World War. After military service, he studied archaeology and anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, where he completed a BA in cultural anthropology in 1974. Following a year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, USA, where he gained first-hand experience of what was then the 'new archaeology', he completed a Master's degree in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at the University of Amsterdam in 1976. A decade later he was awarded a PhD in archaeology by the same university for a thesis on interactions between Roman colonisers and native Batavians, which was published as Romans and Batavians in 1986.

Figure 1. Willem Willems, Budapest, Hungary, February 1999 (photograph by Timothy Darvill)
Figure 1. Willem Willems, Budapest, Hungary, February 1999 (photograph by Timothy Darvill)

His studies, experience and academic qualifications stood him in good stead for a career in archaeology. Working for the Rijksdienst voor het Oudheidkundig Bodemonderzoek (ROB) through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Willem excavated important sites at Nijmegen (Ulpia Noviomagus) and the Roman villa at Voerendaal. In 1985 he was appointed project manager for the Roman period and deputy director of the ROB, rising to director and state archaeologist of the Netherlands in 1989. It was an influential position and one that he held until 1999. He was also appointed honorary professor of provincial Roman archaeology at the University of Leiden in 1990, and through the 1980s and 1990s he developed an academic interest in archaeological heritage management and the social role of archaeology.

A reorganisation and restructuring of state-sponsored archaeology in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, of which Willem was one of the main architects, allowed him to become director of archaeological heritage management at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) between 1999 and 2001. This was followed by an appointment as chief inspector for archaeology at the State Inspectorate for Cultural Heritage between 2001 and 2006. Under Willem's guidance commercial archaeology in the Netherlands took root and expanded. Willem changed course in 2006 however, leaving public service to join the Archaeology Faculty at the University of Leiden and serving as dean of the faculty between 2006 and 2013. At the time of his death he was both professor of archaeological heritage management in global context and professor of provincial Roman archaeology.

The wider world of professional archaeology benefitted greatly from Willem's willingness to devote huge amounts of time and energy to the promotion of a borderless global archaeology. Perhaps his greatest contribution was in helping to create and then steer the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA). He was one of the founding members that met in the Maison Suger in Paris in 1991 to map out the structure of an international organisation that could unite European archaeologists after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was present at the inaugural meeting of the EAA in Ljubjlana, Slovenia; it was soon after that meeting and with a shared interest in European collaboration that I first met Willem. I found his enthusiasm infectious and struck up a life-long friendship that led to many adventures exploring the towns and cities hosting the international conferences we were attending, mulling over the future of archaeology long into the night. Over the next 20 years he held many of the main offices in the EAA including: secretary (1996–1998); two terms as president (1998–2003); chair of the committee that organised the 2010 annual meeting in The Hague, and chair of the Oscar Montelius Foundation (from 2013). During his presidency he initiated the EAA heritage prize in association with Geoff Wainwright of English Heritage, and was himself awarded the prize in 2012.

As well as attending conferences and giving lectures all over the world, Willem was involved in the workings of many organisations in Europe and beyond. He was a member of a committee of experts set up by the Council of Europe to draft what later became the Convention on the protection of the archaeological heritage, a crucial document for European heritage management that was opened for signature in Malta in 1992; he was also the founding president of an international association of state archaeologists from across Europe, the European Archaeologiae Consilium (1996–1999); a board member of the Centre for International Heritage Activities (CIE) based in Leiden, and in 2010 was further elected co-president (together with Doug Comer from the USA) of the ICOMOS Committee for Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM). Somewhere amongst these and many other commitments he found time to undertake occasional evaluations of potential World Heritage sites, and with the late Roel Brandt ran a small consultancy business called B&W Raadgevende Archeologen. Recent international academic collaborations included participation in research into Robben Island in South Africa, which was initiated in 2010 by CIE and the South African Heritage Resources Agency, and Nexus1492, which started in 2013 with participation from scholars in the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam to shed new light on the colonisation of the Caribbean, the nexus of interactions between the New and Old Worlds.

Figure 2. Willem Willems, Austin (TX), USA, April 2014 (photograph by Timothy Darvill)</em>
Figure 2. Willem Willems, Austin (TX), USA, April 2014 (photograph by Timothy Darvill)

Willem received many awards for his outstanding work fostering international cooperation and promoting professional standards. In addition to the EAA heritage prize (2012), he was recipient of the Rheinlandtaler of the Landschafsverband Nordrhein-Westfalen (2004) and the special achievement award of the Register of Professional Archaeologists (2010). He was made a corresponding member of the Deutsches Archäologisches Instituts in 1989, an honorary fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2001 and an honorary member of the EAA in 2003.

Shortly after stepping down as Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University in September 2013, Willem was knighted in the Order of the Dutch Lion, a distinction only given to people with exceptional achievements. It was an honour that gave him great pleasure and, for someone who was generally slightly self-effacing, more than a little pride. Throughout his career, Willem maintained great personal integrity and loyalty to his friends. He spoke his mind and stimulated debate with thought-provoking comments based on his wealth of direct personal experience of archaeological matters; he was always a useful addition to a review panel or round table, and could be relied upon for an opinion. No one who met him will forget his carefree smile, the twinkle in his eye as he found his voice on a contentious subject and the casual way that his anecdotes raised a chuckle with their unexpected endings and humorous content. Friends and colleagues will miss his regular emails containing a joke or cartoon that he felt we might like, and his many followers on social media will miss his postings and comments from sites and monuments around the world. He certainly enjoyed the rich and varied hospitality that international travel presented and was always good company; those who knew him will remember his optimism, passion for making archaeology happen and total commitment to ensuring that the past serves the present.