Was Tinco Lycklama the first Dutch archaeologist?

15/10/2016 – Today is International Archaeology Day. A fine occasion to turn the spotlight on the first Dutchman to dig at ancient sites in the Middle East. His name was Tinco Lycklama à Nijeholt (1837-1900).

Tinco Lycklama

Fair enough, there were quite a few other Dutch archaeologists before Tinco Lycklama. Also, Tinco was not an archaeologist in the academic sense. Instead, he was one of the few 19th-century Westerners who travelled and described a large number of antique sites in Persia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, the Levant, and Palestine. But, when visiting this huge region, he also become the first Dutchman to put his hands in the sand and to take home some very original finds.

What is an “archaeologist”?

We’re not engaging a technical discussion about what makes an archaeologist – or what not. In a general fashion, William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is often considered to be the first scholar to pioneer a scientific and methodical approach in archaeology, and to apply it when he performed excavations at Tanis (Egypt), in 1884.

Prior to Petrie and his contemporaneans, many scholars had already developed archaeological theory and methods. However, they did so on the basis of ruins that were immediately visible to the eye – or they studied the objects that were brought to them by others. Objects where usually unearthed by “antiquarians” – travellers who sometimes digged for artefacts, but often simply bought them from locals that lived in the villages near the ancient sites. These people would not apply serious archaeological methods, nor did they benefit from modern techniques for detecting sites or dating objects.

Caspar Reuvens

The first formal academic chair in archaeology worldwide was created in The Netherlands in 1818, when Caspar Reuvens (1793-1835) became the world’s first archaeology professor at Leiden University. Reuvens was also the first director of the Dutch national museum of antiquities, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden – also in Leiden. The scholars he trained would never dig in the Middle East, and most of them would focus on work in The Netherlands.

Tinco and the Middle East

Tinco Lycklama à Nijeholt was not an academic. But, he studied at the universities of Groningen and Utrecht in the late 1850s, and had a passion for the Orient and its cultures. He went to Algiers to study Arabic, and stayed in Paris to perfect his knowledge of languages in the Middle East at the Ecole des Langues Orientales. There, he studied under Armand-Pierre Caussin de Perceval (1795-1871), and also had the opportunity to acquaint scholars such as Charles Schefer, William McGuckin and others. Tinco got his influences from these experts, who were internationally reknown for their knowledge of Arabic and/or Persian cultures and languages.

Tinco Lycklama’s “Voyage…”, in four volumes (photo courtesy of Librairie Hérodote)

In 1865-68, Lycklama spent three and a half years on a “grand tour“, which took him via Russia to the Caucasus and then to the Middle East. Persia was his major objective, but he also spent nearly two years travelling through Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. He was a self-described tourist, and observed the peoples and cultures he encountered. he complemented this with study and history to write a 2,200-page opus about the regions he visited.

Archaeologist or antiquarian?

On Tinco’s travel agenda, visits to ancient sites were a prominent feature. He was keen on seeing with his own eyes what others had witenessed before him. He was well prepared, and had read the works of early travellers such as Pietro della Valle, Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo, Jean de Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Jean Thévenot – but also more recent ones such as Niebühr, Morier, Ker Porter, Flandin and Coste, and Dr. Brugsch. He took some of their books along, and walked in their footsteps along the roads they had taken (even though he had a preference for the authentic 17th-century routes).

The Lycklama Collection – First inventory of artefacts (1871)

He also behaved like a traditional antiquarian and – being a young and very rich aristocrat – he had the means to do so. He dealt with antiquity dealers in Tehran, Bagdad, Aleppo and Beirut, and also bought things from local diggers who were happy to sell “stones” to wealthy travellers. Lycklama brought home thousands of objects and built his own museum of antiquities in his native Beetsterzwaag. He then moved his “Lycklama Museum” to Cannes, France, and later donated his collections to the municipality (in 1877). The Lycklama collection still forms the cornerstone of the Musée de la Castre in that city.

Experiencing antiquity

But, interestingly, Tinco also did some digging for himself. It’s only now, after being lost to oblivion for years, that the life of Lycklama is being re-examined. It suffices to look both at his own writings and to the artefacts he left, to understand that Tinco Lycklama was indeed the first Dutch archaeological digger in the Middle East.

Let’s have a look at the inventory of  antique sites that Tinco visited during his 1865-68 voyage. The list is impressive:

  • Pasargadae and Persepolis (October 1866)
  • Bishapur (November 1866)
  • Akar Kuf (February 1867)
  • Babylon (April 1867)
  • Ctésiphon (May 1867)
  • Samarra (May 1867)
  • Khorsabad (October 1867)
  • Niniveh and Nimrud (November 1867)
  • Sidon (May 1868)
  • Palmyra (July 1868)
The ruins at Ctesiphon. Tinco drank coffee under the fabulous arch – but his dig was unsuccessful

At most of these places, Tinco Lycklama simply observed and described what he saw. However, at Ctesiphon and Khorsabad, he clearly undertook digging. He reports that he was unsuccessful at both places. He then resorted to buying objects that the locals had unearthed – including ancient ustensils, pottery, cylinders, tablets… He did so at all other sites as well, like a genuine antiquarian.

One funny (if frivolous) anecdote is worth mentioning. During his stay at Tiflis (Georgia), in the winter of 1865-66, Tinco had acquired a black caucasion terrier dog, named Vashka. This dog would stay by his side all the way to Constantinople (in the summer of 1868). it is fair to claim that Vashka must be the “dog of archaeology” – as we have no report of any other dog in history who walked and visited so many ancient sites in a single (dog’s) lifetime!

Babylon, Tinco’s first successful dig

In April 1867, after spending the whole winter in Bagdad, Tinco Lycklama made a long excursion southwards, criss-crossing the Euphrates river towards the site of ancient Babylon. He started digging there, and was successful.

Tinco’s digging at Babylon is an interesting story. He is the only person on record that worked at Babylon in a time-span of over 20 years. Indeed, he came between the famous archaeologists Julius Oppert (in 1854) and Hormuzd Rassam (in 1877). Moreover, to coordinate the digging, Tinco hired a local man named Assouad, who previously had directed excavations on behalf of Fulgence Fresnel (who had been working with Oppert) and Henry Rawlinson – who were both at Babylon between 1852-1854.

20160319_161808Tinco’s digs resulted in various valuable objects, including cylinders and three ancient tombs. As Tinco Lycklama could not take his finds along with him, he handed them to the care of Mr. Habib, an employee at the Bagdad company of the Swiss merchants Weber Jaeger Wartman. The finds were then supposed to be shipped to The Netherlands. Unfortunately, no European inventory has yet been found where these objects appear. Currently, their whereabouts are simply unknown.

Success repeats itself at Sidon

On the other hand, there is full evidence of Tinco’s other digs – and specifically the one in Sidon (or Saida), in current Lebanon.

Though Tinco Lycklama visited Sidon in May 1868, he didn’t have the time for detailed observations. Still, after discussions with local antiquities dealers and his own examination, he concluded that Sidon could yield interesting finds. Only eighteen months after coming home from his grand voyage, he returns to Sidon in 1870 to undertake excavations. This resulted in many artefacts, including a golden death mask as well as two exceptional leaden sarcophagi. These objects are on display today at the Musée de la Castre in Cannes.

Tinco’s other travels

The traces from Tinco’s life also take us to Egypt, Cyprus, Malta, Tunisia, Algeria… After spending the winter of 1869-70 in Beirut and Sidon, he prolongs his travel and heads for Egypt in May 1870. From this trip, he returns with a large number of artefacts, but it is yet unclear whether these are the result of his own digs – or if he bought them from others, like an antiquarian.

20160305_113650The latter is more likely. Egypt was the most popular attraction for early archaeologists. Given Tinco’s lack of formal training in archaeology, it is unlikely that he had the ambition to do better than the numerous, far more knowledgeable experts in those days. Most probably, Tinco Lycklama simply went to Egypt because it was a civilisation that he had to see in order to satisfy his insatiable natural curiosity.

Tracking Tinco’s legacy

Many pieces of the puzzle of Tinco Lycklama’s life and work are still missing. This challenge is one of our priorities at the Tinco Lycklama Foundation. Hence, whereas the information given earlier are facts, it is most likely that we will discover new things that will shed more light on Tinco’s adventures and on his possible contribution to science.

TLF - Full AvatarEven during the lifetime of Tinco Lycklama, objects from his collections underwent the scrutiny of experts at the Louvre in Paris, and possibly also at the British Museum (the latter assumption is based on the fact that Lycklama travelled many times to London at the time when he opened his first museum and published his travel diairies). Also, between the two world wars of the 20th century, we find traces of interest in Tinco’s work.

However, Tinco Lycklama has largely disappeared from our history books. One explanation may be that, in later life, he didn’t pursue his interest in the Orient any longer. He married in 1875, and with the subsequent donation of his collections to the city of Cannes, the care for his museum was handed over to others. After passing away in 1900, his collections were seriously neglected for half a century. To this day, many objects in the collection (and obviously also those that have disappeared) are not fully accounted for.


Tinco Lycklama was not an archaeologist in the strictest sense. But, he was indeed the first Dutchman to dig at ancient sites in the Middle East. Just imagine what he could have achieved if he had chosen to focus on these sites of which so little was uncovered at that time.

Perhaps other names will pop up and claim the title. If so, we’re happy to amend and possibly pursue the discovery of other forgotten travellers and share their stories with the public. At the very least, may this article contribute to the recognition of Tinco Lycklama’s passion, of the accuracy of his observations, and of the value of the stories and the artefacts he brought with him.


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