Daniël Paul Van Helden

Dr. Daniël P. Van Helden (credit: Aurelie Lange)

“I cannot really imagine doing anything else than archaeological research”

Daniël P. van Helden

Post-Doctoral Research Associate, University of Leicester

Why did you choose archaeology as a subject?

As an eight-year-old, I decided that I wanted to be an archaeologist. Inspired by my grandfather’s tales of his travels, I was fascinated by the idea that we can understand more about people long gone by looking at the material remains of the world they lived in.
I have simply never changed my mind. While during my studies my interests changed away from excavating and more towards the philosophy and methodology of archaeology, I never really considered leaving archaeology.

What are you currently working on – anything exciting?

I currently work as a postdoctoral research associate on Arch-I-Scan, an AHRC funded project run from the University of Leicester, where we are trying to develop an AI image classifier for Gaulish terra sigillata fragments. The goal is that this tool will speed up the cataloguing process so that we can unlock the potential of the enormous datasets that exist but defy comprehensive recording due to their size.
The most exciting thing about working on this project is the opportunity to work together with both ceramic specialists and mathematicians working on the AI side of the project. Interdisciplinary collaboration is very rewarding and it allows me to exercise different areas of my brain.

My hands at work for Arch-I-Scan (credit: Victoria Szafara)

Can you tell us more about your career path and your hopes for the future, your aspirations?

I started at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam with an interest in Roman archaeology. For my master’s I moved to Leicester (UK) because I was interested in studying with some of the big names in theoretically informed Roman archaeology. I stayed at Leicester for my PhD because of the supportive and kind staff, who were ready to indulge my strange methodological inspiration (Fuzzy Set Theory from mathematics) and side projects (research collaboration with Dr Robert Witcher on the utility of fiction as an archaeological tool for understanding the past). When, towards the end of my PhD studies, my current position was advertised, I grasped the opportunity.
My hope for my archaeological future would be a position where I could combine archaeological research and teaching. Ideally, this would not involve prolonged uncertainty about the future of my finances or dragging my family from place to place. Stability sounds very nice; I wonder what it might be like…

One of the most enjoyable activities is teaching others about archaeology (credit: Jan Hendrik Labots)

What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

What keeps me going when things get tough is the support of my family. They are always there to brighten a dark day, even when I get really down.
Professionally, what keeps me in archaeology is that I cannot really imagine doing anything else than archaeological research. This may be a lack of imagination on my part, but I really would not know what else I would be doing.

Tell us about an inspirational scientist you admire or someone who played an important role in your career

The person with probably the biggest influence on my career is Prof. Penelope Allison. Pim has supervised my master’s dissertation and PhD, and is my current boss, but even if she was not, she would still be the person to come to mind here. She has always been enormously supportive while at the same time encouraging me to do my own thing and make up my own mind, even if she disagreed. Her methodological rigour and integrity are qualities that I rate very highly. The amount of effort she is willing to spend to help her students flourish and progress, even if it is against her own immediate interest, is inspiring and humbling.

Does your research involve fieldwork? If so, could you tell us about an unforgettable experience you had in the field, or one that changed your research?

My trowel is embarrassingly rusty as I have not excavated for a long time. I sometimes wonder if I can still call myself an archaeologist… In my current position, however, I work with archive material and I find that the process of collaboration is remarkably similar. I always found that the things that stuck with me most from excavations were the comradery and collaborations with others. Working on archive material with a team, against the clock forges similarly enjoyable relations. I still get to work with archaeological material on research questions. Plus, when it rains, you do not get as wet…

My best excavation photo, which, tellingly, is from when I was an undergrad… (credit: Harmen de Weerd)

How would you describe archaeology in one sentence and/or metaphor?

Dialogues with a mute.

In slightly more words: the aim of archaeology is to tell meaningful and responsible stories about the past.


Dr Daniël Paul van Helden

Post-Doctoral Research Associate


Automated recording and machine learning for collating Roman ceramic tablewares and investigating eating and drinking practices

School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

e-mail: dpvh2@leicester.ac.uk