Amsterdam’s history retold by objects buried in river silt

CNN  — 

Centuries of unwanted and lost items – from medieval shoes to modern cellphones – are helping to tell the story of Amsterdam’s urban history from a fresh perspective.

Some 700,000 artifacts were collected between 2003 and 2012 from the bed of the River Amstel in Amsterdam, during construction of the city’s newly opened underground North-South train line. Now the finds have been put on display online, courtesy of a digital archaeological project called “Below The Surface.

The objects consist of everything from medieval weapons and cookware to everyday modern items like credit cards and cameras, and offer snapshots of the history of Amsterdam since its first urban development around 1300.

Some of the finds suggest there were “temporary, seasonal settlements” sometime between 2,700 and 2,000 BC. The oldest finds go back long before human habitation, with several shells found dating from 120,000 BC.

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Jerzy Gawronski, Amsterdam’s head city architect, who led the project, believes most of the finds are garbage – things people intentionally threw into the river to dispose of them. Others, he tells CNN, were accidentally dropped into the river or even deliberately discarded even though they weren’t junk, such as stolen wallets.

Because the Amstel is a slow-running river with very soft silt, items tend to accumulate at the bottom, explains Gawronski. The artifacts were primarily found in two key sites, at Damrak and Rokin, in central Amsterdam.

Although individually they may seem like random items, Gawronski says taken together the objects “mirror the lives of all those people who lived and worked in Amsterdam” for centuries, just as the city’s iconic buildings are mirrored on the surface of the water during a flat calm.

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“The main find is everything together,” he says. “It’s the relationship between all these objects and the variety in which they together tell a story about the city of Amsterdam in incredible and random details.”

For people to better appreciate those details and the significance of these objects to Amsterdam’s history, the Below The Surface website was created.

Keys unlock doors to the past.

Virtual dig

About 20,000 finds can be accessed on the website. Photographer Harold Strak spent five years taking a total of 35,000 images of the objects.

The website catalogues the vast collection of objects according to function, material, location and time period. It also encourages creativity by allowing anyone to create their own galleries or collages using images of the artifacts.

Virtually digging through the objects on the site, you’ll find items people commonly lost, like keys, as well as evidence of the river’s busy port life in the Middle Ages, including over 300 boathooks, which were once crucial in aiding ships to dock, undock and maneuver around other ships.

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Other trinkets that tell of life in Amsterdam in another era include bucket locking hooks, which people used for centuries when lowering buckets to collect water for households from the river and padlocks used to secure chests that were transporting goods along the river.

Gawronski, also a professor of urban archaeology at the University of Amsterdam, says the goal was not only to provide an open-source database to the public, but also to give them an opportunity to draw their own interpretations from the finds.

“Everybody has their own favorite,” he says. “It’s not me, the scientist, saying what is important,” he adds.

Filling in details of history

According to Gawronski, these long-lost items are important because they “fill in all kinds of details about the general historical framework which we already know, and a lot of personal details.”

One example is the old bridge in Damrak, where excavations yielded a large quantity of daggers and bladed arms. The finds indicated the bridge was part of the fortification of Amsterdam with military activity “because that number of arms was never found before in any other excavation inside or outside of Amsterdam,” said Gawronski.

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Children’s toys were also found in the same area, suggesting the bridge was a public space where kids used to play and lost their toys in the river.

From medieval chronicles to text messaging.

Gawronski notes that the finds demonstrate not only the changes in people’s way of life, but how some things remained the same through time – like the many coins found from every era. And while the technology has evolved, there has always been a human need for communication – exemplified by a 600-year-old stylus, and cellphones dating to more recent times.

Many of the artifacts are safely stored in a municipal archaeological depot.

But although some of the items are from this 21st century, no one has claimed ownership. No matter how much these items can teach us about the human story of Amsterdam, no one seems to want their trash back.

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