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New Website Unearths Amsterdam’s History Via 700,000 Artifacts Spanning 5,000 Years

The recovered items span thousands of years, and include coins, cell phones, dentures and more

An interactive timeline details about 20,000 of the archaeologists’ finds, complete with images and descriptions of the wide array of objects (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The objects featured in Below the Surface, a newly launched multimedia project that uses excavated miscellany to trace Amsterdam’s history from 3000 B.C. to 2005, range from mundane—recent finds include a rusty Italian euro dating to 2002 and a Laurent-Perrier champagne label—to captivating—a blue monster leers out from a 17th-century porcelain container, while a group of shells nearly indistinguishable from the ones found on modern beaches reveal secrets hidden since 124,000 B.C.

According to Gizmodo’s Ryan Mandelbaum, Below the Surface emerged in conjunction with an Amsterdam infrastructure initiative. In 2003, civil engineers and archaeologists began construction on the North/South metro line, a six-mile rapid-transit line joining areas of Amsterdam separated by a body of water called the IJ. The project required the city to drain and excavate the Damrak and the Rokin, two canals, now partially filled, along the Amstel River.

Excavations unearthed nearly 700,000 objects that offer a window into both Amsterdam’s 700-year history and the centuries prior to the city’s founding. Now, Below the Surface, which consists of a website, a documentary and a book fittingly called Stuff, offers viewers an extensive look at these lost (and found) artifacts.

An interactive timeline details about 20,000 of the archaeologists’ finds, complete with images and descriptions of the wide array of objects. Coins are plentiful throughout the latter centuries, as are miscellaneous trinkets such as keys, utensils and combs. More unusual finds include cell phones, a radiator hood cap bearing the likeness of an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh, a pair of modern dentures, and a 17th-century table knife designed to tell the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

“You can see a lot of different functions of this part of the city, which you can interpret from the waste we found,” project manager Peter Kranendonk tells Gizmodo.

Previous attempts to build a north-south metro line were met with resistance, as locals objected to the potential damage posed by tunneling through Amsterdam’s historic city center. The latest project, however, promised to blend both advanced civil engineering and archaeological research. While builders focused on boring the tunnel, archaeologists turned to the vertical excavation pits created at the sites of future metro stations.

According to the project website, researchers focused on the intertwining strands of city and landscape, as “the river is not only a carrier of material and cultural data in the form of archaeological finds, [but] also forms a physical part of the city and as such embodies information about the landscape.” Excavated man-made objects revealed urban histories, while natural phenomena such as shells, seeds and sediments shed light on the prehistoric history of Amstel.

As Kristina Killgrove notes in Forbes, humans have inhabited the area constituting modern-day Amsterdam since the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, or 2700 through 1800 B.C. Although excavations have revealed evidence of Ancient Roman era artifacts, permanent agricultural settlements only emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Given the riverbed location of the excavations, Killgrove writes, many artifacts are associated with shipping activities. Some of the recovered items likely fell overboard or were lost during shipwrecks.

Below the Surface allows visitors to not only examine 20,000 artifacts, but arrange them in personalized virtual display cases. For those in search of organizational inspiration, the website also offers a look at the 10,000 items now on display at the Rokin metro station.

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