What urban archaeologists found underneath Amsterdam as workers dug out the new Noord/Zuidlijn line.
Buried treasure is usually the stuff of adventure novels, not municipal infrastructure projects. But in Amsterdam, construction work has given archaeologists the chance to exhume 700,000 artifacts from the city’s rivers and canals and put them on display for the world to see.
In the process of constructing the Noord/Zuidlijn, a new metro line that runs north to south and tunnels beneath the riverbed of the Amstel through the historical center of Amsterdam, a team of archaeologists from Amsterdam’s Department of Monuments and Archaeology dug 65 feet below the surface of the river, unearthing artifacts that span the city’s entire history and prehistory, from 119,000 BCE to 2005. The resulting trove has been shaped into an ambitious and innovative four-pronged urban archaeology project, “Below the Surface,” which catalogues its finds via a website, a book called Stuff, a documentary film, and an exhibition in the Rokin metro station.
So just what can be found beneath layers of sand and silt and clay? A click-through of the objects reflects what daily life was like in Amsterdam and for its visitors across eras. “The riverbed proved to be a very rich reservoir of material culture, because water is always used by people,” says Jerzy Gawronski, the city archaeologist of Amsterdam. “There’s a general global instinct for people to throw their garbage into the water, because if you throw garbage in the water it’s gone.”
In this case, many people’s trash has become an archaeologist’s treasure. The finds are expansive in their diversity but also mundane: ancient hooks and nails from 1300 CE, coins and ceramic and leather from the 15th century, travel cards and other wallet debris, Pokemon cards, a toy car, a samurai sword and dozens of keys. “The river received all these objects that people threw away, but also lost by accident. So it’s a very varied and massive collection,” says Gawronski.
Gawronski and his team excavated two sites: Damrak and Rokin, both located in the city center, which proved to be rich deposits of human traces. “The river Amstel on a calm day reflects the buildings, and in the same way all the finds from the excavation are reflecting the city itself in all its details,” he says. Confronted with that idea, Gawronski and his team decided to catalogue the underwater finds in a way that would be dynamic, interactive, and intuitive. Instead of grouping the objects together by material or time period, Gawronski split the catalogue into 10 chapters, with an aim of expressing the city in all its iterations. “For example, the city is a built environment, so building materials are in chapter one. The city is always a hub of transport, so you have everything to do with transport—ships, bicycles, horses—in chapter three,” he says.
So far, roughly 20,000 of the artifacts have been catalogued on the website, created by the Dutch web design agencies Fabrique and Q42. Gawronski’s team brought in art photographer Harold Strak to take photos of the objects, which was no small feat—Strak worked for five years to take more than 35,000 photos. The result is an interactive catalogue that users can scroll through chronologically, search, and cross-reference by material or date. Users can also gather objects using the showcase tool to build their own collection of objects. So far, people have made 1,500 displays of their own. “Some people make a face out of thimbles and buttons and marbles, some people do free association, and other people are really telling a story, some make jokes—everybody uses the objects in their own way,” adds Gawronski.
What sets “Below the Surface” apart from other digital archives could have something to do with this way it makes the past present to its users. “The website begins with the cell phone and other objects users can recognize from their own lives, and then moves backwards in history,” says Gawronski. “Many archaeological sites are very high cultural, and really heavy on scientific language,” he says. “But in this very playful way, we are confronting people with archaeology not being something static or related to Raiders of the Lost Ark treasures—instead, it’s about daily life.”
Daily life is often overlooked in favor of history book headlines, but an urban archaeology project like this one can provide valuable insight into how people before us lived. “We discovered all kinds of activities which were not recorded in the history books,” Gawronski says. “It was not recorded that children were playing on the bridge [the Nieuwe Brug]. But we found by the distribution of their toys we could easily reconstruct that the children in the 16th century were playing more to the harbor side than on the bridge itself, which was probably prohibited.”
The combination of all these found objects from discrete sites over an expanse of time is a different approach to historical knowledge—one where the user gets completely vivid and new ideas about the city in different stages of its history. “It’s not that we add something new to history, but we add a new way that we from the 21st century can look at history,” Gawronski says.
People’s trash can reveal a lot about how they lived and what they valued. Today, so can website analytics and trending hashtags. The “Below the Surface” site launched three weeks ago, averaging 50,000 visitors per day since. On Twitter, people are sharing their self-made displays with the hashtag #BelowtheSurface. “This website is exploding, our server is smoke,” Gawronski laughs. “Now I understand what viral means.”
Any archaeologist will tell you that encouraging people to engage with their history can be challenging task. But with the help of 21st century bells and whistles, Gawronski and his team may have created a model for the digital archive of the future. “I think for many of my colleagues, archaeology is the past. But for me archaeology starts yesterday,” he says. “We use stuff from yesterday to find out who we are now.”