Incredible Website Shows Amsterdam's History Through 700,000 Pieces of Old Rubbish

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

Rivers in cities can easily fill with heaps full of rubbish, lost things, and industrial waste. But if the city has been around for a while, all of that rubbish can tell an incredible story.

Archaeologists had a unique opportunity to tell this story from the trash of Amsterdam. It began in 2003, when the city needed to drain and excavate one of its canal’s riverbeds for a new metro line. The digging turned up 700,000 objects covering the city’s seven-hundred-year history, with some objects dating from before the establishment of the city itself. The project, Below the Surface, has now released a book, documentary, and website where you can look at a catalogue of the objects.

“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 told Gizmodo.

Amsterdam was settled at the beginning of the last millennium after a major flood at the mouth of the river Amstel altered the surrounding landscape to make it a strategic location. It soon became a trading and shipping city, and urban development began in 1300. Through its storied history, it has become the largest city in the Netherlands. The Amstel river now ends into a series of 60 miles of canals before emptying into a body of water called the IJ.

Photo of the book, STUFF, about the found objects

The city abandoned earlier plans for the North-South metro line due to public opposition, since other lines damaged part of the historic city centre in the 1970s, according to the project’s website. The city council decided to build the current line in 1996, and excavation of two of the canals and their surrounding areas in the city centre, the Damrak and the Rokin, began in 2003.

The 700,000 objects date as far back as the stone blades from 4200 to 2000 BCE. Newer objects include pottery shards and nails from the Middle ages, fish hooks and coins, old tobacco pipes, all the way up to more modern cell phones.

Kranendonk is excited about how the items can tell the story of the city. Based on the kind of junk in the canal, locations that may have once housed nearby bakeries might have later become hotels, he explained.

You can navigate to all of this stuff on the website and I bet it will take up quite a bit of your time. Otherwise, you can always get the book, STUFF, with even more revealing images of the objects.


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