Cellphones, coins and credit cards: Archaeological finds from Amsterdam canals
While the idea of digging through centuries of waste may be unpleasant for some, Jerzy Gawronski relished the chance.
In 2003, the city of Amsterdam began construction on a new subway line, presenting the perfect opportunity for Gawronski and the rest of the city’s archaeology department. They embarked on a massive excavation project on the Amstel River and unearthed thousands of items that have since been catalogued.
“Wherever you are in the world, people use water — a waterway, a canal, a river — to ditch their garbage because if you throw it in the water, it’s gone,” Gawronski told As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton.
Findings from the excavations can now be found on an online database called Below the Surface. Viewers can search for items by type or time period, ranging from the year 2005 to Neolithic periods.
Some of the oldest items in the database include bones and shells.
Gawronski says he believes some of the objects were preserved so well because they were underwater.
“It’s the layers of peat and soft silt and sand,” he said.
“When something falls, it sinks away in the riverbed itself and has been preserved because it has no oxygen. It’s dark, it’s cold, so it’s [the] perfect environment for preserving organic material.”
Within the online database, visitors can also see items from more recent years, including broken glasses, lost keys, toys and old cellphones.
Particularly interesting are pomade jars, said Gawronski.
“Those were used at the end of the 19th century for people to get their hair in shape, for facial delight,” he said, noting that inscriptions on the jars say they come from Paris and Brussels.
Gawronski said what he finds most fascinating about the excavation project is what it teaches him about how people lived over the decades.
“What archeological finds teach and inform us about is … trade networks or exchange systems or cultural interactions,” he said.
“It’s the daily life, it’s what people really used and what they threw away. But also, what they lost unintentionally.”
Written by Samantha Lui. Produced by Alison Broverman.