The online Below the Surface exhibition, with photographs by Harold Strak (screenshot for Hyperallergic)

An infrastructure project for the expansion of the Amsterdam North/South metro line offered a rare archaeological opportunity to systematically study a drained riverbed where, since prehistory, humans have inhabited its shores. Now anyone can explore examples of the 700,000 recovered items through the interactive site, Below the Surface – The Archaeological Finds of the North/South Line.

The digital project was created by the Department of Archaeology, Monuments and Archaeology (MenA) and the City of Amsterdam with its Chief Technology Office (CTO). Physical artifacts are on view in the new Rokin metro station, with a book called Stuff and a video documentary (in Dutch, embedded at the bottom of this post) that helps to convey the scope of this archive of urban history.

Excavations took place from 2003 to 2012, the draining of the Damrak and the Rokin sections of the Amstel River revealing the centuries of detritus layered beneath the water. On the site, researchers note that while many deposits are “associated with shipping activities and vary from items that have fallen overboard to complete shipwrecks and parts of ships,” or are linked with an industry that worked on the banks, “by far the largest group of archaeological finds from streambeds can be attributed to universal human behaviour, namely, to the habit of dumping waste in water.”

Archaeological finds in the Rokin metro station in Amsterdam (photograph by Marion Golsteijn/Wikimedia)

The objects go right up to the 21st century, with chronological grids of cellphonesundeveloped filmglasses and false teeth, and plenty of finds that recall the commercial and societal importance of the waterway, such as the many boathooks and fishhooks. What makes Below the Surface such a joy is the beauty and accessibility of its design, where it’s easy to navigate between categories of use and material, and see on a map where in the canal an object was found. A feature also allows users to build their own collage-style collections and peruse those built by others. So even though the amount of items — with 27,000 photographed for the site — is incredible, it’s not overwhelming.

The online Below the Surface exhibition, with photographs by Harold Strak (screenshot for Hyperallergic)

Viewing the trash of the past is very humanizing for history, whether a smushed rubber toy horse from the early 1900s, an 18th-century child’s shoe, a warped bit of stamped leather from a 16th-century book, a 1400–1550 religious figurine, or the multitude of the blue and white fragments of 18th-century Kangxi porcelain. These objects are often broken, extensively used until they were trash. Objects like an Egyptomania radiator hood cap from the 1920s–30s, inspired by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, show moments of taste and culture. However others attest to a history of collective loss, the same types of items always slipping out of our grasps. There are delicate rings, from a 20th-century sapphire and gold ring to a simple, but elegant, 16th-century piece made with lead alloy. There are wayward keys, including a modern plastic keycard and an iron example from 1300-1450, detailed with a cross.

Trash can reveal a lot about a place, in what was deemed dispensable, and how these everyday objects can say more about a people than the treasures preserved in museums. And although there are precious finds — a gold 18th-century ring adorned with red carnelian stone, a regal 1556 hearthstone decorated with a terracotta crown and coat of arms  — most of the Amsterdam artifacts are humble, filling those enduring human needs to communicate, to work, to move, to eat, and to play.

Below the Surface – The Archaeological Finds of the North/South Line is available to explore online. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...