The Rokin display in central Amsterdam – unearthed treasures from the river bed

Archaeologists in Amsterdam have recovered thousands of objects from the Amstel's riverbed, testifying to the port city's long history as a trade hub. According to the experts, each layer of earth bears witness to a different time.

2 mins read
Archaeologist Peter Kranendonk at the Rokin metro station in central Amsterdam where 9,500 objects that have been recovered from the nearby riverbed are on permanent display. Credit: Karlotta Ehrenberg/dpa Via Reuters

Peter Kranendonk waits outside the Rokin metro station in central Amsterdam, an area he is deeply familiar with from an excavation a few years ago.

He and other archaeologists were digging for historical artefacts – around the same time that the metro line was being built.

What made the experience all the more distinctive was that the work was around a river bed, says Kranendonk.

The area proved rich in terms of findings, given the amount of rubbish discarded into the river Amstel over the centuries. Plus, things that people threw in on purpose.

Coins, keys, mobile phones, glasses, jewellery and mugs are among the things the archaeologists found, along with weapons, thimbles, parts of plates and pottery.

There used to be a dam here, so Amstel had barely any current, says Kranendonk. That meant things sank to the river bed and stayed there, accumulating over time.

Each layer of earth bears witness to a different time, he says.

Archaeologists have already brought up some 700,000 finds to the surface. So far, 9,500 objects are on permanent display in the Rokin underground station, from tools to crockery, jewellery, toys and other items for daily use.

The most recent finds date back to 2005, while the oldest belonged to people from the Neolithic period. “But they only settled here for a short time back then,” says Kranendonk.

At Rokin, the river runs through an underground channel, so the archaeologists did not have too many difficulties digging.

He has seen worse, such as at the nearby Damrak site, an avenue in the centre of Amsterdam, where archaeologists were also involved in a dig and the river had to be diverted.

The finds from Damrak bear witness to the small settlement that was founded here in the 13th century that formed the basis for the later city.

It was a large seaport, say archaeologists, pointing to fishing equipment and pottery shards.

The archaeologists also dug up numerous parts of weapons, suggesting a developed defence system.

Some of their finds were from organic material such as wood, bones, textiles or leather, which very rarely survive. Here, they remained preserved in the mud of the river, Kranendonk says. Otherwise, when exposed to air, such materials rapidly rot.

“Together, the finds give a precise picture of the development of the city,” he says. The inland port, for example, was located at Rokin. Broken ceramic vessels show there was a sugar factory. They were thrown into the water there in the 17th century.

That was a lively time for the town, as is testified by all kinds of pipes, wine bottles and goblets the team discovered.

That period of prosperity was short-lived, however. The town was less wealthy in the second half of the 18th century, Kranendonk says, pointing to the fact that archaeologists have found fewer items from that period. As people migrated, less was produced and thrown into the river.

The question historians face is what to do with all the thousands of objects they unearth during a dig, with many of the items broken or little remaining of the original artefact.

All contain valuable information, according to archaeologists. Even when they only find a shard of an item, that too can reveal much about the people who used the original object.

That information comes to light during the process of cleaning, when inscriptions may be revealed, says Marcus Trier, who runs the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne, Germany, home to some 10 million archaeological objects.

That includes about 90,000 shards of amphorae. Trier is sure that all of them should be kept and studied. His team has examined 400 pieces so far and found inscriptions that suggested clues about the vessels in use at the time, and what kind of trade was under way.

While Trier looks forward to discovering the information that may be revealed by the other 89,600 shards, others in his profession disagree.

It is usually sufficient if you examine small quantities of the total that is revealed in a dig, says archaeologist Raimund Karl. Once specialists have assessed those worth keeping, in his view, the surplus can be given to schools or sold on to private collectors.

dpa/ Via Reuters

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