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Editorial: River of time

Some of the thousands of items salvaged from the Amstel River. — Screenshot
Some of the thousands of items salvaged from the Amstel River. — Screenshot from https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vondsten

Sometimes, it’s good to take a break.

That’s what vacations are all about, right?

Well, today’s editorial is a bit of a vacation, too. Instead of politics, law or crime, this is an editorial about archeology, and about how 700,000 artifacts were collected when parts of a Dutch river were drained as part of the construction of a new metro system.

“The Amstel was once the vital artery, the central axis, of the city. Along the banks of the Amstel, at its mouth in the (North Sea), a small trading port originated about 800 years ago. At Damrak and Rokin in the city centre, archaeologists had a chance to physically access the riverbed, thanks to the excavations for the massive infrastructure project of the North/South metro line between 2003 and 2012,” says the introduction of the guide to the “Below the Surface” project. The researchers picked particular sites on the river and expected to find a bounty: “The expectations of the archaeological potential of the Amstel were high, since it was a slow-flowing river with a soft bed of sand and a peat into which archaeological material could easily sink without being washed away.”

What they found and catalogued is astounding.

Was the Browning FN-5 pistol used in a crime before being tossed away? Who lost the gold ring with the chunky sapphire?

Cellphones. Identity and credit cards. Hash pipes and false teeth. Keys and coins — lots of keys and coins. Pen knives, necklaces and marbles. A three-gram miniature pink plastic hippo.

Out of the huge range of things that were found, 11,279 objects were photographed, and included in an online inventory here: https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en/vondsten

There are high-resolution photographs of each item, and you can select and change photographs to look at some of the items from different angles.

Things Canadian make an appearance in the river, too: a 1979 quarter. A nickel from 1970. A badly corroded 1986 penny. A 1968 silver dollar.

Items are in chronological order and date back to 119,000 BC. Each individual item has been researched and identified, its likely date of manufacture calculated.

The oldest, in a range somewhere between 124,000 BC and 114,000 BC, is a handful of spiralled, distinctly pointed snail shells of the species Bittium reticulatum. The newest? A plastic Rocket Power Stunt Wheels spin top or a Frito/Lays metal Megaman Flippo Disc. Both are dated from 2005.

You can only imagine how some things ended up underwater, like the Dutch police plastic tear gas grenade. Who lost their Communist Guard pin in the river, and how? What might have been on the numerous rolls of film? Was the Browning FN-5 pistol used in a crime before being tossed away? Who lost the gold ring with the chunky sapphire?

What it impresses on you the most? That every single thing, big or small, valuable or near-worthless, has a story.

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