As It Happens

Cellphones, coins and credit cards: Archaeological finds from Amsterdam canals

A team of archaeologists are documenting items excavated from the Amstel River, some dating back thousands of years.

'It's the daily life, it's what people really used and what they threw away,' said Jerzy Gawronski

Some of the artifacts found as part of an excavation project called Below the Surface include broken glasses, cell phones, cameras and nails. (Harold Strak)

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.

Archaeologists at work excavating a site on the Amstel River. (Below the Surface)

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. 

A coin dating back the the 1600s was found while excavating canals of the Amstel River. (Harold Strak)

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."

Among the findings include old telephone cards and credit cards. (Harold Strak)

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.

Pomade jars from the 19th century were also discovered during the excavations. (Harold Strak)

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. 


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