Dredging the Amstel River, Amsterdam-The archaeological project of the North/South metro line

Urban histories can be told in a thousand ways. The archaeological research project of the North/South metro line lends the River Amstel a voice in the historical portrayal of Amsterdam. The Amstel was once the vital artery, the central axis, of the city. Along the banks of the Amstel, at its mouth in the IJ, 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 2018.

Archaeologists were first alerted to the research potential of streambeds by the nascent discipline of underwater archaeology in the 1960s. The upsurge of finds and discoveries from lakes, rivers, canals and their banks raised general awareness of the scientific value of streambeds as repositories of archaeological finds, while excavations of reclaimed waterways and harbours served to strengthen this idea.

Rivers in cities are unlikely archaeological sites. It is not often that a riverbed, let alone one in the middle of a city, is pumped dry and can be systematically examined.  The excavations in the Amstel yielded a deluge of finds, some 700,000 in all. The enormous quantity, great variety and everyday nature of these material remains make them rare sources of urban history.

Ultimately, these archaeological remains reflect the everyday activities of humans, in this case, of the inhabitants of Amsterdam and its visitors. As such, they are invaluable in the reconstruction of the historical picture of Amsterdam. The value of material remains as sources of urban history lies largely in their connection with the topographical structure of the city. Hence, the vital importance of the link between the deposits and their spatial origin in urban archaeology.

For more information, visit https://belowthesurface.amsterdam/en and the catalogue Stuff which presents 11,279 photographs of finds of the North/South metro line archaeological project.

A snippet of artefacts from the catalogue.