The history of a city, as told through its trash

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Today’s garbage is tomorrow’s archaeology.

Humans have been tossing stuff into rivers for thousands of years, whether it’s trash, wished-upon coins, lost items, or dramatically dumped, once-significant objects. That makes the river bed into a microcosm of human history and the development of cities–and a rich source for archaeologists.

A 15-year project to excavate two locations in Amsterdam’s river Amstel, one in the city center and one at the river’s mouth, is currently reaching its conclusion. Prompted by a complex civil engineering project–a north-south metro line that goes underneath the river–archaeologists got the go-ahead to dig two immense holes, each about 100 feet deep, and excavate whatever they could. The fruits of the project, called Below the Surface, are now online, with an interactive photo catalog designed by Netherlands-based firm Fabrique showcasing 20,000 objects uncovered beneath the project. The items range from 1980s cell phones, contemporary ID cards, and a plastic camera film case, to centuries-old coins, pottery, and fishhooks. And that’s just a small fraction of the 700,000 items they found in these two small cross-sections of the riverbed.

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