Subterranean Treasures Unveiled: Unearthing Amsterdam’s Medieval Riches Through Train Tunnels
The discovery of ancient treasures beneath cities sheds light on the history and culture of the people who lived there centuries or even millennia ago. It also offers a glimpse into the evolution of urbanization and the growth of cities over time.
Archaeological finds beneath cities have the potential to challenge or confirm historical records and change our understanding of the past. For archaeologists who discovered a medieval treasure trove beneath the Dutch capital’s streets, the sentiment rang with more truth than ever.
The Findings Came With a Major Feat of Engineering
The challenge here was creating Amsterdam’s North-South metro line, which took an extensive 15-year effort. This feat also threatened the preservation of centuries-old architecture located above its path.
Archaeologists tasked with protecting the historic structures during the immense engineering operation faced a daunting challenge, requiring them to work cautiously beneath the foundation in soft soil. The team’s hazardous labor had to be conducted within pressurized concrete enclosures to safeguard against the city’s omnipresent waterways.
The Train Station has Become an Underground Museum
Currently, at Rokin Station, visitors can witness the results of the clandestine efforts. These include a remarkable subterranean archaeological museum showcasing around 10,000 exhibited artifacts among the eight stops along the path.
Some other examples of underground museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which has an underground connection to the subway station, and the Moscow Metro, which has several stations doubling as underground art museums.
Rokin Pays Homage to Amsterdam’s Rich History
The station itself is a remarkable sight and stands as a tribute not only to Amsterdam’s cultural legacy but also to the diligent efforts of the engineers and archaeologists who labored to conserve it.
The area of Amsterdam has been inhabited since the late Neolithic period, which dates back to around 2000 BCE. However, the city of Amsterdam as we know it today was founded in the late 12th century when a group of fishermen settled near the Amstel River.
Visitors Will Often Go To Rokin Just to View the Art
The artifacts obtained through their hard work are exhibited in two glass cases positioned at opposite ends of the station between the escalators. It’s not unusual to witness commuters riding up and down the escalator just to catch a glimpse of them.
Many valuable objects were discovered in and around Rokin, along Amsterdam’s primary Amstel River. This river was once a crucial hub of the city’s growth since the 13th century.
Rivers Have Always Been Excellent Places to Discover Lost Artifacts
Over centuries, waterways have been used as sites for discarding unwanted items, leading to the accumulation of various objects. The Amstel around Rokin was no exception.
During the excavation of the metro project, Peter Kranendonk, one of the two primary archaeologists in charge, expressed awe at the findings, stating that the artifacts discovered were exceptional. He noted to reporters that “the items uncovered during the North-South line construction were genuinely remarkable.”
New Construction Provided These Archaeologists With the Chance to Go Deeper Than Ever Before
According to Kranendonk, “the construction process provided us with a rare chance to excavate under the city at a depth of 30 meters.” Remarkably, some of the oldest items discovered were mollusk shells dating back over 115,000 years.
These shells can provide information about the ancient climate, sea levels, and the types of marine life which once existed in the region. Plus, they can also reveal details about early human settlements and how ancient people utilized natural resources.
Everything at Rokin Station is Beautifully Organized
The collection of artifacts showcased at Rokin Station has been categorized into different themes. In the northern section, the emphasis is on a diverse range of items, such as weapons, science, food, tech, sports, communications, clothing, and personal artifacts.
On the other hand, the southern section comprises exhibits featuring transportation, buildings, interior accessories, and other craft items. Each of these artifacts offers valuable insights into Amsterdam’s rich and, at times, obscure history.
Each Item Have a Unique Story
According to Kranendonk, some objects, such as coins over 500 years old, have a straightforward narrative associated with them. Additionally, he states that based on the discovery, it is possible to infer certain details about the purpose of the location.
Discovering these items isn’t easy, however. Archaeologists have to work in pressurized concrete chambers, a rather unorthodox form of excavation not often associated with this type of thing.
Rokin Provided the City With Ten Times More Artifacts Than It Had Ever Seen
In a particular area of Rokin, the discovery of several butchered animal bones led to the conclusion that there was a local slaughterhouse – likely around the 17th and 18th centuries. Similarly, a significant amount of furniture fittings in another location provided evidence of a furniture maker’s workshop in the region during the 1800s.
According to Hoite Dettmar – the director of the North-South Metro project from 2016 on – the city’s prior archaeological collection consisted of around 70,000 objects. The construction of the North-South line uncovered a collection ten times larger.
However, This Dig Was Far From Normal
Kranendonk explained the unconventional excavation technique employed to uncover these artifacts. He mentioned that it deviated from the typical process of excavating at the commencement of the construction.
Instead, since the construction plans had already been approved, they had to collaborate with the civil engineering team. Because this team was in charge of the construction, they would simultaneously conduct the excavation process alongside the archaeological team.
The Archaeologists Were In New Territory
Digging up these artifacts was more difficult than usual. The archaeology team had an unfamiliar and unique experience while working in the caissons.
Caissons are massive waterproof concrete chambers with an open bottom and use air pressure to displace water, enabling the construction of underwater or underground structures. These watertight structures are also commonly used in the construction of bridges, tunnels, dams, and other large-scale infrastructure projects throughout the world.
According to Kranendonk, the Process Was Much Like Deep-Sea Diving
Kranendonk describes the excavation process as a unique and intriguing experience but also slightly terrifying. He notes that the compressed air inside the caissons increased as they descended deeper, creating a sensation akin to deep-sea diving.
As a safety precaution, the teams underwent a process of acclimation that included spending time in a pressure chamber both before entering and after exiting the caissons. Failure to do so posed the risk of the “bends,” where gas bubbles form in the body, which can result in paralysis.
Those Who Can’t Visit Can Explore the Database Online
To provide people with the opportunity to explore Rokin Display at their convenience, an online database featuring close to 20,000 objects has been established. The database offers comprehensive information about each item displayed in the glass cases below the surface.
According to Kranendonk, the database presents a unique opportunity for users to engage in an exploratory process of their own. Of course, even the online database only provides a small slice of the 700,000 objects found.
Those Who Visit Can See the Two Artifact Mosaics
Aside from the two archaeological displays, the walls alongside the tracks in Rokin Station are adorned with stone mosaics crafted by Gregory Gicquel and Daniel Dewar. Within these mosaics, 33 artifacts have been incorporated, including dice, a teapot, a pike, and a keyboard.
An unusual discovery in this area was the jawbone of a crocodile. As such, it was a must-have in the mosaic commemoration of the Rokin Station dig site.
On Top of the Artifacts, the North-South Line Was a True Engineering Feat
The North-South line has been regarded as one of the Netherlands’ most demanding infrastructure endeavors. Its grand opening in July 2018 was a momentous occasion.
The line spans six miles, with 4.5 miles of it operating underground. Riders can pass through the Central train station, the historic city center, and the IJ – a waterway separating the northern part of the city from the center.
It Also Connected the Suburbs
Upon its completion, the North-South line provided connectivity between neighborhoods such as the northern suburbs, which were previously not connected by rail. It also provided access through the city center, eliminating the need for commuters to travel through the IJ Tunnel or cross the IJ by ferry.
Additionally, it reduced the travel time required to traverse the city from north to south by half an hour. Following its inauguration, around 120,000 commuters per day were estimated to have used the line.
Not Everyone Was In Love With the North-South Line
The proposal for a North-South metro line in Amsterdam was met with resistance initially due to the traumatic memories of the construction of the city’s first metro, the East Line, in the 1970s. The project resulted in demolishing a significant part of the Nieuwmarktbuurt neighborhood, which sparked widespread anger and riots in 1975.
However, the North-South Line construction commenced in 2003. This time, the city wanted to make a point of conserving the existing urban landscape.
18 Preservation Was an Essential Aspect of the Project
To achieve conservation during construction, a specific route was chosen, and new construction techniques were implemented, such as an adapted tunnel boring machine. This allowed for deep excavation into Amsterdam’s soft soil without affecting the structures above.
However, the project was overshadowed by public concern about the risk of collapsing homes. In 2008, work came to a stop after four 17th-century buildings near Wijelgracht station sank ten inches into the ground.
Luckily, All Was Well In the End
There was much relief around the fact that no casualties resulted from the incident. An evaluation by an external body was conducted, and the construction resumed in the summer of 2009, accompanied by restoration work on the historical buildings.
Multiple engineering issues plagued the project, leading to a cost increase from 1.4 to 3.1 billion euros, more than double the original budget. Additionally, the project’s planned launch date was delayed from 2011 to 2018.
Despite the Initial Pushback, Rokin Is Now a Hit
Though it faced obstacles during construction, the North-South Line has been running without any issues since its inauguration. The recognition the project has received, particularly for the artwork displayed at each of the line’s eight stations, was greatly appreciated by those involved.
The Rokin Station and its archaeological displays have been a major highlight for locals and tourists, with people taking the time to study the exhibits. Dettmar hopes that more individuals will utilize the subway to visit this unique underground museum.