The Archaeology of Getting There

Amsterdam 2013

The Houseboat Museum – a busman’s holiday for a boat dweller 

I’ve been in Amsterdam for a while, Having Fun (as opposed to working, which is my usual ticket to ride) and thinking about transport. The Channel Tunnel will survive as the world’s largest negative feature (that’s a hole in the ground, non-archaeologists). Tube trains, trams and buses will also leave their stamp. Tunnel and platform, stairwell and shelter, tram line and bus stop; gantries, drive belts and gearing, winches and levers, illuminated departure boards, wheelchair ramps, luggage trolleys; the archaeology of Getting There is substantial.

But of course here, it’s the management of water that makes the place and gives it its very name – the dam on the Amstel. Water shapes the culture as well as the land. This country has had to be democratic, a Dutch man told me. We have had to find ways to work together, because water has to be managed collectively.

Consider roads. If my parish builds a bad road but the neighbouring parish builds a bad one, it’s an inconvenience for the traveller. But here in the Low Countries – where sea level is 5m above our heads – there’s more at stake. If I build a good dam and my neighbour builds a bad one, then my land will flood as surely as hers. We have to work together to keep our own feet dry. That can’t fail to build a sense of community and mutual respect. We often look at how human activity shapes the land, but sometimes it’s reciprocal.

And some activity – some of our most extraordinary, inexplicable and essentially human activity – leaves no trace at all. Which may be for the best.






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