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Wet archive of fortune

The Museum for History at Barfüsserplatz has come up with a new exhibition that is most certainly worth a visit. On display since the end of September are objects – ancient and modern – that had been hidden in the depths of Basel’s rivers.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

Among the exhibits of “Resurfaced”: Jewellery that had found its way into the Rhine, often for different reasons

For the first time, the Historical Museum is showing a collection of objects found in the waters in and around Basel. Scouring the Rhine, the Birs, the Birsig or the Wiese brought several tons of material together. Such an exhibition is without precedent in Switzerland, as the retrieval of objects hidden in the water is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming task. With their sometimes strong and tricky currents the rivers ensure that those objects are very hard to get at.

Past and present
The exhibition “Resurfaced” builds a bridge between the past and the present. The range of objects on display includes prehistoric fossils that had been waiting for eons to be discovered, but also articles of everyday use that were brought back to light during this year’s “Ryybutzete”, the clean-up of the Rhine’s riverbed. It may well be that something you was among the findings and is now in one of the display cases.

The biggest eye-catchers of all are of course the oldest exhibits. Among them, for example, is a 250-million-year-old, petrified palm fern, or the oldest man-made exhibit recovered from the depths. It is believed to be some kind of meat chopper that had been fashioned by a homo erectus around 100,000 years ago. Some molars from mammoths also found their way into the collection. After all, the local banks of the rivers in and around today’s Basel had been a favourite drinking-hole for those ancient beasts.

Gripping stories
Many exhibits were inadvertently buried in the cold, wet riverbed. Others, however, had been consigned to the water on purpose. At all times, humans have used rivers and lakes as sites for ritual acts. In ancient times precious weapons or jewellery were sacrificed here to the gods or other sacred beings, or vows of friendship or declarations of love took place here. These traditions are still upheld today, as several exhibits illustrate.

An empty till  retrieved from the bottom of the Rhine

Sometimes, however, waters were – and are – handy for making things disappear. Not only did everyday articles that had lost their usefulness, or wedding bands of couples that had grown apart, land deep down on the river bed. You can also marvel at stolen goods that robbers had jettisoned while on the run, or the tools of an infamous robbery that took place in 1960.

Razor blades at the Rhine lido
A number of razor blades tell a particularly bizarre story. They were discovered just downstream of the Rhine lido “Breite” and had probably been deposited close to the steps into the Rhine on purpose. It seems somebody wanted to spoil the would-be Rhine bathers’ fun. However, the exhibition also tells many other quirky and funny stories.

Someone wanted to spoil the fun for Rhine swimmers with these razor blades

At the centre of the exhibition is of course the Rhine, which developed its distinctive bend only about 4,000 years ago. And it’s not just the locals that have a particular relationship with this river. Even the Romans already called it “pater Rhenus” (Father Rhine).

Sound space
And the Rhine dominates the exhibition not only visually but also acoustically. While video recordings of underwater life in this major European waterway are projected on big screens, there is also special sound space where you can listen to the river’s primal murmuring under its surface.

However, visitors are also made aware of the environmental problems the river faces. No other river is polluted more with microscopic plastic particles than the Rhine, and the fish population is shrinking due to chemical pollutants and hormones released into the river by the big pharmaceutical companies. This and lots more interesting information is provided for those keen to learn more. The exhibition runs until 4 March 2018.

Resurfaced. Basel’s mysterious sunken treasures
Historical Museum Basel, Barfüsserplatz
Opening times 10am – 5pm
Entry fee: CHF 17.00 (Discounts for groups and students, children below 13 years of age free).


Translation to English by Martin Pütter, proof-reading by Nigel Hulbert
Fotos © 2017 Copyright TBJ/Martin Pütter

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