The lovely bones

24th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

Opening in time for Halloween was sensible marketing. Discovering ancient graves under the floor of the Amsterdam Dungeon tourist attraction was plain spooky.

In many regards, the newest city tourist attraction that opened on the Rokin in central Amsterdam on 16 October is what you'd expect, the name tells all.

The Amsterdam Dungeon is — true to its word — a bleak reenactment of the dark old days of Dutch history; an ode to all the villainous devices and their employment to make a person suffer in every conceivable way.

Actors play the parts of Amsterdam's murderous inhabitants

With actors playing the parts of various murderous inhabitants — barmaids that trapped men to sail on the ships of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC), tongue-extracting confessors and "plague infested whores" — the Amsterdam Dungeon tries its best to put the fear of God into the mortal souls of modern visitors, never mind the cheesy makeup, the faux décor that would make any Efteling fan wince nor the length of the show that is … well, pretty torturous.

The real scare, though, comes not by what is seen by the tourists, but what lies hidden and buried beneath: 2,500 corpses that sit resting - maybe not so peacefully - in their graves as the dungeon's roller-coaster, The Grim Reaper, scurries over their dearly departed heads.

In a instance of unintended authenticity, Amsterdam Dungeon is built on a graveyard from the 1500s, a circumstance that was unforeseen by the firm building the attraction.

"Well, we did have to make sure that the graves weren't struck by the roller-coaster," explains Wybo Wijnbergen, manager of the Amsterdam Dungeon.

"There were several meetings with the church which we lease the space from and the city archaeological department because, of course, these graves are 400 to 500 years old and had to be preserved. We came up with a platform over the graves as a solution."

Those meetings consisted of consultations with the Kerkelijk Bureau, the office of the church, the Amsterdam Historisch Museum and city archaeologists. Through a complicated procedure of cultural resource evaluations, the owners of Amsterdam Dungeon — Merlin Entertainment Group which brings the world other dungeon themes in London, Paris and Hamburg as well as Earth Explorer and Legoland parks, to name a few — acquired permission to carry through with the building plans, even when the graves were discovered in March of this year.

"I wouldn't say it was a welcome discovery financially," said a representative of Merlin who asked not to be identified, "It put us off a few months from our projected opening. Nobody knew the graves were there underneath the floor when we leased this space. But we really believed in this site and were committed," she says with a smile and a sigh. "I think we made the right choice."

The real scare lies hidden: 2,500 corpses that sit resting in their grave

The site, a church with flying buttresses and Romanesque colonnades, is a classic piece of religious architecture, one that serves the Gothic fantasies of the Amsterdam Dungeon well. Still, one can openly wonder what the church was thinking when it gave permission to have a ghoulish attraction parked in one of its places of worship, let alone over the graves of former parishioners.

"Okay, maybe it's not in very good taste, I'll grant you that, but as far as the legal status, they [Merlin Entertainment]  went through the procedures, they abided by the process," says Jan Plug, an archaeologist at the University of Amsterdam.

"In Holland we consider graves over 200 years to be out of the public domain and into the jurisdiction of CRM (cultural resource management), meaning that persons can't claim any rights, even if they can demonstrate that long lost relatives are buried there.

"They provided an opportunity for anyone who was interested to visit the site while it was under construction. That's the law and they abided by it," says Plug. 

It's legal, it's fair business, but those of the superstitious bent will still call it a bit creepy, to say the least. Does anybody get spooked by the thoughts of all those long lost Amsterdammers staring from hollowed eye sockets at the visitors above?

"When you're inside the building you’re not really at ease because you know there are people buried there. It's not just any old building," says Elaine Guerain, one of the actresses who plays in the Amsterdam Dungeon, wiping the fake blood off the corner of her lip as she enjoys a breakfast bagel next door to the dungeon. "It certainly makes it extra creepy and freaky."

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Amsterdam Dungeon, life in Holland 

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