Urban Archaeology: Digging Up Old New York

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Feb. 14, 2002 at 1:31 PM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- A timely new book has just been published about recent archaeological finds beneath the surface of New York City where artifacts that survived the Sept. 11 Twin Towers devastation are being extracted daily for future museum exhibition.

"Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City," by anthropologists Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall (Yale University Press, 374 pages, $39.95) is a guidebook to subterranean finds in the five boroughs of a city, covering 325 square miles, of interest to both the professional historian and the lay reader.

"Perhaps because the city has always been a place where people have come to build new lives, New York and its citizens have rarely wanted to look back," wrote the authors in their introduction.

"For that reason, many people find it hard to think of archaeology in the context of New York ... but much of the city's past has been recovered by generations of archaeologists working quietly but determinedly over the past century. Their work has intensified since the 1970s and led to a vastly increased knowledge of the city's past, which only now lets us tell a very different story than the one splashed across television and movie screens."

The book is full of fascinating narrative that makes a good read from cover to cover of this compact but hefty volume, one of the handsomest reference books in regard to makeup and typography to be published this year. Unfortunately one of the richest archaeological finds it describes was wiped out in the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

This is a hoard of thousands of artifacts that made up the "Five Points Collection," named for a 19th century Manhattan slum that was notorious for drunkenness, debauchery and crime. The collection was stored temporarily in the basement of 6 World Trade Center awaiting transfer to the South Street Seaport Museum when the terrorists struck the center.

The only part of the collection that has survived are 18 pieces that were on display elsewhere including an English teacup decorated with the image of the Rev. Theobold Matthew, the founder of Ireland's temperance movement, that is one of the book's many illustrations. This apparently was one cup not suitable for serving Irish coffee, a Five Points specialty.

The earliest archaeological finds documented in "Unearthing Gotham" are stone tools and weapon points from the Paleoindian period of some 11,000 years ago, discovered at a Mobil Oil tank farm on Staten Island by a team of amateur weekend archaeologists including 11-year-old Robert Anderson in the 1950s.

Young Anderson spotted the first fluted spear point of typical Paleoindian workmanship imbedded in clay in a trench recently dug by Mobil workers and a second point in the wet sand of a garbage littered Staten Island beach. Eventually the team found 21 fluted points and 120 stone tools in three separate areas, indicating several Indian settlements.

Artifacts from Indian settlements, dating back 6,000 years, have been found all over the city but two sites in northern Manhattan excavated 100 years ago are rich in evidences of an Indian diet of shellfish from the Hudson River and edible plants found alongside stone spear points and knives. Also found were bannerstones, highly polished with a hole in the center that were probably used as royal maces, and stone gorgets made to be strung on a thong and worn as necklaces.

When the Dutch colonists arrived in the early 17th century, parts of the area were populated by Munsees, late woodland era Indians, who were soon killed or driven north.

Munsee burial mounds in the Bronx's Pelham Bay Park and a nearby Indian fort site have rendered up cross-cultural artifacts, including arrowheads made of Dutch brass and some Dutch trade objects such as metal pots and clay pipes. Evidences of making shell beads (wampum) for trade also have been found.

One of the richest finds reflecting Dutch Colonial life were two backyard outhouse pits found in 1938 in a Wall Street construction site by archaeologist Joel Grossman. They contained fragments of blue and white Delft china, blown glass goblets, clay pipes from Gouda, and bone combs. Grossman also found a clay pipe warehouse in the same area, still containing pipes and a 1590 Dutch coin.

Even the remains of a scuttled and burned-out Dutch ship, believed to be the Tijger that explored New York harbor in 1613, were found when a subway tunnel was being excavated near today's World Trade Center site in 1916. Only nine feet of the ship's hull survived for museum display, and the rest -- which fortunately was photographed -- probably was destroyed when the World Trade Center was built in the 1960s.

The British Colonial period and the early years of the American republic have provided rich archaeological material, especially useful in documenting slavery in New York, which was legal until 1827, and the life of free blacks, of which there were thousands in the city in many different occupations.

The African Burial Ground, dating to the mid-1700s, containing the remains of hundreds of black slaves, was uncovered 10 years ago when excavations were made for construction of a new federal courthouse a block north of City Hall Park. Analysis of the remains is being be carried out at Howard University, and a decision on whether or not to exhibit such excavated artifacts as a coffin bearing an African tribal symbol and shroud pins is still to be made.

Archaeology has even been used to trace the original garden layout of the Old Merchant's House, built in the Manhattan's East Village in 1830s and now a museum. One of the book's authors, Diana Wall, jumped at the chance to excavate the garden because little is known of landscaping of the yards behind middle class row houses of the 19th century.

Wall and her team of City College students deciphered the original layout by analyzing layers of different color sands they found under the contemporary surface, indicating where garden paths and flower beds had originally existed. Beneath the sand they found shards of teacups and plates and fragments of those ubiquitous Dutch pipes that apparently had been discarded when the property was still a farm in the late 17th century.

Archaeology in New York is an ongoing business.

Experts currently are combing the Ground Zero site of the Sept. 11 disaster and the Staten Island landfill where most of the wreckage has been dumped for suitable objects for later display at the Museum of the City of New York, and excavations in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art - a part of its current expansion program - are being combed for artifacts from the Rockefeller family mansions that once stood on the site.

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