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New York underground

March 15, 2012

A ceramic sherd from Fulton and Pearl streets in Lower Manhattan. Source: DNAInfo.com

New York City has a fascinating history, and archaeologists have contributed a great deal toward our understanding of it. The African Burial Ground comes to mind immediately, as does the work on the Five Points neighborhood.

So I was pleased to come across an article from DNAInfo.com, which despite its genetic-y name actually styles itself as “Manhattan Local News,” on some very interesting excavations going on in Lower Manhattan. (Hat-tip to @CurtinArch on The Twitter for pointing this out.)

The latest in a series of cool discoveries is a segment of wall dating to the late 18th century, possibly linked to some prominent early New York landowners. The find came about as a sharp-eyed archaeologist was monitoring construction crews who were laying a new water main.

The same general area has also turned up a 19th century ceramic dump and a 300-year-old well.

Excavation in a big city presents its own special challenges and rewards. In the excavation I directed for my PhD research, I had basically complete freedom to dig anywhere on a 150-acre farmstead. If I wanted to explore a feature or expand a test unit a few more meters, I could. Not so in a city, where “a few meters away” could be underneath a skyscraper foundation. That might as well be on Mars.

According to a shopworn similie (one that I’ve been more than guilty of perpetuating), archaeology is like putting together a gigantic puzzle. Well, urban archaeology is like putting together a gigantic puzzle, 90 percent of whose pieces are locked away under tons of concrete, while taxis speed by inches away from you.

But in exchange, you get the chance to do firsthand outreach to lots of interested people, and you get to talk about the forces that shaped modern urban life.

That’s exactly what the folks involved in this series of excavations are doing. Will these finds rewrite the history of New York as we know it? Of course not. But they’re interesting, they crack the door on New York’s buried past just a little bit more, and they introduce schoolkids and urbanites to archaeological research and the importance of preservation. It’s good, important work.

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