Urban archaeologists uncover history beneath streets
Urban archaeologist Alyssa Loorya found old smoking pipes, ceramic plates and glass bottles during a dig in New York.
April 2nd, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Urban archaeologists uncover history beneath streets

The streets of lower Manhattan are traveled by hundreds of thousands of people each day. Beneath the sidewalks they walk on, a treasure trove of buried historic artifacts waits to be discovered.

As construction crews tear into the streets on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, Alyssa Loorya is often by their side. The urban archaeologist with Chrysalis Archaeology is looking for items that were once considered garbage. The city often has to hire archaeologists to work alongside construction crews when they open the streets in lower Manhattan. The National Historic Preservation Act requires cities and states to conduct an archaeological survey at a work site when there is a strong possibility of finding historical artifacts.

“We’re actually finding things anywhere in a range between 3 and 11 feet below surface,” Loorya said while at a construction site on Fulton Street, one of the oldest streets in New York. “We tend to see pockets and areas that are completely undisturbed, little segments of the 19th, 18th century that have remained intact.”

“One of the main reasons that we are out here is to replace the existing, century-old water main that was located here,” said Tom Foley, deputy commissioner with New York City’s Department of Design and Construction. His agency is constantly ripping up streets and sidewalks in order to replace aging pipes and power lines.

“When you peel away the asphalt and the concrete we’re left with...a significant amount of infrastructure,” said Foley. “Some of the existing water mains are 125 years old.”

The land those pipes were laid in is over 200 years old. Despite feeling solid underfoot, it’s actually manmade. It goes well beyond Manhattan’s original shoreline. As New York became an important economic center in the 18th century, the city’s forefathers looked for ways to expand, setting their sights on the East River.

“The city gave out water grants where they would presuppose plots of land that they were intending to develop through land fill,” Loorya said. People who received those grants were responsible for turning the river’s edge into habitable land. "There are enormous timbers that interlock creating cells where people would put soil, they would put artifacts, people were told to dispose of their trash in the East River during the 19th century."

Construction workers like Roberto Prudencio are often the first people to come across things that haven’t seen the light of day in over two centuries. “I found a little ceramic bird...from the 18th century, ceramic plates, bottles, cracked bottles.”

Loorya digs right beside him. She carefully catalogs the items pulled from the ground.

“We have an imported German mineral water bottle,” she said. “We find a lot of smoking pipes. Some of them are very highly decorated. You’ll find ones that have Mason’s symbols on them. People used them as a sense of identity.”

The bottle of mineral water was an important find for Loorya. “It sort of brings all the work we’re doing here full circle in that we’re learning about the old infrastructure of the city. We’re learning about people having wells and they couldn’t drink well water. It was too brackish. It was muddy. So, they had to go to great lengths to get water.”

She often finds evidence of the effort to provide clean drinking water to early New Yorkers. “They built a wooden water pipe system to import water,” Loorya said. “Today they are replacing 100-year-old pipes to ensure for the present and the future that New York continues to have fresh drinking water.”

Her group of urban archaeologists tries to figure out the origin of each artifact. Some wind up in museums. Others are used in history lessons at nearby schools.

The centuries old trash found beneath lower Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks also fills in the historic record. While New York’s early history is well documented, Loorya said the written word doesn’t necessarily paint a complete and accurate picture.

“One of the things that we learn when we’re studying history is you always have to ask yourself who wrote that history. Sometimes documents, I don’t want to say they’re propaganda, but they’re written by whomever is in charge with a very set purpose,” Loorya said. “Only certain events get highlighted. Certain ways of life get highlighted.”

A few years ago urban archaeologists made a tremendous discovery a few blocks away from the site where Loorya is working today. A long forgotten cemetery containing the graves of slaves who built early New York was found next to a federal office building. A national monument now sits on the site along with a learning center. Much of that slave history was left out of the written record.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. lolsigh

    amazing! they are finding trash that people didnt even want in the 18/19th century.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  2. fred

    One man's trash is another man's treasure

    April 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  3. Everett Clifford

    this is so cool, just think the war of 1776 and other great finds,,,

    April 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  4. tohaph

    Tomorrows headlines will read excavators early this morning found the remains of long lost Union leader Jimmy Hoffa.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  5. geological finds

    @...... get a life troll

    April 3, 2012 at 12:52 am |
  6. geological finds

    the earth is billions of years old we will never unearth time its impossible some things not all

    April 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • ...

      Make sure your comments make sense before you post.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  7. Sherry

    There are folks who go around and dig up where old outhouses were and get all of the old (valuable) glass bottles that were dumped down there.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  8. missalex01

    Going to put it out there, but if you look closer you'll still find remains of those killed on Sept. 11. Its so sad that 'whoever' was in such a rush to clear it out and rebuild regardless if everyone's parts were recovered or not.

    April 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  9. Newcenturion

    "Beneath the sidewalks they walk on, a treasure trove of buried historic artifacts waits to be discovered." – Interesting, people who dumped their garbage out of a window a century or more ago, had no idea that their junk would be considered treasure in the future. Okay everybody, start throwing your junk and garbage outside on the ground so in the year 2212, an archeologist will be able to discover your treasure.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Christine

      That was the sanitation back then. In 150 years, it will be our trash that becomes artifacts! My husband and I often joke about this when cleaning up dog poo in our yard & putting it in plastic trash bags. People 500 years from now will think we whorshipped dogs, preserving their waste!

      April 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
      • Newcenturion

        Christine – Ha! Ha! Ha! – Dog poo! Well, when future archeologists dig up my sister's two parakeets in the backyard, I hope they don't think our pets were part of some sacrificial ritual of an ancient unclassified religion we practiced. : )

        April 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • ZingORama

      Have you ever read "Motel of The Mysteries" by David Macaulay? Scientists discover a motel that's been buried under rubble for thousands of years and believe it to be a sacred tomb. Very funny.

      April 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  10. musings

    I have found things thrown up by building which happened in recent years around MIT Cambridge. Sometimes workers excavating would put things on a chain-linked fence – I remember seeing an almost intact leather shoe which would have been held together by a buckle. Also – found fragments of pottery – some Oriental – on the paths. Best of all: what looked like a circle of plastic with dirt in it, turned out to be a clay pipe bowl, intact, with incised letters and a yellowed nicotine thumbprint. That is my prize.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  11. Yo!

    Keep digging until you find Santorums credibility, it should be down around the K-T boundary.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Ben Frankly

      Agreed. One will find idiot, not iridium.

      April 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  12. lets learn

    as a detectorist and self taught historian.you tend to learn how life was back over 100 years ago.and how to survive if our way of life was to change in the near future.the value of money on artifacts means nothing to me.the value on history or learning how our ancestors means the most to me.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  13. Bigj

    This is cool. Archeology and history always intrigues me. I can't imagine all that is locked away under the city. If I lived there I would love that job.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  14. db

    Digging up the past enables us to learn where we are headed today. People really don't basically change, we still do the same basic things, think the same way, and act similar to the past, we just have different toys today. By looking at the past we can see our future.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  15. siimeon namore

    Interesting. Find any of Trump's hair? It would be buried quite deep.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:07 am |

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