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.