Urban archaeology is the study of the growth and development of cities. Archaeologists conduct historic research and fieldwork to document changes in the ways that people lived and worked in an urban setting. In the broadest sense this study includes cities of the ancient world as well as modern cities, but the term generally refers to archaeological research connected with modern cities.
The history of most modern cities in the United States is well documented. Official records and reports, letters, diaries, newspapers, census records, deeds, probate records, business directories and other written and pictorial material provide ample sources of information about the rich and famous, the momentous events and societal changes connected with the growth and development of each city. Historians have researched and analyzed this documentary evidence to throw light on many aspects of each city's history, from the creation of a distinctive urban landscape and architecture to the way of life of the poorest of the immigrants. What can archaeology add to this picture?
One of the specific strengths of urban archaeology is that it provides independently derived information complementary to the written documentation. Urban archaeologists see the development of the city not from what people say or write, but from what they build and throw away. Urban archaeology is not about collecting bottles or architectural fragments or coins. It is about collecting information about the past, often incorporated in everyday objects. For the most part, these objects have little monetary worth but are valuable as they reveal information about the past. Archaeologists can see burgeoning international trade not from records of shipping tonnage, but from fragments of imported pottery. They can track social changes through the percentage of tea sets in a household's discarded pottery or the cuts of meat identifiable from bones. They try to assess class and ethnic differences by comparing the archaeological assemblages that fill abandoned wells and privies. Neither history nor archaeology is necessarily "truer" than the other but archaeological evidence is of a different nature than the documents used by historians.
New York City Urban Archaeology
The history of New York is well known. The area was first settled by Native Americans at least 11,000 years ago. It was colonized in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch West India Company as a trading post and was then called New Amsterdam. Its natural harbor made it an ideal gateway for exporting goods such as furs and wood to Europe and importing European products such knives, nails and iron pots to the struggling colony clustered around the Fort in Lower Manhattan. From its inception, New Amsterdam had a population that was ethnically diverse and included slaves. In the late seventeenth century, the British gained control of the colony, renaming it New York. Under British rule, the population expanded and the economy thrived. By the mid-eighteenth century, New York City was well on its way to becoming one the Northeast's principal cities. During the American Revolution, the British captured and held the city, making it their headquarters until the end of the war. Immigrants flooded into the city throughout the 19th century, while railroads and the completion of the Erie Canal brought New York economic regional and eventually national dominance, making it the largest and most important city in the United States.
The archaeology of New York is not as well known. Avocational archaeologists such as Reginald Bolton and William Calver worked throughout the city at the beginning of the 20th century to uncover traces of Native American settlements and Revolutionary War period military sites, in an effort to uncover as much as possible before development destroyed the last vestiges of what the region was like before urbanization. In the 1960s professional archaeologists, such as Bert Salwen, began to conduct work within the city and the focus shifted from learning about life before urbanization to the study of urbanization. Arguably though, it was not until the 1979-80 excavation of the Stadt Huys Block in Lower Manhattan that Urban Archaeology in New York City truly emerged as that project visibly demonstrated that significant archaeological sites can survive in areas that have experienced a great deal of subsequent development. Since that time, other large projects have been conducted in each borough of the city focusing upon the development of the modern city.
How does archaeology happen in New York City?
Archaeological work is primarily conducted within New York City as part the Environmental Review Process. Federal, state, and city laws require that government agencies assess the environmental effects of discretionary actions before undertaking, approving, or funding such actions. The effect upon historic resources -- which may include architecture and archaeological resources -- is one of the resource categories that must be considered under these laws. The Landmarks Preservation Commission assists other government agencies, by determining whether their projects may impact significant historic resources, and if they will, recommending and overseeing mitigation measures. Occasionally, archaeology is required under the Landmarks Law, which protects the city's architectural and historic resources and empowers the Landmarks Preservation Commission to identify, designate, and regulate buildings, districts, sites, and interiors considered significant for their architectural, historic, cultural, or aesthetic qualities under the Landmarks Law. Archaeological resources have been designated in the past such as at the African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District in Lower Manhattan, the Adrian and Ann Wyckoff Onderdonk House in Ridgewood, Queens, and portions of the Governor's Island Historic District and in the Fort Totten Historic District.
What is the Archaeology Department?
The Archaeology Department is responsible for assessing what impact proposed work may have upon potentially significant archaeological resources that are subject to the environmental review process and, occasionally, to the Landmarks Law. Once an impact is noted, the Department assists in determining how to mitigate that impact and oversees the needed work.
The Department consists of three professional archaeologists:
Amanda Sutphin, R.P.A., Director of Archaeology
Professor H. Arthur Bankoff, R.P.A., Advisor to the Chair for Archaeology (Part-time as he is also the Chairman of the Anthropology Department at Brooklyn College
Daniel Pagano, R.P.A. Urban Archaeologist
Who do I call if I find something?
Please contact Archaeology Department, if you find something you think may be significant. Please note the location of the find, record the street address, block and lot on a map and describe what you see in as much detail as possible. Photographs are greatly appreciated. The LPC is only open from 9 AM-5 PM Monday- Friday. If work is occurring outside of these hours which you think may destroy the potential resource, please record as much information about what you see as possible as it may be the only information we will have about what you have observed.
If you find human remains, or potential human remains, you must immediately contact the Police Department (NYPD) (646) 610-5000, call 911 for emergencies, and the Chief Medical Examiner (212) 447-2030. They will direct you about how to proceed.
Where can I learn about archaeological projects conducted in New York City?