Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City

Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City

by Anne-Marie Cantwell, Diana diZerega Wall
Under the teeming metropolis that is present-day New York City lie the buried remains of long-lost worlds. The remnants of nineteenth-century New York reveal much about its inhabitants and neighborhoods, from fashionable Washington Square to the notorious Five Points. Underneath there are traces of the Dutch and English colonists who arrived in the area in the


Under the teeming metropolis that is present-day New York City lie the buried remains of long-lost worlds. The remnants of nineteenth-century New York reveal much about its inhabitants and neighborhoods, from fashionable Washington Square to the notorious Five Points. Underneath there are traces of the Dutch and English colonists who arrived in the area in the seventeenth century, as well as of the Africans they enslaved. And beneath all these layers is the land that Native Americans occupied for hundreds of generations from their first arrival eleven thousand years ago. Now two distinguished archaeologists draw on the results of more than a century of excavations to relate the interconnected stories of these different peoples who shared and shaped the land that makes up the modern city. In treating New York’s five boroughs as one enormous archaeological site, Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall weave Native American, colonial, and post-colonial history into an absorbing, panoramic narrative. They also describe the work of the archaeologists who uncovered this evidence—nineteenth-century pioneers, concerned citizens, and today’s professionals. In the process, Cantwell and Wall raise provocative questions about the nature of cities, urbanization, the colonial experience, Indian life, the family, and the use of space. Engagingly written and abundantly illustrated, Unearthing Gotham offers a fresh perspective on the richness of the American legacy.

Author Biography: Anne-Marie Cantwell is associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. Diana diZerega Wall is associate professor of anthropology at the City College of New York.

Editorial Reviews

Science News
This archaeological account extends beyond recorded history [describing] social, economic, and religious lives of. . .the first inhabitants of New York. (Science News
Gerard Koeppel
. . .[A] scholarly book for general readers, a thoroughly enjoyable narrative with comprehensive notes, sources and index. . . seductively packaged. . . [a] treasure.
New Yorker
Adam Gopnik
[A] terrific book.
New Yorker
Herbert Mitgang
A trailblazing scholarly work. . . [reminding] us that New York is the oldest inhabited city in the United States.
New York Daily News
Robert L. Schuyler
Just the right combination of the mystery of archaeological discovery, insightful cultural explanations, and a holistic view of the past.
Publishers Weekly
Rutgers's Cantwell and City College's Wall, anthropologists both, track the evolving practice of urban archeology, and document much of what it has uncovered (and is still uncovering) in the Big Apple. From the oldest remnants of Native Manhattanites to 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century detritus, Cantwell and Wall explore how archeologists painstakingly expose and determine the past as well as the objects they find. Continually surprising objects of great import the intricate nature and use of "wampum beads"; a full crate of wine bottles from a Wall Street store lost in the great 1835 fire; children's toys and mugs from mid-19th century middle-class homes balance the book's academic underpinnings with its obvious intention to entertain and to illuminate the past. Whether dealing with the discovery of glass urinals found behind a brothel in the notorious Five Points section of the city, or an extraordinarily moving account of the preservation of a colonial African-American burial ground uncovered during excavation for a new high-rise in lower Manhattan, the authors are always mindful of the endless battle between embracing new growth and respecting and safeguarding the past. (Oct.) Forecast: New York's many Gotham-centered museums and store shelves should be a source of steady, if slow, sales to curious browsers, and introductory urban archeology courses should pick this up as a central text. The multicultural evidence provided by many of the discoveries could make this a stockable title in other urban centers with analogous histories. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cantwell (Anthropology/Rutgers Univ.) and Wall (Anthropology/City College of New York) pleasingly convey the palpable sense of orientation that archaeology-in this case, New York City's-can give "to reach a deeper understanding of the human predicament." Being America's oldest city, New York has plenty to reveal when you dig below its surface, and Cantwell and Wall treat it as one big site with a timetable stretching from the Paleoindians to the 19th century. Temples, agricultural fields, privies, backyards, cemeteries-all were as embedded in the everyday worlds of their makers as they are now hidden under a cap of cement and asphalt. They also have much to lend the multicultural movements and identity politics of today, not to mention their ability to assuage cultural anxiety and discontinuity. Cantwell and Wall tap into all this in their chronological survey. Though it's difficult to coax any detail or intimacy from the ancient past, at least a general perspective can be gained from Staten Island Clovis sites, now nestled between the bunkering facilities of a huge oil tank farm; such strange juxtapositions are part of New York's archaeological charm. Inwood Park's late-Archaic stone habitations are still being used by people seeking shelter from storms, while the various Woodland sites give indications of the wide world of the native cultures running up and down the entire eastern seaboard. The authors also outline the difficulties of doing archaeological work in the city: in particular, the time constraints and logistics imposed on archaeologists, as real-estate interests snap at their heels to get a move on so development can proceed. They chart as well the political sensitizingof archaeologists as pertaining to burial sites, and the evolution of the historic-preservation movement. An 11,000-year narrative of a great city, dense with detail and a specific cultural gravity as weighty, and as mutable, as quicksilver. (Illustrations throughout)

Product Details

Yale University Press
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Archaeology Series
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7.25(w) x 9.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Archæology of New York City

We delight in the promised sunshine of the future.
—Cadwallader Colden

New York City is one of the most intricate products of the human imagination. Today it ranks among the modern world's greatest financial, media, and cultural capitals. It is a city everywhere renowned for its glamour and its influence. What happens in New York is immediately reported to millions of people all over the world. And yet, what few realize as they follow events in this great modern city is that New York is also the oldest major city in the United States.

    Unlike the nation's other early cities or many of the well-known Old World cities that exude a cherished past, New York rarely uses its history in constructing its identity or in stimulating its economy. 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. Instead, the past for them often either lies in the way of progress or is enshrined in memory in some other part of the world. For that reason, many people find it hard to think of archaeology in the context of New York. Both archaeology and the past are things that happen elsewhere; the present and future are in New York. And so the very idea that we propose here, the archaeology of New York City, seems odd, in fact an oxymoron. But that oxymoron is exactly what this book is about.

    However incongruous it may seem, New York has a deep past, both literally and metaphorically. The land on which the modern city is built has an eleven-thousand-year human history that is largely unknown to the millions who walk its streets every day or to the hundreds of millions who watch its news, its trends, and its stock markets. Much of that past has been recovered by generations of archaeologists working quietly but determinedly over the past century. Their work has intensified since the 1970s, when the practice of archaeology in the United States was transformed. That transformation has led to a vastly increased knowledge of the city's past, which only now lets us tell a very different New York story than the one splashed across television and movie screens.

    In the pages that follow, we take the modern city of New York, all five boroughs and 325 square miles of it, and view it as one vast archaeological site to be examined in its entirety through time. We use archaeology to study many of the people who once lived or worked anywhere within the limits of what is today the modern city, from its earliest inhabitants up to twentieth-century dwellers. As archaeologists, we explore not only urban life throughout the modern city's history, but also life in the earlier, pre-urban past. This approach allows us to tell a continuing story of many of the different peoples who have lived on this same piece of land for thousands of years. It also lets us describe the distinctive ways each of these groups related to the land and how the land itself changed over the millennia.

    Although for many people the story of New York begins in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into what is now New York Harbor, the land that he and his crew saw spread out before them had been occupied since the end of the Ice Ages, when the first pioneering Indians arrived around eleven thousand years ago. Starting with that beginning, we follow the changing landscape and the many human groups who lived in what would become New York.

    We look at New York the way archaeologists look at any archaeological site. That is, we regard as important each small site buried beneath the modern city, be it an English colonial tavern in lower Manhattan, an eight-thousand-year-old Indian settlement on Staten Island, a colonial farm in Queens, a seventeenth-century Indian community in the Bronx, nineteenth-century middle-class homes in Brooklyn, or an eighteenth-century African cemetery on Broadway. Some of the sites we discuss are located in the Wall Street area; others are in city parks, in tree-lined residential neighborhoods, or along the industrial waterfront. Each is important because it is part of the larger site that is the city itself (figs. 1.1, 1.2).

    Viewing a modern city as an archaeological site and studying both its urban and its pre-urban past constitute a radically new way of looking at an American city. It is not only novel but also intimidating to consider New York today, with its millions of people carrying out their daily tasks on its surface, as a site that contains hidden beneath it the material remains of the ways of life of hundreds of generations of earlier peoples who once carried out their daily tasks there. And yet we firmly believe that this perspective provides a unique opportunity to contribute significantly to the ongoing creation of New York's identity and to the broader national one as well. This is because of the peculiar nature of cities and archaeology.

    Archaeology provides a singular approach to the human past. Archaeologists, no matter where they work, reconstruct past environments and landscapes and study the actual objects that people made, used, and left behind. They carefully uncover broken pottery, trash pits, spear points, ornaments, food scraps, agricultural fields, privies, and hearths. And they map and explore houses, temples, landfill, pyramids, and military forts. For archaeologists, all these finds, the humble and the grand, the fragmented and the whole, have meaning because their creation, use, and disposal were deeply embedded in the social, economic, and symbolic worlds of the peoples whose ways of life they are studying. And it is this deeper meaning that they wish to understand. For them (as for us) an archaeological excavation is not a treasure hunt. Rather, it is a scientific search for information that will help us re-create the lives of earlier peoples in order to reach a deeper understanding of the human predicament.

    Archaeologists want to understand the past, not only because the journey to that understanding can be an exciting intellectual challenge, but also, and more important, because they believe that the past has significance for the present. All societies live with the legacy of the past; decisions that were made and actions that were taken centuries or even millennia ago still affect lives today. And as the legacy of the American past continues to be redefined, archaeologists hope that their discipline is making a unique contribution to this ongoing process.

    In many ways, modern, living cities are the perfect laboratories for archaeologists to learn about that deep legacy of the American past. Cities, after all, have played an increasingly important role in American life ever since the first European settlements. As of 1990, 75 percent of the American people could be found living in metropolitan areas. In excavating in cities, archaeologists can investigate the development of urbanism in America. Yet in treating a major city as an archaeological site, they can study far more than urbanization. Modern metropolises like New York have sprawled over earlier colonial farms and villages as well as more recent suburbs; they have also spread across land that had been occupied by Native Americans for millennia. Therefore, although modern American cities may be young cities by Old World standards, as archaeological sites they are made up of the remains of thousands of years of buried human history.

    As American cities like New York grew, they attracted millions of people who came to live and work in them. Multitudes more passed through them at some point in their lives. Many urban areas served in the past, as now, as points of entry for immigrants from foreign countries, places of hope for those fleeing rural poverty, places of promise for the ambitious young, ports of trade for businesses from all over the world, and cultural and administrative centers for all. But cities are also marked by slums and sweatshops. And some of the older cities were once places where the oppressed were forced to live and work in bondage. So cities have also been places of poverty, misery, disease, and dissension. By their very nature, cities like New York are cosmopolitan places, filled with competing ideas and made up of people from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, social classes, religions, and occupations. They are densely populated, with buildings, people, and public spaces cheek by jowl. The land is valuable; it is used over and over again and is frequently subdivided into smaller and smaller parcels that are used by more and more people as each group builds on the remains of the last.

    Because of the nature of the archaeological record, archaeologists are able to study this astonishing array of human experience in the city. They can bring forward into modern consciousness not only the daily lives and actions of those featured in published histories and other documents, but also the lives of those forgotten or ignored in the written record, including children, laborers, shopkeepers, enslaved workers, housewives, and members of minority groups. And they can re-create the complex history of the hundreds of generations of Native Americans who lived in the area long before the European colonizations began. They can thus provide a tangible past for almost everyone. In other words, we believe that an archaeological study of the city provides an unparalleled opportunity to study the American past in all its richness. In this book, we take that opportunity for New York, one of the oldest, largest, most densely populated, and most heterogeneous of American cities.

    For archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike, one of the most compelling things about the archaeological record is that it is tangible. Archaeologists reclaim from the earth the material traces, the physical palpable evidence, of the past. They recover artifacts and also the remains of people themselves—human burials. Because of this, their work has a special immediacy. Human burials, especially, are so evocative that they can easily be transformed into powerful symbols for the living. As for the artifacts, many are of the humble everyday sort. Yet when they are viewed today, their very universality of function, although the objects may have changed in form or material, gives us an immediate and forceful connection with the past. In looking at these relics, imbued with the meanings of their times, we are inspired to ask the age-old questions "Who am I?" "Who is my neighbor?" "Where did we come from?" and, more important today, "Who are we as a people?"

    Because of this unique ability to bring into modern memory the lives of those long forgotten or ignored, archaeology in New York and elsewhere in the United States is not simply an academic exercise. On the contrary, archaeology can help us address the important questions that have always faced New York and the rest of the United States and which are especially troubling at this point in our history as a people: Can we, a people made up of citizens from so many different cultural backgrounds, create a national identity, one with meaning for all? Can we find strength and not weakness in our diversity? Are we a people? Obviously the archaeological study of American cities like New York cannot possibly answer these questions on its own. But it can, we believe, help us document, understand, and respect a long and complex American past.

A Nation Acts to Protect Its Past

Over the centuries, many Americans have been ambivalent about the past. Certainly in the early, part of the nation's history, some people emphatically did not want a past. They saw themselves as a pragmatic people who focused on the present and the future. Cadwallader Colden, mayor of New York City in the 1820s, epitomized these attitudes. In comparing the United States to Europe, he argued, "Did we live amidst ruins [and evidence of] present decay, ... we might be as little inclined as others, to look forward. But we delight in the promised sunshine of the future, and leave to those who are conscious that they have passed their grand climacteric to console themselves with the splendors of the past."

    Most Americans today are less adamant in denying the past. In fact, many of them long for tradition and a sense of rootedness. In writing about these longings, historian Michael Kammen argues that they are "more likely to increase ... in times of transition, in periods of cultural anxiety, or when a society feels a strong sense of discontinuity with its past." He goes on to contend that these periods of cultural anxiety have occurred cyclically in the United States. Some earlier crises were related to the development, in the late nineteenth century, of American archaeology and the establishment of the historic preservation movement in the United States. The era after World War II, when modern archaeology emerged, is also one that Kammen and others, including ourselves, would argue was one of national cultural anxiety, marked by "worries about security, freedom, swift social change, and a sense of radical discontinuity with the world as it had hitherto been known." In many ways, the national soul-searching over multiculturalism and the rise of "identity politics" might be seen as expressions of this cultural anxiety.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that the developing importance of archaeology in the United States is closely tied to this ongoing period of national questioning, this "sense of radical discontinuity." For this reason, the lineage of archaeologists working today in modern American cities is very different from that of their peers digging in the cities of the ancient worlds. Instead, it is directly related to a number of changes, culminating in the 1960s and 1970s, within the fields of social history and American archaeology, within the environmental and historic preservation movements, and within the wider society of which these are a part.

    Before that period, most archaeologists working in the United States had focused their work on the histories of Native American societies during the millennia before the European invasions of the continent. They excavated sites associated with the mound-building cultures of the Midwest and Southeast, the Pueblo societies of the Southwest, and those of the earliest peoples all over the continent. But by the 1930s, some archaeologists were beginning to focus on the period after the European arrivals. Working with historic preservationists, these historical archaeologists (so called because they use written documents as part of their research) concentrated on sites that were icons in the nation's colonial history or that were associated with prominent people: they dug at Spanish missions in California, at Williamsburg in Virginia, and even at Benjamin Franklin's home in Philadelphia. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, some of these archaeologists fell under the influence of the writings of the social historians and the ideas of the civil rights and women's movements. Using traditional archaeological techniques honed on the study of the deeper Native American past, along with written documents, they began investigating the archaeology of those people who had lived relatively recently but whose histories had been neglected in the national narrative, such as women, the poor, and African Americans and other minority groups. Now, for the first time, archaeologists were actively involved in examining the entire spectrum of the American experience, from the earliest Indian peoples up to the diverse populations of modern times. They were able to do this because of concurrent changes in the way archaeology was practiced in the United States. The impetus for those changes came from the environmental movement.

    The intellectual and political ferment that swept through American society in the 1960s had a profound effect on archaeology in the United States and ultimately even in present-minded New York. The environmental movement was especially crucial. As many Americans began to realize that they were not living in a world of infinite resources, they became concerned about preserving the environment. And many argued that "the environment" included not only the nation's natural resources but its cultural resources as well—its buildings, landscapes, and archaeological sites—and set out to find ways to protect them. Even New Yorkers got caught up in this growing preservation sentiment when a beloved landmark, Pennsylvania Station, was demolished in 1965. As one partisan put it, through the old station "one entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat." Aroused by the public outcry, the city created its Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was given the charge of protecting the city's architectural heritage by designating buildings and districts as landmarks.

    At the same time, archaeologists were realizing that archaeological sites, like members of endangered species, were finite in number. They saw sites all over the country being destroyed at an unprecedented rate from looting and modern development. Archaeologists feared that unless sites were protected by legislation, they would soon be gone. Armed with this new preservation ethic, they joined with historic preservationists and environmentalists in a successful lobbying effort for the passage of federal, state, and local laws to protect cultural resources, including archaeological sites.

    The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 led the way. The intent behind this act is clearly spelled out in its introduction, which argues that the nation's "spirit and direction ... are founded upon and reflected in its historic past" and that this past "should be preserved ... in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people." What this law means for the practice of archaeology in the United States is that whenever the federal government is involved in a development project, it must first consider the impact that that project will have on historical resources, including archaeological sites. Whenever a project takes place on federal land, whenever federal funds are used, or even simply when a government permit is needed for construction—and an archaeological site might be destroyed by that project—the law requires the government to mediate between the competing interests of archaeological site protection and development. In some cases, construction projects like sewer lines or office buildings are moved or redesigned to avoid destroying an important archaeological site. In other cases, the site is excavated before the construction that would have destroyed it begins. In those cases, the archaeological costs are paid by the developer, whether from the private or the public sector.

    With the passage of this legislation, the nation had acted to protect its heritage for the good of its people, and archaeological sites were recognized as integral parts of that heritage. Over the years, the act has been supplemented by legislation and regulations on federal, state, and even local levels. Today the government plays a larger role than any other entity in recording and preserving America's archaeological heritage. As a result, the practice of archaeology in the United States has been transformed. More sites are being excavated than ever before, and more archaeologists are working than at any point in the past. And many of these archaeologists are working in completely new environments.

    Most of the archaeology done in the United States today is "contract archaeology" that is, archaeology mandated by federal, state, or local governments. It is overseen by cultural resource managers who work for government agencies and is paid for by developers from either the public or the private sector. Cultural resource managers help frame legislation, write guidelines and regulations, and, when sites within their jurisdiction are threatened, help decide whether the sites should be preserved in place or excavated. Contract archaeologists are the ones who usually run the projects that are required by the legislation: they work in the marketplace. Some have their own mom-and-pop consulting firms, while others work for large environmental or engineering firms. They often get their jobs through competitive bidding for contracts that can range anywhere from hundreds to millions of dollars. Archaeology can be a big business where the stakes are high. This is a major shift from earlier times, when professional archaeology was done almost exclusively by archaeologists who worked in universities and museums and who sometimes dipped into their own pockets to cover the expenses of their excavations or who had their work supported by grants.

    The cumulative effects of all these changes—the growth of historical archaeology and social history, a new preservation ethic based on a new view of the past, new legislation, and the development of cultural resource management and contract archaeology—brought a wave of archaeologists to a new frontier: modern American cities, a place that for most of them was terra incognita. This came about because during the 1970s, contract archaeologists were required by government mandate to look for sites across any and all landscapes slated for construction, even those in such places as the heavily urbanized parts of large cities where conventional wisdom had long argued that there couldn't possibly be any sites left. And as they began exploring large modern cities, the results astonished them. They found sites in places where everyone had assumed no traces of the past could possibly have survived—even in New York.

    Since the arrival of contract archaeology in New York in the late 1970s, there has been a surge of new information about the city's buried past, information that everyone had presumed had long been destroyed. Combining this new knowledge with that gleaned by earlier archaeologists, we are now in a position to present New York City as a major American archaeological site.

Excerpted from UNEARTHING GOTHAM by Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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