Saturday, July 24, 2010

The History Beneath Our Feet: Discoveries in New York (with a footnote on New England)

The discovery of the remains of an eighteenth-century ship in the course of construction work at the World Trade Center site has been big news these past few days. Yesterday the New York Times performed a very useful service by calling attention to the wealth of similar discoveries that receive far less attention but are no less illuminating.
Raiders of the Lost City
Last week, workers at the World Trade Center site discovered a 30-foot section of an 18th-century ship, buried about 20 to 30 feet below street level. It’s a remarkable find, but hardly a first for New York. Since the late 1970s, hundreds of archaeological digs around the city have uncovered thousands of artifacts and structures — each of which have helped to shape our understanding of New York’s history. The Op-Ed editors asked 12 local archaeologists to share their most memorable discoveries.
Here is a partial screen shot of the map (the internet version is interactive; the print version places the explanatory captions along the sides):

Although we tend to think of historic preservation as involving primarily extant buildings, they are in fact only a part of our domain.  Especially in heavily developed urban areas of long standing, the traces of the past were regularly obliterated, but in many cases, they have been covered over and are now concealed rather than gone forever.

And as the case of the ship shows, and the "Op-Chart" makes even more clear, what is covered (so to speak) encompasses a wide range of things: not even just structures or the expected small artifacts.  Of the twelve examples described in the piece, half are foundations or other significant remains of structures, and at least two others—another ship (this time used in creating an embankment for new land), and a lost cemetery—similarly involved large fixed remains.

These are wonderful examples, but the other four are my favorites because they show how much the trained eye and mind can discern from the slightest evidence.  Two are objects, of the sort one might expect an archaeologist to find, but with special stories.  A Chinese porcelain teacup with a monogram allowed researchers to identify the owner as an early 19th-century grocer, "one of the very few cases in which a person has left such a direct archaeological signature."  A piece of glass with a personal mark turned out to tell part of a collective story:  the "x" carved into a wine bottle fragment "is most likely a West African Bakongo cosmogram, a depiction of the universe—strong evidence that Africans in New York preserved their ancestral communal beliefs despite their enslavement." In the second two cases, the evidence was even harder to discern.  A 1982 dig at Sheridan Square turned up telltale dark streaks in deep soil, "unmistakable proof that one spring day, in the 18th or early 19th century, a farmer had been there plowing his fields."  Finally, it was well known that the "Collect Pond" north of Foley Square had been "home to the city's tanning industry—but there were no artifacts to prove it." "[S]ubtle changes in the soil composition" from rotting organic matter used in the tanning industry pointed to the location of the site, which, when excavated, yielded artifacts of the industry—goat horns and tanning hooks—that confirmed the identification.  (Those seeking an additional window into the lost life of early New York may be interested in "The Dutchman Series" of historical mysteries by Maan Meyers.)

One can see the reason that we have historic preservation regulations and bodies empowered to enforce them.  In Massachusetts, for example, local historical commissions are charged with "the preservation, protection and development of the historical or archeological assets."  Our Massachusetts General Law moreover follows the national practice, mandated in the Historic Preservation Act of 1966:
new construction projects or renovations to existing buildings that require funding, licenses, or permits from any state or federal governmental agencies must be reviewed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) for impacts to historic and archaeological properties.
Although we therefore undertake all the proper surveys and investigations as such occasions demand, thoroughgoing archaeological investigation remains among our chief desiderata.  An archaeologist for the State Historical Commission determined that evidence of both prehistoric and historic archaeology in the Amherst area is "an underreported resource."
We have to date even identified a mere handful of sites:  only 15 from the "ancient" period out of 15,000 in the Commonwealth; and only 6 from the "historic" period from the late 18th through 20th centuries. Even the effort remains to be made:  only 13 studies out of the more than 2,000 done in the Commonwealth from the 1970s through the early part of the current century.

And most sites that are known are merely listed, but "lack interpretative material." (Admittedly, in the case of Native American archaeology, there is a reason:  fear of plunder by "pot-hunters" and others insufficiently respectful of the indigenous past sometimes leads the authorities to document the existence of such sites without calling public attention to them.

Here in Amherst, we are embarking upon a major reconstruction of the heavily traveled but awkwardly aligned intersection of Bay Road and Route 116 (also related to the "Atkins Corner" project (1, 2).  I have been involved, in several capacities over the last ten years, in planning and deliberations regarding this site. This past winter, I read the most recent archaeological reports conducted prior to the start of the new highway work, and I am pleased to report that they found no significant Native American archaeological resources in the work area. From one perspective, this might be disappointing news. From another, we may be glad that no resources are threatened by the construction.  However, in this case, neither outcome would fundamentally alter the historical significance of the site, for the entire historical topography is of interest. It is a matter of more than artifacts. Although Amherst, as part of the larger Connecticut River drainage area, was home to Native Americans, evidence of their actual settlement here in the contact period is lacking. Instead, they visited the area seasonally for hunting, fishing, and gathering of food.  Several of their traditional transit routes became roads still used today.  Present-day Bay Road, running east-west, was one of these principal corridors, which became a major transportation route for colonials and citizens of the new nation.  As old maps show, the basic configuration has not changed since the 18th century. The road ran from Hadley to the Brookfields in the center of the territory, to Boston (the "Bay" in the name thus signifying the destination or end-point, as was the practice in that day. Along it, farms, mills, inns, and homes sprang up.  It was over this road that troops and matériel passed in every major military conflict from the French and Indian Wars through the Revolution to the War of 1812. (One can still encounter the occasional elderly resident who can recall hearing her grandparents tell of how their great-grandparents saw cannon and other supplies for Commodore Perry's Lake Erie fleet pass in front of their home.)

Among the plans of the Historical Commission is therefore the creation of an appropriately marked "Bay Road Corridor" National Historic Register District: in our view, the best means of acknowledging the long-standing and ever-evolving role of this historical topography.  New York City is not the only place where there is history under our feet.

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