Digging Up Dirt in NYC

For these inquisitive urban archaeologists, unearthing eighteenth-century gun locks, deteriorated douches and other ancient oddities is all in a day’s work.

Digging Up Dirt in NYC

She reaches into one of the dozens of boxes that line the basement’s walls and pulls out a baggie, then places it gently on a table covered in craft paper.

“This is a gun lock from our digging at Fulton Street,” Alyssa Loorya proudly explains. “The style indicates that it is pre-American Revolution.”

The piece is coated in green crust, a byproduct of oxidation after three centuries of compression beneath layers of dirt and municipal supply lines. I pick it up and feel New York City’s past between my fingers.

“You could grow up in the city where history was made and still miss it all,” Jonathan Lethem once wrote of New York. That statement might be best realized here in this Marine Park, Brooklyn, basement — the headquarters of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants. The neighborhood’s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel like the city. The row houses here — connected and not — are more Levittown than Kings County. The snow piles are over four feet and only a few cars are dug out due to necessity. It screams suburbia, but this is New York City. And this basement contains hundreds of objects that have the impregnable odor of the millions who have come before to make this city their own.

Chrysalis, the company Loorya oversees as president, excavates, catalogs and stores priceless objects that would make Indiana Jones’s heart skip a beat. They’re credited with unearthing a now-infamous 200-year-old douche during a 2010 dig at New York’s City Hall — as well as coins, buttons, wells and many other items; the leftovers of the generations of New Yorkers that have come before.

“One of my favorite things is putting together someone’s life,” Loorya laughs. “You’d be amazed how much you can learn about someone from what is left over.”

She tells me about the family chronology and history of the Lott family, whose nearby home in Marine Park was constructed in 1800 and is still virtually unchanged. Chrysalis’s profile of the family indicates that they were one of the largest landowners in the Flatlands area of present-day Brooklyn. Loorya began working on the site over a decade ago as a graduate student, but still serves on the board that runs it.

Reconstructing the lives of the Lotts required the combined use of historical documents, Chrysalis’s archaeological findings and oral history from family members. The house itself has revealed its own secrets. It contains a second-floor nook that is only accessible through a bedroom closet. Two descendants grew up hearing stories about how it was used as a part of the Underground Railroad in the 1840s. Other records indicate that when Hendrick I. Lott inherited his father’s property, he freed all of the slaves that came with it, except for one elderly woman.

“Every pre-Civil War house in New York City claims to have been part of the Underground Railroad,” Loorya says. “Yet when one takes into account that the Lott family freed its slaves almost twenty-five years prior to the abolition of slavery in New York State, it is possible the house really was used as a stop on the Railroad. [The Underground Railroad] ran around Manhattan, through the outer boroughs, because Manhattan was known for its strong economic and social ties to the South.”

Loorya continues to paint a picture of the Lotts’ turn-of-the-century Brooklyn lifestyle, using the artifacts Chrysalis discovered to fill in the canvas, from pottery to the white glass eggs used to encourage stubborn hens to lay eggs in nests in the barn. She counts the porcelain doll heads with blue glass eyes among her favorite finds, along with a family cookbook containing dozens of oyster recipes. The mollusks were fresh and plentiful in those days, as the Lott home was a short distance away from an old mill pond. Loorya has found evidence that the property was outfitted with walking paths made of shells.

Ah, city life.

Loorya and I are standing in Titanic Memorial Park on the corner of Water and Fulton Streets, near the South Street Seaport, on another February morning. It is well below freezing.

The construction site a half-block away is part of the extensive post-9/11 work that still remains, though this project has reached its final stages and will finally wrap this summer after two extensions. The most significant portion of this project is the replacement of water mains by a city-hired private contractor.

Loorya points out a tan concrete band running east to west through the north end of the park. It signifies the original shoreline of the East River. Over four hundred years ago, when the Dutch explorer Henry Hudson and his crew steered the Half Moon into New York Harbor, that is the shore he would have seen — a beach with reeds and rocks, dotted with dozens of oyster beds.

The large office buildings on Water Street to our left are a lasting and unnerving reminder of a curious architectural triumph — the fact that much of Lower Manhattan is built on landfill.

Today, there’s been a delay. The MTA’s power supply lines that run under the street are encased in something that isn’t asbestos but is apparently just as toxic. Chrysalis runs into situations like this often. They work in the thick of the city with car horns blowing, sharp-breaking cabs shrieking, and the sounds of buses chugging. The noises of the cityscape fill the silence between the hammering and the spades being pushed and pulled to remove earth.

“Any construction activity that utilizes federal, state or local funds — any municipal funds — must consider how their actions will impact any potential historic or cultural resources buried or extant,” Loorya explains. “We are here because it is a requirement.”

Most of the projects that Chrysalis and other local archaeological consultants take on fall under that umbrella. Usually a private contractor working on a construction project in conjunction with the likes of the MTA, Con Edison or the Environmental Protection Agency hires Chrysalis. First they determine if there are significant archaeological resources that may still exist, and if they will be impacted by the construction. If they conclude there’s a chance that such artifacts may be present, archaeologists are required by law to monitor the contractor’s work.

“New York City construction has a lot of stops and starts,” Loorya says. “They’ve got to do it a block at a time because of traffic. We call our archaeological technique ‘monitoring’ and we work hand-in-hand with the contractors and are a part of their team.”

The Fulton Street project has been a worthwhile endeavor. In one dig, Diane George, the on-site archaeologist from Chrysalis, discovered a foundation wall with an artifact deposit from an early nineteenth-century household. It contained thousands of pieces: leftover food, tools and household products. George was able to date the deposit between 1806 and 1815 based on a liberty quarter they found at the site. The house was likely razed for street-widening purposes and, as a result, the foundation was left underneath a sidewalk and preserved perfectly. The original Fulton Fish Market, which opened some fifteen years later, was located just above it.

Loorya and I walk back along Fulton Street toward the field office. Their site field office is usually located just outside the area where work is being done. In this case, the location is on the twenty-second floor of a Broadway office tower in an old law office. It feels warm but temporary. The group will only be here until the completion of the job and then the office will be vacated. Everyone here is prepared to move out and quickly set up at the next site.

Loorya explains that most of the finds Chrysalis recovers do not end up in New York City’s museums. Instead, many are sent to small historical societies, borough presidents’ offices, or — the largest port of refuge — the New York State Museum in Albany. This isn’t a reflection on the curiosity of New Yorkers, though.

“People are curious,” Loorya declares. “There is a great sense of nostalgia growing in New York, in terms of old photos and how things have changed. People want to know how their block changed.”

“I remember we were doing a job out on Staten Island,” recalls a man nicknamed Hesham, one of the engineering contractors on site. “We kept finding these huge piles filled with glass bottles.”

Loorya and George have a simple, quick explanation: Depression-era parties.

“Must have been some great parties,” Hesham replies.

At the South Street Seaport site, George also found a large deposit from the late 1700s. That site was dug where neighborhood residents regularly dumped their trash when the street was a slip — land built up on both sides of a water strip, deep enough to have boats pull up and dock. (Eventually, residents were given water grants by the city, with the plots in this area running about the length of a short city block.) They uncovered Revolutionary War buttons from British soldiers’ uniforms. Incredibly, the regiment numbers on the buttons were still intact. The soldiers must have enjoyed themselves while away from home, considering what they left behind. “We found a lot of liquor bottles,” George reports, along with “gunflint, musket balls, the hammer and vise from a flintlock rifle and clay pipes.”

The most serendipitous find for Chrysalis was on Fulton Street between Cliff and Pearl streets. In the middle of the twentieth century, Fulton was widened. When the water main repairs started on this stretch, the contractors began hitting historic walls. One was that of a basement of a print shop dating back to the mid-1800s. Cliff and Pearl weren’t linked together until later in the nineteenth century, and the walls from even older buildings were incorporated into the structures of newer ones. So this basement and others adjacent to it offer a true cross section of the street.

“Mortor, brick, cinderblock,” George notes. “The progression of building technology was on display in the materials.”

They found other noteworthy materials, too. “The basement had hundreds of ink bottles under the early-modern cobblestone floor,” George reveals. “Many of them still had corks and ink.” Embossing on some of the bottles revealed they were manufactured for a local bank.

Maybe the home’s contractor, who put down the modern floor, thought future generations would appreciate the find.

The MTA crew is working down in the hole, but Loorya and I go beyond the cones and peer in. From my tiny window into this underground world, the streets look hollow. She speaks about the fascinating way New York has been built — the layers of dirt and manmade structures, and how when one opens up the streets, pipes and conduits of all different sizes are unveiled. Most people don’t get this chance to see how much goes into running this city on a day-to-day basis.

Water wells are an ironically common find for Chrysalis. George found one in the middle of Fulton Street that was dated 1718. Wooden rings were a fairly common way to create wells. Frames of pine were hammered together and sunk to the water table with stones. Upon considering the specific pattern of the rings from the pine that was used, a lab at Columbia University was able to date the wood in the well to the exact year.

During the dig, George and her team gently dug out the site. Notable care was put into every thrust of the small spade as it entered the brown dirt. They were down on their hands and knees in the muddy earth, their trowels and brushes ready to pluck out any sign of imperfect history.

Access to fresh drinking water had been a problem for New Yorkers. The Dutch built numerous wells and cisterns in the seventeenth century. Another of Loorya’s favorite items is a 1790 glass bottle of German-origin water, proving that bottled water has always been in vogue.

The Maryland 400 was a group of American Revolutionary soldiers from the First Maryland Regiment. They repeatedly attacked a much larger British force during the Battle of Long Island, sustaining heavy casualties, but in doing so allowed General Washington and the rest of his troops to flee to Manhattan. More than a hundred men were captured by the British, while 256 were killed. As Washington watched from a redoubt at the intersection of what is now Court Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, legend has it he said, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!”

The British buried the dead in a mass grave that has never been found. Chrysalis is involved in trying to locate the true resting place of the interred troops. In the 1950s, a historical site survey was completed at the spot on Third Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets where the battle was believed to have taken place, but no remains were found. However, recent research has turned up some new leads.

“We were sorting through the archives down at Brooklyn College,” Loorya says, sounding optimistic. “And found a letter from a Van Siclen talking about how his family had owned the property where they had been buried. It also talked about the modern streets compared to the old land.”

Another preservation organization had been looking at historic maps in an effort to find the location of the grave. Both groups have independently come to within a block of each other, near Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street. Loorya is hopeful that work in this area will begin soon. The wide-scale construction on the horizon in the Gowanus area due to rapid gentrification is looming. Loorya hopes that her contribution can honor these great soldiers before it is too late.

The only commemoration of the dead sits more than a mile away in Prospect Park, a Corinthian column topped by a marble orb with Masonic undertones designed by Stanford White. The research undertaken will hopefully result in a proper tribute to men who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This is the work of archaeologists in New York City: unsure and determined.

The main map of current construction in Chrysalis’s Fulton Street field office was labeled with capital letters: PROGRESS. New Yorkers all move towards this goal — in their lives, in their being, in their work. Archaeologists are making sure that the dirt holds something to measure against. Without that, what is progress?

“You never find what you are looking for,” Loorya says. “The big discoveries in the city are always stumbled upon.”

*   *   *

Alexis Frederick-Frost spends too much of his time bent over a drafting table or squinting at a computer screen in his small apartment in Philadelphia, where he illustrates the Adventures in Cartooning series of graphic novels. @afrederickfrost.