- Historic Sites
Digging Up The U.S.
In the underpinnings of our cities, in desolate swampland, beneath coastal waters—wherever the early settlers left traces of their lives—a new generation of archaeologists is uncovering a lost world
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
Other archaeologists have also made discoveries of potential historical significance in recent years. On St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia, for example, a team from the Museum of Natural History located the long-lost mission of Santa Catalina de Guale and may soon be able to shed some light on the fate that befell this northernmost outpost of Christianity in the Spanish colonies. In Kingston, New York, evidence was uncovered that indicated English goods were being smuggled into that city at a time when the Dutch ostensibly controlled trading in the area. And in Sacramento an excavation at the site of the fashionable nineteenth-century Golden Eagle Hotel revealed that garbage, including a three-foot deposit of oyster shells, had been stashed in the building’s basement despite sanitation laws to the contrary.
None of these discoveries is, in and of itself, particularly earthshaking. But as archaeologists continue to sift through what historian Allan Nevins once described as the “primitive materials of history,” a clearer picture of daily life in America will inevitably emerge. What’s in the ground, as archaeologists are fond of saying, is inherently more democratic than what survives in the written record. And whether it is by examining the remains of a black community established by the Freedman’s Bureau at what is now the site of a Washington, D. C., subway station, or the slave quarters at Jefferson’s home in Monticello, or a nineteenth-century sailing ship that went to the bottom of the Great Lakes, or a Victorian brothel in an abandoned Colorado mining town, archaeology can provide what Ivor Noël Hume calls “a physical dimension to social history.” It can put the cups and saucers back on the tables of reconstructed dining rooms. And it can tell us, sometimes more accurately than written documents, about such things as the consumption of alcohol at the workplace, the changes in Indian diet after contact with Europeans, and the living conditions of Chinese immigrants in the American West.
T O MAKE SENSE of all this activity, of all this earth being moved (papers on more than one hundred different digs were presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual convention in Denver this past January), over a period of several weeks last fall I traveled to a number of archaeological sites, from the southern tip of Manhattan to northern California and back to the eastern shores of North Carolina. I talked with dozens of historical archaeologists of every conceivable variety (urban, underwater, industrial, plantation, and so on), burrowed through a pile of reports at least as deep as an eighteenth-century trash pit, and attended one professional conference where I saw as many slides in a single day as I had encountered in four years of high school. All this, and I only nicked the surface.
I arrived a few months late at the first site I visited: a thirty-two-story office tower had already gone up on the very spot where archaeologists had made a most unusual find. It was a brilliantly clear day last October, and several hundred people were gathered at the corner of Water and John streets in lower Manhattan to watch the final steel girder hoisted into place atop the building. Real estate developers in three-piece suits and white construction helmets posed for pictures. Scores of helium-filled balloons were released to celebrate the occasion, and a brass band played “Anchors Aweigh” as the beam lurched precariously overhead.
Three hundred years ago, when progress in this part of the city was measured horizontally in feet of landfill, the entire block on which the building at 175 Water Street had been constructed was submerged under the East River. But on this day, with urban progress being measured vertically, few people at the topping-out ceremony were thinking about what lay underfoot. Even Joan Geismar, a woman who spends much of her time looking down, had her eyes riveted on the sky.
Although you wouldn’t know it from her appearance—in her fashionable tweed jacket and wool skirt she looked more like a successful businesswoman than an archaeologist—Geismar spent four months the previous winter digging in the mucky landfill under what is now 175 Water Street, looking for clues to New York’s past. The mother of three grown children and the recent recipient of a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia, Geismar had been hired by Soil Systems, Inc., the largest archaeological research firm in the country, to supervise fieldwork at the site. (Because the developer had sought a zoning variance from the city, he was required by law to conduct an archaeological survey, the bill for which came to $1.2 million.)
What’s buried in the ground is inherently more democratic than what survives in the written record.
One January day toward the end of the dig, with the temperature below freezing and the developer anxious to begin construction, Geismar stumbled on one of the most extraordinary objects ever uncovered beneath the city’s streets—the intact hull of an eighteenthcentury merchant ship. “We were making a deep cut with a backhoe, trying to locate the original river bottom,” she recalls, “when suddenly the earth fell away and these timbers were exposed. At first we thought it was a bulkhead, but on closer inspection the structure turned out to be curved. That’s when we realized we had a ship.”