Digging Up The U.S.

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The eighty-five-foot-long ship was not the first to be found by urban archaeologists. Similar discoveries had been made in Boston, San Francisco, and at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. But it was probably the best preserved and certainly the first to be so extensively excavated. (The ship under the World Trade Center was not excavated at all. Back in 1968, when the towers were constructed, archaeologists were called in only at the last minute. It wasn’t until the following year that the first real urban archaeology was done in New York.)

Built around 1720, the ship Geismar unearthed had been stripped of its fittings and deliberately sunk some thirty years later as landfill—a notuncommon practice in the eighteenth century. From the tracings of warmwater shipworms on the exterior of the hull, nautical archaeologists called in to help salvage the vessel were able to surmise that it had sailed a Caribbean route. The still-unidentified ship had gunports for six cannons, plus room for upwards of two hundred tons of cargo, and probably carried a crew of fifty.

It took nearly that many people, working eighteen feet below street level, four weeks to excavate and dismantle the hull. Because the timbers were subject to rapid decay once exposed to air, special precautions had to be taken to conserve them. And because the conservation process is such an expensive one—the wood must be chemically treated for several years to prevent it from drying out—it was decided to save only a twenty-foot section of the bow. (For the time being, the fragments of the bow are floating in a tank at the Soil Systems conservation laboratory in Groton, Massachusetts. The rest of the ship was carted off to Staten Island, where it will be used as twentieth-century landfill and, perhaps, give future archaeologists something to ponder.)

“This is the most spectacular find we’ve ever made,” says Patrick Garrow, chief archaeologist for Soil Systems and a veteran of more than three hundred projects. “It’s not every day you come across an eighteenth-century ship in almost pristine condition. ”

 
 
 
 
 

Garrow, a soft-spoken man with wispy hair and sunken eyes, is standing in front of a long, steel table in his company’s New York office a few hours before the topping-out ceremony. Spread out before him are some of the more than one million artifacts that came out of the ground at 175 Water Street. There is a delicate bowl of rare black basaltware made by Wedgwood in the second half of the eighteenth century; a mended creamware pitcher from the same period with the inscription “Happy the man whom no vain fears torment”; a pair of well-preserved leather shoes from the early 180Os, when the area was the center of boot manufacturing in the city (“Had the stitching not deteriorated,” Garrow remarks, “you could have worn them off the site”); a vial of Turlington s Balsam of Life dated 1754; and the seal from a nineteenth-century bottle of Château Lafite, long since consumed. Mostly there are boxes full of broken glass (130,000 pieces in all) and ceramic shards (nearly 90,000 of them), each marked with the provenience numbers that enable archaeologists to identify the exact location where they were found. “Everything ever made,” Garrow says, surveying the table, “seems to have ended up on this block.”

That New York’s economy was as diverse two hundred years ago as it is now, that its inhabitants had expensive tastes, and that they generated a lot of garbage, should come as no surprise. Indeed, it is doubtful that anything found at 175 Water Street will lead historians to dramatic new insights about urban life. But like a number of other digs that have been done in Manhattan in recent years—most notably at the site of the Stadt Huys, New York’s first city hall, where archaeologists unearthed artifacts dating back to the time of Peter Stuyvesant—this excavation can help document patterns of commerce and consumption in an urban environment. And better than musty record books, the objects in the ground can provide an immediate, tactile connection with the past.

It is this last aspect of urban archaeology—its capacity to capture the public imagination—that has helped make a citywide program in Alexandria, Virginia, so successful. A few weeks after visiting 175 Water Street, I spent a Saturday afternoon with Pamela Cressey, the director of Alexandria’s Urban Archaeology Program and a woman whose enthusiasm for her work seems to know no bounds. We met down by the waterfront, at the site of a new condominium development, where Cressey was supervising a crew excavating the remains of an eighteenth-century wharf. The wharf had been discovered by a construction foreman earlier in the week, and Cressey had gotten permission from the developer to explore the site over the weekend. Now, dressed in jeans, work boots, and a red down jacket, she is shouting words of encouragement like a cheerleader to the half-dozen workers sloshing around in calf-deep water, screening for artifacts in the mud. At the entrance to the site, a group of spectators, including several in Revolutionary War costumes who had wandered over from a passing parade, have gathered to watch the work in progress.