Buried Beneath the City: An archaeological history of New York


Archaeologists who work in New York City often get incredulous looks from people who ask about their careers: You work where? There’s archaeology in NYC? New York City is famous for many things, perhaps especially for an emphasis on the future, not the past. Almost no traces can be found above ground of its Indigenous history and very few reminders are left of the physical appearance of the Dutch and English colonial town and its people’s daily lives. Preserving the city’s past in visible form was never a priority for government officials or developers. This changed during the mid-1960s, after the original Classical Roman-style Pennsylvania Station was torn down. The outcry over the loss of this monumental building contributed to the passage of NYC’s Landmarks Law and the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which designates and preserves historic sites in the city. Archaeology became part of the preservation landscape after the passage of national and state laws during the 1960s and 1970s. When the city experienced a building boom during the late 1970s and 1980s, especially in Lower Manhattan, these and other local laws led to a corresponding archaeological excavation boom. Many sites were excavated as public archaeology projects – archaeological studies required by these laws, done for the benefit and education of the public. Public archaeology excavations in New York City, carried out mainly by archaeologists working for Cultural Resource Management firms, include the site of New Amsterdam’s 17th-century City Hall, the landfill that surrounds Lower Manhattan, the land where the World Trade Center stood, the African Burial Ground, and other remarkable places.

Before the NYC Archaeological Repository: The Nan A Rothschild Research Center was established, artefacts from sites excavated in the city had no permanent local home. Some artefact collections had gone to the New York State Museum in Albany, but a local place for curation and research did not exist. In 2014, the LPC established the Repository, which now has several hundred thousand artefacts from 32 sites and counting. Its mission is not only to curate these artefacts but also to make them available for study, both in person (by appointment) and virtually, to as wide an audience as possible. As part of this effort, the authors, three of whom work for the commission (the lead author is one of the founders of NYC urban archaeology), have written this book, a history of New York City, based on information from the sites whose archaeological assemblages are at the Repository.

The purpose of the book is to use archaeology, especially excavated artefacts, but also other data, to ‘help understand and illuminate the history of the city and its people’. To this end, the authors write about some unusual as well as some mundane artefacts. For example, in the chapter on the city’s Dutch beginnings, the authors use excavated artefacts – red and yellow bricks, red earthenware roof and floor tiles, and decorated tin-glazed wall tiles – along with a traveller’s account and an 18th-century drawing to create a picture of the early city. The book includes sidebars, too, that explain how analyses of artefacts, coupled with documentary research, can tell us about people’s daily lives: for instance, one illustrates how zooarchaeologists have used excavated bones to reconstruct 19th-century diets.

The book is well illustrated, well written, well indexed, and well referenced. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions. One minor issue is that the binding on the paperback edition tends to be very fragile, so it might be preferable to purchase the electronic edition or the hardcover.

Buried Beneath the City serves many functions. It can be used as a text in archaeology, history, or urban study classes (although the disparity between page numbers in the electronic and printed versions can be a problem in the classroom). Professional archaeologists can use it as an example of how to present the results of their studies to a wide audience, and anyone with an interest in New York City will find it both educational and entertaining.

Buried Beneath the City: An archaeological history of New York
By Nan A Rothschild et al.
Columbia University Press, £35 (pbk)
ISBN 978-0231194952