City Lit: Digging Up Dirt

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My lone experience in urban archaeology came about five years ago, when I decided to carve out a garden in the decrepit backyard of my Brooklyn apartment building. The yield: batteries, crack vials, auto parts and an unending supply of glass fragments dating back to at least the epoch of Mayor Beame. Imagine, if you will, excavating the same haul six hundred or six thousand years hence and attempting to extrapolate broad cultural trends, development patterns, or the activities of daily life from such random artifacts.

The absurd challenge of such an endeavor is both the thrill and the frustration of the urban archaeology described in Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City by Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, both anthropology professors. In creating an account that’s part archaeology textbook, part general interest historical survey, Cantwell and Wall intrepidly take on 11,000 years of New York City history, drawing on a range of anecdotal material, artifacts, primary historical documents, and their own experiences leading excavations in Lower Manhattan.

For those unfamiliar with the profession, the book provides an interesting glimpse into the process of archaeology, describing such exotic practices as site test cuts and wet screening with fire hoses. It also succeeds in highlighting some compelling and unusual facets of New York’s material, social and economic legacy, including the hidden world of urban backyards, evidence of slave malnutrition and 17th-century wampum factories. The book fails, however, to enliven most of the larger historical topics it touches on, and tends toward simplistic theoretical conclusions driven by its authors’ empirical focus and broad humanistic aspirations.

Cantwell and Wall profess to be digging for no less than “a deeper understanding of the human predicament.” But Unearthing Gotham is at its best when its authors stick to the particulars of excavating in modern New York City. Not surprisingly, it is an undertaking fraught with obstacles, including development pressures, identity politics and random encounters with stray urinators. The first chapter details Wall’s work on the Stadt Huys Block Project, an excavation of the seventeenth century Dutch State House site and tavern. The site, excavated in 1979 and 1980 prior to the development of an office tower at 85 Broad Street, allows the authors to illustrate their process while commenting on the emergence of what they term “contract archaeology.” Spawned by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act and perpetuated by the City Environmental Quality Review process (which can be used to mandate site excavation when developers apply for zoning variances), this professional subspecies of archaeologists-for-hire expanded exponentially during the 1980s, when Lower Manhattan experienced a renewed building boom.

Much like the tumultuous excavation of the African Burial Ground a few years later, the Stadt Huys demonstrated the contract archaeologist’s peculiar predicament. Funded by reluctant developers, contract archaeologists work under immense financial and scheduling pressures, face random thefts by looters and hostility from construction crews, and must grapple with a plethora of regulatory and political issues that often overshadow historical inquiry or scientific methodology. At the African Burial Ground, the impatience of the federal government, which owned the site, was the least of the diggers’ challenges; their excavation of slave skeletons for analytical purposes struck many New Yorkers as an act of hubris more egregious than the usual atrocities perpetrated by developers. The portrayal of this kind of distinctive urban conundrum, combined with the unlikely juxtaposition of privy pits and skyscrapers, makes these chapters compelling reading.

The remainder of the book, sadly, lacks this frisson. An extensive discussion of the Archaic, Transitional and Woodland Periods–stretching from about 11,000 years ago to the seventeenth century–lapses rapidly into textbook mode, bogged down by meticulous charts of notched spearheads and extensive discussions of pottery sherds (another name for shards, apparently). Primarily excavated by avocational archaeologists, about whom Wall and Cantwell express mixed emotions, these artifacts provide blunt hints about a distant history largely beyond anyone’s grasp. Although many of these amateur diggers seem like people you’d want to meet–William Calver, for example, was an early IRT engineer who unearthed ancient dog bones in his spare time–the presentation here fails to bring them, or their discoveries, to life.

Wall and Cantwell become more energetic once Europeans arrive on the scene, making fateful early encounters with Munsee tribes. A discussion of Dutch Governor Willem Kieft’s brutal tenure, devastating smallpox outbreaks among the Munsees, the introduction of a “global economy” based on furs and wampum, and the English occupation of New Amsterdam all draw heavily from period illustrations, maps, and historical records, adding welcome context to the parade of bones, rocks, and beads.

By the time we arrive at the 18th and 19th centuries, in fact, the authors occasionally leave out digging altogether. In one of the more interesting asides, the authors describe a project undertaken by their colleague Nan Rothschild to map the city’s shifting ethnic and economic enclaves in 1703 and 1789, using tax records, census returns, directories and social registers as source material. Here as elsewhere their description would have benefited from more illustrative graphics and more daring analysis–their conclusion that ethnic enclaves are dispersed by economic success is frustratingly timid–but the subject matter is fascinating nonetheless.

Elsewhere Cantwell and Wall broach similarly remarkable subjects, including early bulkhead and pier construction methods, brothel artifacts from Five Points and the history of backyard cisterns. In lieu of profound new insight, New Yorkers will find resonances with their own experiences of history embedded in the everyday–reminders of just how unfamiliar one’s own home turf can be once you get below the surface. There are quite possibly people buried beneath the street you walk home on every night. Right beside them lie artifacts that provide connective ligaments to modern life but remain inherently removed from it. It suggests the condition most New Yorkers experience: surrounded by history but basically oblivious to it.

Had Cantwell and Wall chosen a tighter focus–for instance, limiting their geographic scope to Lower Manhattan–they would likely have written a more coherent and compelling book. As a vast and sometimes superficial survey, the work often feels like the authors are desperately trying to cram everything in, leaving too little time for reflection, analysis and context. This becomes painfully obvious when the authors attempt to summarize perhaps 10 outer-borough sites in about as many pages. Still, for those with a taste for material culture and an interest in New York’s development, Unearthing Gotham provides a good baseline and the occasional delight.

Paul Parkhill is an urban planner and community development consultant. He is cofounder of Place in History, a public art and urban history nonprofit.