Digging the City’s Past
Anne-Marie Cantwell (left) and Diana diZerega Wall (right)
About 11,000 years ago an excursion to the beach from New York City would have meant a hike of 80 miles. Extant remains of the shafts of outdoor privies from the 16th-19th centuries in the city are an important window into the city’s past. The diaspora of the Delaware people driven from their homeland by the influx of Europeans stretched as far as Kansas, Texas, and Canada. Readers learn this and much more in Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City, published last year by Yale University Press. Co-authored by anthropologists Diana diZerega Wall (City College of New York),right, and Anne-Marie Cantwell (Rutgers University), the volume is the first comprehensive overview of the
metropolis’s archaeological heritage. Adapted here is a part of the authors’ Conclusion to this extensively illustrated study, titled “Common Ground.”

Because of all its varied natural and cultural histories, New York City became a major American archaeological site as it spread for 325 miles over the traces of its earlier residents.

Scores of smaller sites—cemeteries, inland encampments, forts, ossuaries, warehouses, shellfishing communities, wharves, dog burials, battlefields, workshops, scuttled ships, taverns, plantations, cornfields, landfills, almshouses, suburban backyards, hunting grounds, and towns and villages—make up the larger site that is the city itself.

In spite of the breadth of this archaeological panorama, the tangible nature of the finds gives an immediacy to the daily lives, and even the thoughts and actions, of these early inhabitants. Through archaeology, we catch glimpses of a wide range of individuals: the first pioneers who abandoned some of their tools before moving on to their next campsite, 19th-century housewives choosing dishes for their family tables, an enslaved African marking a coffin with a traditional African design, and Munsee families (Munsees were the branch of the Lenape, or Delaware, people whose ancestral territory includes what is now the city) acquiring European domesticated animals, while neighboring European and African women began cooking Indian foods in traditional Dutch pots.

With equal intimacy, these material remains evoke countless ceremonies that gave meaning to the lives of those who once celebrated them on this common ground. There were smoking rituals that linked the inhabitants with the spiritual world, domestic rituals of family dinners and company teas, rites of health and death in which dogs played major roles, and, over and over again, the somber rituals of mourning, be they performed by relatives filling a six-year-old child’s grave with wealth, families gathering the bones of their long-dead relatives for reburial, or enslaved families burying their dead at night outside the city’s walls.

The study of an archaeological site like New York City is far from parochial. Because of the site’s great time depth, size, complex human and natural history, and impact on the world outside its borders, the archaeology of New York reaches well beyond local history to address more universal aspects of human experience.

The meanings embedded in these artifacts, features, and human burials shed new light on the development of capitalism and the global economy, the social constructions of community and landscape, and the development of sedentary and urban ways of life. These archaeological finds tell us of things we never knew, remind us of those we are proud to remember, and testify to those we prefer to forget.

In this chronicle of the ever-changing history of an American city, we have tried, as one anthropologist put it, “to speak the past into being, to summon it with words and give it dramatic form… by forging ancestral worlds in which others can participate and readily lose themselves.” New York’s archaeological discoveries, its ancestral worlds, have, we believe, significance for the modern world. They are literally formed into local pride, a sense of place, and even legend, all of which are important in today’s often rootless and restless world.

In appreciating these discoveries, some people may simply find themselves agreeing with Mr. Sammler, Saul Bellow’s protagonist, that “everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

For others, these ancestral worlds may take on added importance as they are recast into powerful symbols—as, for example, happened when Delaware Indian spiritual leaders from Oklahoma and Canada gathered at Ellis Island in 1987 for a blessing ceremony honoring the remains of their ancestors. Ellis Island is part of what was once Lenapehoking, the Delaware’s ancestral homeland.

The present is so deeply rooted in the past that, as many have argued, it can be difficult to know where you are, let alone where you are going, unless you first know where you have been. We believe that the archaeological record bears singular witness to where we all once were. The finds unearthed beneath the modern city reveal the many and diverse routes that earlier peoples followed, each path leading, in its own way, to the creation of the modern city that is New York.

In writing this narrative, we have tried to build strong connections between all those who shared the land in the past and those who have now inherited it. We believe that we are all, as Abraham Lincoln said, “heirs to a great estate.” For us, that great estate is the past, which belongs to everyone. It is truly common ground.

Yet the archaeological record, like the land itself, is inherited from previous generations and is only temporarily owned by us. It will soon belong to our descendants. As Willa Cather wrote in O Pioneers!, “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

And so, with the inheritance come responsibilities. We know from bitter experience just how fragile archaeological sites are and how easily they and all the information in them can be irrevocably lost. Sites that are destroyed are gone forever.

We hope that all the heirs will work together to protect and cherish the buried past so that it can be passed on to succeeding generations. They are the ones who will build on that collective heritage, redefine it, and take pride in it. We hope that it will give as much meaning and pleasure to their lives as it has to ours.
Contents October 2002

$7.5M State Grant Launches Incubator Network

Students Reaping Benefits of Technology Fee

Georgian Elegance, 21st-Century Technology Joined in Reborn Brooklyn College Library

Launching LaGuardia Students Toward Animal Planet

From ’60s Activist Ranks to Executive Suite

Digging the City’s Past

Poet Laureate Collins Takes his Cue on Evil

A WWII Mobilization in The Tale of The Ticker

Subversive Feminist Julia De Burgos Celebrated at Hostos

Italian "Enemy Alien" Experience in WWWII

Museum at Queens College Spans Six Centuries of Art

Celebrating Scholarly “Pleasures of the Mind”

Valued Vets Toasted at the Central Office

CUNY Responds to Powell’s Call for More Minority Diplomats

LaGuardia and Lehman Honored for Freshman Year Programs

Former Brooklyn College Philosopher Turns Philanthropist