In the 1930s, a carefully buried dog skeleton was discovered in College Point, Queens, its headless body interred over one thousand years ago. The attention to its grave by a precolonial resident in today’s New York City suggests its importance as a companion. Its bones, now part of the New York City Archaeological Repository of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), are among the reminders of the long narrative of diverse communities in the area, from before Henry Hudson journeyed to these shores, to the thriving 19th-century metropolis.
Until recently, these fragments uncovered during subway projects, park excavations, and skyscraper construction were scattered across the city in 14 different storage places, and even a bathroom in Van Cortlandt Park. In October, the Nan A. Rothschild Research Center opened below 114 West 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan as a secure, climate-controlled hub for the city’s archaeological collections. The underground room was donated by real estate developer the Durst Organization, with digitization and storage supported in part by data management company Iron Mountain. As the possession of objects is based on the ownership of land, all of these collections relate to public property.
“We can now look at the sites themselves as pieces of a bigger puzzle,” Amanda Sutphin, LPC director of archaeology, told Hyperallergic on a recent visit to the research center. The 1,439-square-foot space is packed with 1,700 boxes of artifacts from 31 locations, spanning 19th-century bones of the extinct passenger pigeon to a cast-iron cannon ball. Coinciding with the opening of the center, LPC launched an online archive of digitized material, created in collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York, which is exhibiting objects from the repository in its New York at Its Core exhibition. “The digital world is wonderful, and our intention is also to have a space open to scholars to do research,” Sutphin said.
The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center itself is not open to the public, so the online initiative offers an in-depth visual portal to the city’s rich past. Digital exhibitions highlight artifacts related to animals, food and drink, precolonial life, historic toys, health and beauty in the 19th century, and architecture, while an interactive map of archaeological sites and digitized archaeological reports provide data on excavations. You can also access quizzes to test your archaeological knowledge (can you tell a shroud pin from a turkey lacer?). According to LPC, New York is the first municipality to host a digital archive dedicated to its archaeological collections.
At the Nan A. Rothschild Research Center, Sutphin showed a series of objects from the repository that demonstrate the material culture of the city. A 17th-century wine bottle, unearthed at Stadt Huys in New Amsterdam, still gleamed with iridescent hues in its layered glass. Stadt Huys at today’s 85 Broad Street served as New York’s first city hall, and was in 1979 the city’s first major archaeological project, led by Nan A. Rothschild, for whom the repository is named.
Alongside the bottle, the mended sections of a 19th-century salt-glazed stoneware jar, revealed in excavations at the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx, were stamped with the maker’s mark of John Remmey. Other objects found at Van Cortlandt Park chronicle the changing ceramic trends of New York. A Cantonware tray exported from China is adorned with the distinct blue and white patterns that later inspired British transferware, such as a sky blue circular lid from the 19th century. “It’s a way of seeming cosmopolitan,” Sutphin explained of the ceramic’s popularity in the city.
The research center has a whole shelf filled with cardboard boxes labeled “bone bags.” Much of these contain cow bones, including those found at City Hall Park, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was the site of barracks, an almshouse, an orphanage, a work house, and an animal butchering facility. “Many of the things we now make from plastic would have been made from bone,” Sutphin said, pointing out a group of small plastic bags containing bone buttons. However, she added: “We do find rat bones of course, it’s New York City.” There are also a number of oyster and other shellfish remains in the repository, representing the legacy of the city’s harbor economy.
Among the more recent additions to the research center are objects from 7 Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan. “There’s this massive dump of this beautiful pottery,” Sutphin said, noting that there are numerous sherds of the same kind of painted pearlware from the late 18th century, suggesting someone’s precious shipment of ceramics arrived broken, or perhaps was deemed unsalable and disposed of.
Many of the items in the research center are, indeed, old trash, but retrieved from beneath the layers of our constantly developing metropolis, each preserves the memory of an individual New Yorker’s impression on the city’s huge history. And whether an 8,000-year-old hunter’s point, or a 19th-century bone lice comb, all are now accessible to researchers to study in their urban context.