Most New Yorkers know Central Park as a place for recreation and relaxation, its green expanses providing respite from a bustling city.

Experts with the Seneca Village Project see it as home to a long-gone settlement of outsiders, its secluded stretches providing refuge from persecution in 19th century New York.

"It's really so intriguing that right in Central Park, there's evidence of a community that nobody knew about," said Nan Rothschild, director of museum studies at Columbia University. "It was significant to its residents and then it disappeared."

Rothschild, City College of New York anthropology professor Diana diZerega Wall and New York University adjunct education professor and public historian Cynthia R. Copeland unearthed some of that evidence in an eight-week dig in the park near West Drive and 85th Street. The excavation ended July 29.

Now, the three co-directors of the Seneca Village Project and their 10 college interns tackle a new stage of research: washing, documenting and analyzing about 250 bags worth of artifacts they collected.

The lab work is the latest in Rothschild, Wall and Copeland's 13-year effort to map the lost history of Seneca Village, a self-sustaining community of free African-American property owners founded in 1825 before Central Park's inception. Irish- and German-immigrant landowners later joined the settlement, making it a mixed-race community, unique for the time.

At its peak, the village had a population of about 300, three churches and a school. It stretched from 82nd to 89th streets and Seventh to Eighth avenues.

It was razed in 1857 to make way for park construction, and experts said the story of Seneca Village went unacknowledged by the public for more than a century until a book about Central Park's history brought it to light in 1992.

"It's so important to continue to tell stories that are hidden in plain sight," said Copeland, co-curator of a 1997 exhibit about Seneca Village at the New-York Historical Society.

Of the summer excavation, she said: "We were thrilled to find the corners of a house and other architectural elements that lent a greater sense of understanding of how these truly dynamic and pioneering people lived."

The physical evidence, matched to archival research, showed the house belonged to the family of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton at All Angels' Church.

Among other finds: a shoe with a leather sole that likely belonged to a child or small woman, a bone handle from a toothbrush, and a badly corroded roasting pan and tea kettle.

Some artifacts will be on display Aug. 24 at an "open house" at the village site just inside Central Park at 85th Street.

The Seneca Village project "is a nice way to tie in what came before the park with its present and its future," said Dena Libner, spokeswoman for Central Park Conservancy, which approved the summer dig.

"Seneca Village isn't one of New York City's finest stories," Copeland said, "but it's becoming one."

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