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Unearthing colonial New York: South Ferry project yields 65K artifacts

(Brian Driscoll)

The goat bones and oyster shells tell us what our colonial forefathers ate. Stone jugs from Germany show where they traded, and stylish brass buckles and pointy leather shoes are a reminder that New Yorkers have always been fashion savvy.

These are among 65,000 historic artifacts that have turned up during construction at the South Ferry subway station, and offer a rare glimpse into colonial New York. Next month, a new exhibit will provide the public with a window into this vanished way of life.

“This is probably the only time in our lifetime that this area will be dug up and studied,” said Carissa Amash, curator at the New York Transit Museum, which will showcase the artifacts discovered at South Ferry.

“We have history books. But the artifacts provide information about what was actually going on,” Diane Dallal, archaeology director for AKRF, a firm that analyzed the remnants.

The MTA must follow strict preservation law, and keeps archeologists on-call for when contractors encounter remains. Discovering materials sets off a chain of events that last for months, only wrapping up with a written history of the site and public preservations.

“There is more than a local interest. The archeologists are very excited about (the findings),” said Audrey Heffernan, the MTA’s chief environmental officer.

The MTA’s findings include:

South Ferry Subway
The 65,000 artifacts include two bombshells: well-preserved stretches of the stone Battery Wall that protected the island until 1790, and an early 18th-century dock made of logs and fill.

Archeologists also found uniform buttons, coins, war metals, 17th-century tobacco pipes and bright household ceramics, some originally from England, the Netherlands and China. The remains come from people of all classes, as the dirt was once part of the city dump, Dallal said.

“It’s a wonderful collection of objects,” she said.

The MTA is writing a history of the site that will be publicized in tours and a school curriculum. On March 18, the New York Transit Museum annex in Grand Central Terminal will open an exhibit of 100 artifacts.

Fulton Street Transit Center
The MTA recently discovered an 8-foot circular structure at John Street and Broadway. Testing is ongoing, but scholars suspect it was a brick household well. Garbage was often thrown into wells, and ceramic pottery and an old clay pipe were found in the brick-and-mortar structure.

East Side Access
As part of tunneling for the Long Island Rail Road, workers are digging at the Sunnyside Yards, an old marsh in Queens that is surrounded by six pre-historic sites. An ancient Native Americans village is believed to be located near the yards, as is a burial site.

Finding Remains:
- Upon encountering old remains, contractors immediately stop work. An archeologist examines the features within the earth.

- Researchers take samples, consult old maps and discuss its significance with the State Historic Preservation Office.

- If the materials are important, the MTA works around it. Archeologists use other artificats, tree-ring dating and material analysis to date and place the items.

- The remains are listed in the state Register of Historic places and officials select a location for a repository. The MTA develops an outreach campaign to publicize the story of the remains.


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