Unearthed: Alyssa Loorya on Urban Archaeology

Archaeology may conjure up images of ancient ruins, unearthed skeletons, or elusive treasures. But large-scale digs that excavate foundations of buried cities are a small fraction of archaeological projects. In the US, a suite of laws intended to preserve historical resources requires archaeological appraisal of any construction project receiving government funds. This regular site evaluation fuels an industry of monitoring and excavation that often goes unnoticed in the development cycle — unless diggers come upon something big — and unearths relics of our past both large and small, from old water system infrastructure to buttons from the Revolutionary War.

Alyssa Loorya leads Chrysalis Archaeology, a firm at the forefront of uncovering the remnants of history in the New York metro area. Amidst rapid change and constant redevelopment, Loorya’s work is a testament to how much remains under our feet or tucked beneath the floorboards. And while her team’s finds are interesting in their own right, she further argues for their value to the public and the developers that sometimes consider historic preservation to be at odds with their new plans. Here, Loorya takes on the supposed tension between preservation and development, shares the particularities of urban archaeology, and tells the fascinating stories of some of her favorite sites and finds.

– J.T. 

Detail of a plate commemorating George Washington’s death on December 14, 1799. The plate, found on Beekman Street in the South Street Seaport, displays several details that highlight the new American identity and its iconography, including Liberty holding a laurel branch and carrying a shield bearing the stars and stripes, with 16 stars to represent the 16 states at that time. | Click the image to view the full plate.

Plate commemorating George Washington’s death on December 14, 1799 found on Beekman Street in the South Street Seaport. The creamware overglaze black transfer print plate was made by Herculaneum Pottery of Liverpool circa 1800.

Jonathan Tarleton: What do you do?
Alyssa Loorya: I’m president and principal investigator of Chrysalis Archaeology, a small cultural resources management firm. Any development project that uses city, state, or federal funding is subject to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires consideration of the impact the project will have on extant (or buried) cultural resources in addition to more traditional architectural ones. We provide the archaeological, below ground aspect of that analysis. Our work is almost exclusively based on these regulatory requirements. Apparently nobody wants to pay for archaeology unless they absolutely have to.

Section 106 is the grandfather of various other regulations that come into play: the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the City Environmental Quality Review Act, landmarks laws, and more.

Who are your clients?
City agencies are our ultimate client, usually as part of a team on infrastructure capital projects. Currently we’re working with the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the Parks Department, and the State Department of Transportation. In New Jersey, one of our main clients is in the midst of wetland mitigation projects associated with the expansion of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. It all comes back to construction.

Alyssa Loorya and Chris Ricciardi on Fulton Street

How does working in an urban environment foster a different kind of archaeological practice than the stereotypical conception of archaeology?
The notion that most people have of archaeology is a small percentage of what’s actually done and what it actually looks like. In the US most excavations happen through construction projects and cultural resource management. The methodology is the same, but you’re not afforded the time of academic archaeology, where you specifically choose a research question, select a site, and hopefully get permission to excavate it. And we do a lot of research, but it’s not happening in the halls of academia. I’ve only been able to pursue particular research interests and excavate certain sites because I was doing cultural resource management in the context of construction. As an academic, I wouldn’t have been able to access them. For example, I couldn’t just rip up city streets.

Despite the massive amount of building and development in the city, there are still significant pockets of the past remaining beneath our streets. Because New York has always been build it / tear it down / build it over again, we don’t have successive layers where everything gets higher and higher with each occupation like you often find in old world archaeology. The infrastructure of New York City — everything going on beneath the city streets to keep things running — is so massive. The fact that so much remains intact is fascinating unto itself, and if you just look a little bit past the development, there are so many pieces of the past woven into our modern environment.

A pair of Teddy Roosevelt-style eyeglasses recovered at the Bowne House in Flushing, Queens. These glasses likely belonged to Robert Parsons, who ran a famed plant nursery that supplied Central Park with trees.

How does your research fit into contract work?
We often find things that warrant further analysis and include an interpretive analysis of finds in the reports that we write. That could always be taken further with more time, but that’s true of any research — there’s always something more to learn. Budgets don’t always allow us to continue researching, so we do a lot of that on our own time based on our own interests. My particular focus is on the development of Lower Manhattan and the rural to urban transformation in Brooklyn. My dissertation, when I finish it, will ultimately cover the formation of City Hall and how the property was used in the 18th century.

Artifacts from Fulton Street in the South Street Seaport

Do your finds make it into the public realm? What happens to the artifacts; who owns them?
The property owner owns anything that we find. If it’s a City project on City-owned land, the agency that has undertaken the capital improvement project is responsible for the objects. Recently, New York City acquired space for an archaeological repository to house City-owned collections, but it is in its infant stages. I’m not sure if they have any further plans in terms of public access, but the repository will be open to researchers.

Public outreach is something that we try to do in all our projects; it’s important to share what we’re doing. We’ve been working with DDC in South Street Seaport over the past few years. They’re putting together an exhibit about the wooden water mains that we found. Along with an assistant commissioner, we also put together a public education program for schools on engineering, archaeology, and the city’s water system. We sometimes brought students to the construction site, and we share a lot through social media. When scheduling permits we give talks — I gave one at the Tenement Museum, and we served bitters that we brewed from a Hostetter’s recipe after finding a bottle on site. People thought they were really good. Maybe we should get a little cottage industry going.

Students check out artifacts found in the South Street Seaport

Before the eventual bitters brewing, what does the whole process of working with a client look like?
When a construction project falls under the relevant regulations, the agency or entity involved has to determine the archaeological sensitivity of the site. The regulatory authority will often request that they do a Phase 1A documentary study to make that assessment, in which we research the general history of the project area through historic maps and other documents and look at its development history for any major events that could have eradicated the archaeological record. Probably the biggest change over the years is the availability of online map resources, especially with the high resolution scans now available from New York Public Library, Library of Congress, and David Rumsey’s website.

If we determine that the area is highly sensitive and that development will likely impact cultural resources, archaeology is called for, which can take the form of monitoring or excavation. Monitoring means we’re continuously on a construction site. If digging on the site uncovers or starts to impact historic archaeological resources, we might temporarily stop the digging to make an assessment, document, and/or recover as necessary. Other times we do a test excavation prior to the project. Whether we are monitoring or excavating, we then analyze and document any material remains that might be found.

Chrysalis Archaeology’s Lisa Geiger digging under Fulton Street

Tell me about the Seaport work you mentioned.
In the Seaport, the DDC was putting in new water mains as part of a larger infrastructural upgrade to the aging water system, which includes the construction of City Water Tunnel #3. We’re doing the work because of the new water service, and we found information on land-filling devices — how they built the land — and the whole history of water service in New York City, from water wells to the wooden water mains that made up the city’s first system. We were able to put together a hypothetical map of how the Manhattan Water Company had laid out its pipes and sketch out how the main connected to houses.

Wooden water main discovered in the South Street Seaport | Click the image to see a hypothetical map of the Manhattan Water Company’s system based on finds like this.

Hypothetical map of the Manhattan Water system based on wood water mains found in the South Street Seaport

Hypothetical map of the Manhattan Water Company’s system based on wooden water mains found in the South Street Seaport

We also found a series of 18th century buildings right where Fulton and Pearl Streets meet. Up until 1815, there had been a solid line of buildings there; Fulton was not a through street. We also found a large trash deposit at the original shoreline. There were a lot of shoes and alcohol bottles, some interesting pottery, and even regimental buttons from British troops that marched in the Battle of Brooklyn. We found approximately 50,000 artifacts and over 100 features, like wells and building foundations, during the project. When the report is finished, it will probably be several thousand pages long.

British Revolutionary War buttons belonging to regiments that fought in the Battle of Brooklyn, including the 45th Regiment from Nottingham, also known as the Sherwood Foresters. The buttons were found during an excavation in the South Street Seaport.

What are some of your other favorite projects and finds?
City Hall, hands down, is one of my favorite sites. I first came to it as a graduate student running the lab at Brooklyn College and then was able to excavate there with Chrysalis. If you go to City Hall Park, you see an urban park with tourists and government offices. But I see a large, complex archaeological site that once housed thousands of poor people, prisoners, and British soldiers over a long history of continuous, shifting public uses.

The Hendrick I. Lott House is another favorite. It’s an old farmhouse near where I grew up in Marine Park, so I’ve always known it. When you think of New York City, it’s hard to imagine that there were still farms and cows in Brooklyn in 1925. As a graduate student I was able to work on the house and got involved with its preservation — helping to lobby the City to purchase it and to make it part of the Historic House Trust. It was a great experience to give something back to the local community by sharing a sense of the people that lived there and what life was like by recovering some of the objects that they actually used.

Excavations at the Lott House

Our work there uncovered the first evidence of slaves in an active setting, as opposed to a burial or funerary setting, in New York City. In an attic space that had been closed off for over a century, we found items deliberately hidden beneath the floor boards right by the door: a pouch tied with hemp string, a pelvis of a sheep or a goat, an oyster shell, and corncobs placed in the form of an “X” or a cross, a documented West African cosmological symbol. One of the corncobs had been broken in half — two broken lines — and the other was solid — the horizontal line — representing the division between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Corncobs arranged in a cross found beneath the attic floorboards at the Lott House

We were also able to piece together the history of the Lott family as one of the largest slave-owning families in the area. But then there’s a shift when the son inherits everything, and he frees all the slaves but one — an elderly woman — by 1805, 22 years before slavery was outlawed in the state. Why she’s the only one to remain a slave is anybody’s guess. Down the road during the Civil War, the house became a stop on the Underground Railroad. It all kind of comes full circle. I still sit on the board, and we’re finally moving forward on an interior restoration of the house. It’s a testament to limited funding and how long of a process preserving a historic structure in New York City is.

I have been exceptionally fortunate to work on the three sites that I always really wanted to do — the Seaport, City Hall, and the Lott House. I also think it would be really fun to do archaeology at the World’s Fair site or a little amusement park archaeology down in Coney Island. We’re currently working at Pelham Bay Park for the Parks Department. We are on the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement project and working out at Floyd Bennett Field. And we’re still finishing up at the High Bridge. We were able to go into the attic space at the site and the original Croton Aqueduct pipe was still there!

Chrysalis Archaeology inside the High Bridge

As someone who’s very interested in history and preservation, how does the preservation versus development debate play out in your work, especially given your primary work on construction projects?
I think there’s a preconceived notion that if something historic is found in the process of construction, it’s going to stop everything. I hear over and over again about how the discovery of the African Burial Ground or the ship on Water Street shut projects down for months, but that’s only two instances in 40 years. The reality is if you have a good communication line and plans in place for mitigation, documentation, and preservation of the resource, it’s not going to drastically impact your schedule or your development. That goes for any scenario, right down to uncovering a burial ground. I’m a worst-case scenario planner in terms of what you could find or end up with. At this point in New York City, you absolutely never know what you’re going to find beneath the city streets. Places where you shouldn’t find anything you will find something, and places where you expect to find something you will find nothing.

Bottle for an Elixir of Long Life found on the site of a future hotel at 50 Bowery in Manhattan

I often feel that archaeology needs a good PR firm, because people fear it more than they do the preservation of buildings and the built environment. The public is also genuinely interested in these things, so instead of archaeology ruining your budget — which it won’t — finds can be a great resource for positive press. Take ownership and share the information instead of being afraid of it. Incorporating history into developments presents a wonderful opportunity for developers to create something unique. The best example I know of that is from Quebec City, where a hotel developer hit upon a major discovery — an intact merchant’s house with docks and everything. Instead of viewing it as an impediment to development, he reclaimed the dock to make the front desk and beams to create the restaurant. Artifacts are used as decoration. It’s become an actual selling point for the hotel.

People come to New York for its character, and archaeology can actually provide a piece of the city’s character that you can bring into a development.

A tankard found in a household deposit that belonged to the Robert Crommelin estate near present day Pearl and Beekman Streets in the South Street Seaport

Given that your work is so intimately involved with regulation, do you think that framework is doing its job?
That’s the biggest loaded question to ask anyone involved in preservation! How many buildings don’t get landmarked that should be landmarked? I’m a firm believer that there are many. You can increase that number for the archaeological sites that have not been reported, saved, excavated, or adequately researched.

How would you compare architectural and archaeological preservation?
At this point I have trouble separating aboveground and belowground resources — buildings versus artifacts — because I see them as integrated. Archaeology and traditional historic preservation are mutually beneficial in telling the larger story of our built environment; they communicate the character of who we’ve been and how we got to today on different levels. I was working at Van Cortlandt Park, where we uncovered some pottery similar to pieces in the local historic house collection. The pieces had probably broken, and the family threw them out. These objects help to create almost real-life snapshots, except they happened 200 years ago. You can look at archaeologists as storytellers working from remnants of the past.

And one thing I’ll say about all the archeologists I know, even the curmudgeonly ones that have been doing this for years: we still get excited like little kids when we find something really cool. It’s always, “Oh no, let me dig it.”

Chrysalis Archaeology’s Eileen Kao and Alex Agran sift for artifacts in the South Street Seaport

Alyssa Loorya is a New York City-based archaeologist and preservationist. She is co-founder and President of Chrysalis Archaeology and serves as an advisory board member for several preservation organizations, including the Hendrick I. Lott House and the Historic Districts Council. Alyssa is a strong proponent of sharing research with the public and making archaeology and history relevant to local communities.

All images courtesy of Chrysalis Archaeology.

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