Part of the fascination with New York City lies in what is not usually encountered and most often missing from our cityscape. By this, I mean evidence of the contributions that New York’s fabulous women have made to the five boroughs. Over the centuries, women have accounted for roughly half of New York City’s population. But historical documents and histories of the city are invariably lacking in information about New York women. For that information, you need to go underground.
Enter Amanda Sutphin, an urban archaeologist working for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Sutphin might be called the city’s quintessential underground woman. She spends her days in the city’s underground, climate-controlled archaeological repository. Here, she works with with artifacts that often spent centuries underground before resurfacing in New York City during archaeological excavations.
When bulldozers dig the foundations of a new building, excavate a new subway tunnel or refurbish a ferry landing, they destroy the archaeological record of the city. Construction projects that take place on city land are required to complete an archaeological survey before the earth–and important evidence of the past–is disturbed. In this way, the destruction of the city’s past also turns up artifacts that once belonged to long gone of New Yorkers. Once these objects resurface on city land, ownership then transfers to the current generation of New Yorkers.
Artifacts that enter the city’s archaeological repository are used by Sutphin and her colleagues to reconstruct the past for the benefit of contemporary New Yorkers. “These object were found on public land,” explains Ms. Sutphin. “The collection has been catalogued and studied with public money. The public should benefit from these efforts, and we hope to help them do so.”
Asked to provide the earliest example of objects associated with fabulous New York women of the past, Ms. Sutphin points to the city’s prehistory and Native American culture. Archaeological sites from this early period are most associated with exploiting the land for seasonal food sources such as coastal spring fishing camps, fall open air hunting camps and shellfish collecting stations. Native American women in sites such as the one now at College Point, Queens, worked at collecting and processing food. Artifacts from this site include shells that were discarded after processing and a stone weight used to sink fishing nets.
“The archaeological record of urban New York actually begins in 17th century New Amsterdam,” explains Ms. Sutphin. The Stadt Huys or City Hall, a site in lower Manhattan located at today’s 85 Broad Street was the site of an archaeological excavation. The Stadt Huys was built by William Kieft, a lesser-known director of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam before Peter Stuyvesant and his peg leg arrived in town.
The site originally served as a place where officials and guests of the Director were lodged and fed. And drank. A lot.
The archaeological record of The Stadt Huys is rich in bottles and pitchers that held the liquor seemingly necessary for official business of the Dutch city. Locally-made pottery and imported glass bottles were found in abundance at the site.
In 1664, Dutch New Amsterdam became English New York. Artifacts from colonial era New York were discovered during an excavation over an 18th century “ice-box” room on the grounds of what is now the Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. The 18th century English custom of tea drinking was adopted by colonial New York ladies and was a feature of New York loyalist families (which was most of them.) The evidence of tea drinking squarely places the colony in the middle of the political crisis that loomed when that commodity was taxed by the British. And we all know what happened next….(though New York City remained staunchly loyal to the Crown.)
Tea was an expensive commodity, usually kept in a box that was kept locked by the lady of the house. And the accoutrements for serving tea were imported elite items including teapots, teaspoons, teacups and saucers.
Speaking about New York women of the 19th century, Ms. Sutphin pointed to three different bottles designed to hold manufactured goods. These artifacts signaled that like today, New York women of the past were responsible for the majority of purchases in the city’s households–thus a driving economic force in the city. A variety of 19th century bottles were excavated from root cellars in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx when it morphed from a private home to a public park.
At the southern tip of Manhattan, the renovation of the Battery Park subway tunnel yielded a mid-20th century toy belonging to a New York child. A play teacup made of Depression era glass was likely lost by a little girl playing in what was then a park.
“Assigning gender to artifacts is often difficult,” warns Ms. Sutphin. “But it is also true that the increasing presence of female archaeologists in New York City has meant that attention is often given to objects that can offer clues to the lives of past New York women.”
And the influence of New York women who work as archaeologists is overwhelmingly evident in the formation of the city’s archaeological archives. The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center of the New York City Archaeological Repository is named for the Barnard College archaeologist who trained Ms. Sutphin as an undergraduate student. Professor Rothschild persuaded her cousin, Helena Durst, to donate space in the basement of the Durst Organization building, located on Corporate Row on West 47th Street, to house the collection. Three fabulous New York women at work in the city!
The ghosts of New York women past are among us. They may be underground instead of featured in history books and archives, but they account for half of the actors in our city’s great history. And today’s New York women archaeologists are working to preserve their past, record their lives and tell the stories of their contributions to the city we know: the good, the bad, the fabulous.
The excavations or digs from which objects enter the collection of the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission are situated throughout the 5 boroughs. New York City is the first city in the nation to allow access to its archaeological records through a website. The website lets you browse current and past digs in several ways: using a map, through a list of excavations, or via thematic collections. The themed collections include: Food and Drink in Colonial New York, Historic Toys and Animals Among Us. This final collection includes some of the oldest objects in the archives, and helps us reconstruct the natural environment of New York and its abundant natural resources.
In an effort to bring education about archaeology into New York classrooms, lesson plans for teachers and fun quizzes for kids are also available. If you catch the bug for unearthing Gotham (or other places) and want to study archaeology, the web site offers a list of institutions in the city with formal programs as well as field schools–a way to literally get your hands dirty while learning about digging up the past.