While individuals have always played a part in discovering and protecting remains of the past, organizations can be more effective. The founding of PANYC crystallized in 1979 after plans were announced by a developer, Galbreath Ruffin, to construct a new headquarters at 85 Broad Street for Goldman Sachs, on the block where the Stadt Huys, New Amsterdam's first town hall, was once located.
Photograph by Barbara Cohen - Courtesy of William Duncan Strong Museum, Columbia University  
Archaeologists from the New York City area formed PANYC as an activist organization and joined forces with members of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to use the site as a test case to see if important archaeological finds could survive intact beneath the most heavily urbanized city in the world. The surprising discovery of highly significant remains, including structural foundations and other features, and more than two tons of artifacts, dating as far back as the earliest European settlement in the 1600s, showed that there were, in fact, significant archaeological remains preserved in even the most intensely developed portions of the City.

Following the success of this excavation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission worked to enforce regulations that form part of the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process. These regulations have enabled urban archaeologists to excavate more than a dozen major sites in the City’s boroughs since 1979. Projects can also be undertaken based on local, city, state, and federal laws. One of the most widely reported sites within New York was the African Burial Ground. Other notable sites that PANYC has helped to preserve include the remains of an early 19th-century fort on Ellis Island and a 19th-century Brooklyn residentual area, the Atlantic Terminal Site.


              Photograph by Barbara Cohen - Courtesy of William Duncan Strong Museum, Columbia University Museum of the City of New York, J. Clarence Davies Collection

Documentary research indicated that the site of the proposed Goldman Sachs building was, in fact, the location of the Stadt Huys and other 17th-century buildings. The excavations in 1979 and 1980 explored a major portion of the block located in the heart of lower Manhattan. The archaeological exca vations of the Stadt Huys Block uncovered structural foundations of the 17th century Lovelace Tavern as well as other structures dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. 

A number of backyard features, such as the one pictured to the right,  were excavated at the site. These features, often used for refuse disposal   after they were no longer  utilized for their original purpose, are a major source of artifacts found by archaeologists on historic period sites.



In 1991, archaeologists uncovered what may be the most important archaeological find in New York City, the African Burial Ground, on a block where the federal General Services Administration was planning a new office tower and pavillion.

Photograph by Dennis Seckler, courtesy of General Services AdministrationAt the time of its discovery, this was the largest and one of the earliest known burial grounds for people of African descent in the United States. Word of the important find spread quickly, and generated excitement and interest among New Yorkers. As excavations proceeded, many people expressed concern that the work be conducted with sensitivity. State Senator David Paterson formed a committee to oversee the project and invited PANYC to participate and to provide guidance on scientific issues. PANYC worked in cooperation with Senator Paterson’s committee and members of the African-American community to ensure that the burial ground was excavated according to modern professional standards. As excavation proceeded and members of the community grew increasingly concerned that additional burials would have to be removed, PANYC supported efforts to stop the work and protect the site, efforts that proved successful in July 1992.       

Photograph by Dennis Seckler, courtesy of General Services Administration

Finds from the site, currently under analysis, are offering valuable new information about the lives and customs of Africans in 18th-century New York. Half of the buried population was children, indicating that child mortality was high, and robust bones and muscle attachments in the adult population reflect work stress. Commercially produced coffins, made of cedar, pine, and spruce with distinctive hardware, were found at the African Burial Ground. The presence of beads associated with one of the women buried in the cemetery may provide us with the only proof that personal possessions might possibly have been brought to this country by enslaved Africans.



   Photograph by Joan Geismar, 1994                    

Ellis Island's northern shore was once defined by the massive stone walls of early 19th-century Fort Gibson, but landfill that enlarged the island now engulfs the fort's perimeter wall. According to an early 19th-century plan, the walls of the fort were stone and the buildings probably brick. An expansion of an earlier fortification, the stone retaining walls surrounded the island by 1813, the year before the fort received its name. When archaeological excavation exposed the walls in 1992 , National Park Service representatives responded to PANYC's entreaty to leave them uncovered to illustrate how landfill had changed the shape and size of the island, expanding it from 6 to 27 acres. A section of the fort's foundation is now permanently exposed and interpreted by a walk-around exhibit.



   Photograph by Robert Fitts - Courtesy of Hudson Companies                                                                           

PANYC's 1995 intervention ensured that the mid-19th-century archaeological deposits in the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA), located in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, were investigated prior to the construction of the project area. Although initially believed to contain no significant archaeological remains, PANYC was alerted that looters had discovered intact cisterns and privies dating to the Civil War. Armed with evidence of the site's archaeological potential, PANYC successfully persuaded the City to reevaluate its importance. Subsequently, full-scale excavation of seven features (cisterns and privies) was conducted.

Although New York's 19th-century history is a relatively well documented period, material culture from the period often adds details of life that aren't described in documents. Refuse from the former back yards of the Bates, Atwater, Elmendorf, McGuire, and Goff families provided important information about middle-class life in one of America's early suburbs. Artifacts recovered from the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area show how these households created a distinctive middle-class lifestyle.


Early History of NYC Archaeology
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