Archaeological Repository Showcases New York City’s Rich History


Esquire Expand-o socks box and various shards

It’s hard to imagine New York without its noisy cabs, towering skyscrapers, and selfie-snapping tourists. But thousands of years before the city was paved over with concrete, vibrant communities were living on the land. Archaeological discoveries can sharpen the details of these people’s lives: A 1000-year-old dog grave, for instance, shows us that some pre-Columbian communities revered their pets, while fish bones from the 17th and 18th centuries trace inhabitants’ evolving diets. These are a few examples of the artifacts housed in the Nan A. Rothschild Research Center, an archaeological repository containing hundreds of thousands of New York City artifacts uncovered from all five boroughs.

On the morning of Wednesday, October 5, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission dedicated the repository, which is now open by appointment to scholars and researchers for the first time since it launched in 2014. Located beneath an office building in midtown Manhattan, the repository contains over 1500 boxes of artifacts spanning 8000 years of New York City history. Some items are ancient, like a spearhead used by a hunter during the Stone Age. Other artifacts, like the bones of a 19th-century carrier pigeon and an 18th-century sugar-refining tool that still smells of molasses, offer insights into a more recent time in history.

Amanda Sutphin, director of archaeology for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, identifies a green toy teacup (seen below) as one of her favorite items from the collection. “Just thinking of a child who played with it before we were born, you can get that sense of the past,” she told mental_floss.

Before relocating to the center, the objects had been scattered in different places throughout the city. “They had been kept in different conditions, so some of them were in fine condition and others were not,” Sutphin said. “We had to re-box things. Some had been gnawed by rats, some were moldy.” The collection’s current home is climate-controlled and organized in a way that makes it easy for visitors to access.

The dedication also celebrated the release of a new companion website to the physical space, where students, teachers, and the general public can browse through the hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the city’s collection. The landmarks preservation commission says this digital archive is the first of its kind built around the archaeological findings of a single municipality.

Despite the impressive size of the inventory, it still doesn’t account for every artifact that’s been dug up within city limits. “The problem is deciding what to keep,” Nan A. Rothschild, the Barnard anthropology professor the new research center is named for, said at the launch. “It’s hard to know what might be significant.” The project is still a work in progress, so that’s a question the archaeologists will continue to grapple with as new objects are added to the collection. You can see some highlights from the collection below.

Bones from dog burial

Atlantic drill whelk shell and assorted other shells

Glass toy teacup, likely early 20th century

Wood, shell, and stone fragments

Stemmed projectile point

Small fragments of pottery

Box from "Conida's Bon-Ton Candy Shoppes," along with an assortment of pottery shards, stones, and bones

10-inch plate, circa 1780–1830

All images courtesy of NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
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