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Through the Gates: Hands-On History

During summer break, arriving at work by 7 a.m. sounds less than thrilling, but for Barnard anthropology majors Julianne Maeda ’12 and Madeline Landry ’13, the early hour was worth it. For eight weeks, they participated in an archaeological project 10 years in the making in New York City’s Central Park—the excavation of portions of Seneca Village. The African-American and immigrant community was displaced in the 1850s when the park was created. Spearheaded by Nan Rothschild, professor of anthropology, and her colleagues Cynthia Copeland (New York University) and Diana diZerega Wall (CUNY), the project employed student interns with no archaeological field experience. “We are interested not just in excavation but in education,” says Rothschild, stressing the importance of students learning the process of archaeology as a scientific endeavor. Interns from several colleges representing disciplines as diverse as biology and history also participated.

Barnard recently added an archaeology concentration to its anthropology program, and a fieldwork component is compulsory. However, students Maeda and Landry were motivated by more than meeting a requirement. Both enjoy urban archaeology, and emphasized the fact that the dig was about focusing on the lives of everyday people. Maeda became interested in archaeology after taking introductory courses. “You get to work outside, with other people,” she says. Landry caught the archaeology bug while attending a forum held by the Philadelphia Archaeology Society, and decided to pursue a course of study at Barnard. “I stumbled upon the Seneca Village project, and it all fell into place,” she adds.

Approximately 1,600 people were evicted when Central Park was created. Seneca Village was a recognized community in the area. “They had a school and three churches,” explains Rothschild. The origins of the village’s name are uncertain, but it may have been named after the Roman philosopher Seneca because of his views on slavery, as Seneca Village was home to some abolitionists. During the park’s development, the village was portrayed as a shanty-town, ripe for razing. As scholars discovered, there were maps, census and tax records, among other documents, proving otherwise. African Americans and other immigrant groups lived there and owned property. “We’ve used the project to shed light on major misconceptions that people had about this community one very specific idea of this community and now we can go back and bring dignity to the people [of Seneca Village],” said Maeda.

After one week in the classroom, students set out into the field. A typical day began with everyone meeting in Central Park to pick up equipment and transport it to the site. Students worked in groups of two to four, digging layer by layer in 1-meter squares until they hit bedrock or sterile soil, a layer that contains no human artifacts. “It’s a slow process but really fun,” said Maeda. Everything was recorded on a sheet and sketches were made. “For every stratum, you have a collection of artifacts and a sheet where you log everything. You draw an aerial view and a profile view of the four walls and every little rock and root—it’s very exacting,” remarks Landry.

Eight weeks of fieldwork yielded more than 200 bags of artifacts. Among the items found were metal sheeting that may be roofing and nails from village homes. A leather shoe was uncovered, as well as coins. Shards of plates can be dated by the patterns on them. Artifacts are being examined at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia, and CUNY, among other places. Although discovering material evidence is always exciting, Maeda reminds that it is not all about artifacts, “It’s a lot more than what you find in the ground. There’s a lot you can learn from pollen samples, ground surfaces—more than [you might from] ‘nice pots.’” Cattle, sheep, and goat bones were also found, indicating that villagers were raising, using, or consuming animals typical of a period middle-class community.

The Seneca Village dig faced the challenges of any urban archaeological project in a major public space. For safety and security purposes, the park required the interns to line each unit with plastic sheeting every Friday and to fill in the holes, which they had to dig out again on Monday. They also had to be careful about telling passers-by what they were doing. As Landry explains, “People always had questions but it was tricky because we wanted to engage the public but also did not want it to catch on. If we had been overrun with publicity we wouldn’t have been able to work effectively.” The team also worried about looting or disturbance of the site. Says Landry, “When anyone came up to us, our tag line was ‘We’re doing a project on the history of the park before it was a park.’” Still, everyone felt it was worthwhile and exciting to share the project with the people of New York City (an open house was held for visitors in August). Outreach within schools has taken place. Rothschild and her colleagues want to see Seneca Village brought into the College’s curriculum and into classrooms in schools, colleges, and beyond.

The site is now closed, spaces have been filled and grass has been planted. There are no plans to dig in the near future, but there is enough excavated material on which to focus. The fieldwork is done, but the lab work is getting started, according to Rothschild. As students, Maeda and Landry look back on the dig as a unique opportunity to gain insight into archaeology through a hands-on approach. “There’s no way to know what you’re going to find until you actually do it. You can’t prepare yourself for it in the classroom,” said Maeda. Landry agreed, “It’s so tactile, so physical and something you really have to learn by doing.”

-Stephanie Shestakow ’98