A chamber pot in process of being excavated
Around 1800, Fulton, Pearl, and Water Streets (then called Queen Street) were at the heart of New York’s real estate development. The once-hilly area was gradually being leveled to extend the shoreline into the East River, and old family farms and estates were being replaced with a new street system -- including the extension of Fulton Street to connect to a new passenger ferry to Brooklyn.
Click here to view a presentation about the Fulton Street artifacts recently discovered.
As a result of those significant landscape changes, archaeologist Alyssa Loorya and team today have hit pay dirt, literally. Loorya’s Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants are now piecing together hundreds of artifacts that date back more than two centuries, in collaboration with the city Department of Design and Construction (DDC), whose crews have been rebuilding Fulton Street and other Seaport-area roadways for several years.
Among them are pieces of ceramics made both locally and imported from as far away as China -- signifying the wealth that resided in Lower Manhattan during that era’s commercial boom. Smaller treasures include a bone toothbrush whose horsehair bristles have long since decomposed, and an 1806 Liberty half-penny, made of a copper alloy. Also uncovered nearly intact was a clay water jug bearing the seal “Facinger Min Wasser”-- not an uncommon artifact for an affluent community that imported their drinking water from Germany for its alleged healing minerals.
Water, it seems, is the recurring theme in Lower Manhattan’s heritage. After all, water-main replacement was the driving factor for the city’s extensive infrastructure rebuilding effort. That work continues to replace cast-iron water mains that date back well over a century. During excavation, several Yellow Pine–wood water mains were uncovered, some sitting just two feet below the 1800-era street level. That shallow depth allowed the day’s firefighters to tap them in case of emergency, the origin of the term “fire plug.”
Loorya and her team also were there when DDC excavators uncovered remnants of two 17th-century wells outside 40 Fulton Street.
“The reason we’re here and finding all these artifacts is because of water,” says Loorya, referring to the DDC’s water-main replacement work. And in her work, she has come to see plainly the cyclical nature of our world.
“There are so many ways to look back for ideas of how to solve today’s environmental problems,” says Loorya. “Today people are returning to local, sustainable ways of life. They’re going back to things like seasonal eating, making their own canning and preserves, growing their own food, and composting. They want to live more simply, using nature as a guide. That’s how people lived in Lower Manhattan. You lived where you worked, and this [Seaport] area was an original residential-commercial district, just like it is again today.”
She notes that the changing shoreline of Lower Manhattan was an intrinsic reason for the burial of so many revealing artifacts. Not only were the slips filled in when the area was flattened, the formation of Fulton Street covered many houses’ and warehouses’ back yards, leading to the underground preservation of so many household and industrial items. Near DeLury Park, Loorya’s team even helped uncover a nearly intact print-shop basement, along with hundreds of ink bottles, some still with ink inside.
A stroll through the area now will easily evoke that maritime history in the era before the Brooklyn Bridge could even have been conceived. The original shoreline is commemorated by an embedded pavement marker at Titanic Park, while the Schermerhorn Row houses and tall ships at the South Street Seaport serve as living relics.
They are part of what keeps the old settlement of New Amsterdam tangible in our thoroughly modern city, and remind us that more than anything, what has survived is the gift of knowledge.
“Some people wonder why we bother with archaeology,” says Loorya. “I respond by saying that in order to have a sustainable future, we must have a well-understood past.”