New Yorkers owe thanks to pioneering archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as William L. Calver and Reginald Pelham Bolton, for finding and recording evidence of local Native American and European colonial life. Others, among them Ralph Solecki and Bert Salwen, later founding members of PANYC, continued this tradition of discovery and documentation within the urban theater of New York City. Of particular interest are the clues they unearthed about Native Americans in this area, because these indigenous people left no written records, and accounts provided by European explorers and colonists are often misleading.

In the first decade of the century archaeologists recovered Native American remains in the northernmost part of Manhattan. Recovered artifacts as well as food remains provided evidence of the daily life of the Native American inhabitants of Manahatta, their name, as recorded in early colonial records, for the island now called Manhattan. Many of the stone implements used by local Native Americans to hunt, fish, and process foods have survived, as have the pottery vessels they employed to cook and store liquids, and the debris of meals they consumed. Early finds, such as the dog burials found in Upper Manhattan, also provided intriguing glimpses into the ritual life of the area’s Native American inhabitants.

Dog Burial, Photograph, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

Archaeologists also investigated sites in the other boroughs of the City during the early portion of the 20th century. One of the largest prehistoric Native American sites is located in the southwestern portion of Staten Island. Remains excavated from this site represent nearly 10,000 years of human occupation of what is now New York City.  Projectile points, fish hooks and other artifacts manufactured from stone and animal bone, as well as food remains recovered from this site, provide evidence about the daily lives of the Native American inhabitants of Staten Island. In addition to occupational remains, more than 70 Native American burials were reported at this site during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Although the initial interest in New York City archaeology focused on Native American occupations, there was also a growing interest in the city’s historic era archaeology. Although its members had been excavating Revolutionary War sites all over New York State for decades, the New-York Historical Society Field Exploration Committee was formally established in 1918 with William L. Calver as its chair and Reginald P. Bolton as his chief co-worker. With others, the two worked ahead of the steam shovels of the factory and apartment house builders to discover and excavate British and American fortifications and military campsites in northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Between 1918 and 1937, the committee published annual reports as well as articles in the quarterly bulletin of the New-York Historical Society. These articles were later reissued in a book entitled, History Written with Pick and Shovel.

In 1916, the keel and four ribs of a ship were accidentally discovered during IRT subway excavations at Greenwich and Dey Streets (Manhattan). In the early 17th century, the site bordered the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. A combination of factors, including radio carbon dating, analysis of the woods, research into methods of early 17th-century shipbuilding, dating of an iron bolt from the hull, and the discovery of a Dutch broad axe in the ruins, led to the conclusion that the timbers belonged to a 17th-century Dutch ship.

Scholars speculated that the ship was the Tijger, captained by Adriaen Block, an Amsterdam lawyer who ventured to New Amsterdam on a fur-trading expedition financed by the Dutch East India Company. While at anchor in the Hudson River in November 1613, the Tijger caught fire and burned to the water line. The question is, where along the Hudson River's shore did the fire occur? Near Albany, as some scholars suggest, or near Manhattan? If near Albany, these timbers could not be from the Tijger. More recent scholarship has indicated that the ship was, in fact, an 18th-century vessel built for use on the River or inland waterways. This is discussed further in an article by Gerals A. de Weeldt in Northeast Historical Archaeology, Vol 34 (2005) entitled "A Preliminary Assessment of the Shipwreck Remains Discovered in 1916 at the World Trade Center Site in New York City."

This keel and ribs are the only known remnants of the ship to survive. When the hull was discovered during the subway tunnel excavation, the job foreman, James A. "Smelly" Kelly (so nicknamed because of his uncanny ability to detect underground gas leaks), attempted to pull the entire vessel out with a mule team. Unable to do so, he sawed off what had been unearthed--the ship's bow section. A film was made during this discovery. View the video of this early "archaeological" excavation in NYC.

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