History's Metropolis

City Digs Uncover the Past in Some Unlikely Locations
  |  Gorp.com
Archaeology shows its face in the strangest places
A rare skull of a Homo erectus from Indonesia was found among a collection of curiosities sold to an Upper West Side Manhattan boutique. The skull may date to between 100,000 to 1.5 million years ago. How it landed in a crate amongst other tribal curios from Indonesia is a mystery. And did the storeowner get to keep his smart purchase? No. The cranium has since been returned to Indonesia for study.

In the shadow of the Biscayne Bay Sheraton in downtown Miami, a stone's throw from the fashionable Art Deco District of South Beach, archaeologists uncovered a remarkable thirty-eight-foot-circular... something.

At twenty feet below a neglected patch of green, amidst hot dog vendors, concrete buildings, and dilapidated chain-linked fences that surround Manhattan's City Hall, something sacred was discovered.

And on the site of a future office complex in London, an ancient burial site was unearthed.

When thinking of archaeological excavation most people's minds conjure up images of expansive desert, deep chasms of a canyon or Indiana Jones-ish style antics in places such as the “Lost Kingdom” of Jordan. Indeed many of the world's archaeological treasures were discovered in places such as these.

But below the pavement of today's urban beats, far from the consciousness of most 20th century city dwellers, lies a past. Physical threads that bind a modern-day metropolis to its more humbler, modest roots. Archaeologists come across this evidence usually by accident—a true example of the past coming back to haunt us, or in these cases, halt future construction.

Mystery, Controversy, and Scandal
They call it the Miami Circle. The demolition of an apartment building in downtown Miami to make room for a luxury condominium led to the discovery and excavation of a unique site—a circular formation of stone carvings and post holes hundreds or thousands of years old.

Archaeologists believe it could be the remains of an astronomical observatory or a sacred temple built by either the Maya civilization or the Tequesta Indians, indigenous to South Florida more than 500 years ago.

The site has yielded potsherds, stone axes, and beads as well as animal bones and shark and sea-turtle remains. And although the debate of what it is exactly, how old it is, who built it, and why it remains inconclusive, it retains a magnetic hold on the archaeological community, students, residents, and tourists alike.

In Manhattan's City Hall Park, archaeologists discovered an African burial ground lying under five city blocks that include the U.S. Courthouse and State Supreme Court. Since it was uncovered in 1991, during the construction of a Federal office building, it has become something of a battleground between the Federal government and African-Americans who believe the site to be an important part of their cultural heritage and want to preserve it.

More than 200 years ago, after the Revolutionary War, this area of downtown Manhattan was considered the frontier of colonial New York and it served as the cemetery for more than 20,000 African men, women and children, both slave and free. The site is a reminder of Africans' presence in the New World.

Farther north in the city of Boston, archaeologists uncovered artifacts from a household that would have made a modern talk show host proud. The story goes something like this: After becoming widowed in 1663, Katherine Nanny remarried Edward Naylor and added two daughters to her son and daughter from her first marriage.

But about eight years later, after accusing her husband of beating her, kicking one of the girls down the stairs, taking in prostitutes and carrying on with mistresses, she asked for a divorce. Edward fled with their pregnant servant girl, whom Katherine had accused of trying to poison her beer. Archaeologists discovered Katherine Nanny's outdoor toilet or privy in downtown Boston under a parking lot that was beneath an expressway undergoing reconstruction.

Fragments of silk and wool were found as well as shoes of fine leather and hundreds of thousands of seeds and pits from fruits, nuts, and spices. The excess pits lead archaeologists to believe that Katherine Nanny made preserves or an alcoholic drink called cherry bounce.

Yet another risque revelation surfaced near the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Rumors of infidelity, sex, lies, videotapes, audiotapes, and dalliances with interns have always floated around Capitol Hill, so it's not surprising that excavation turned up the kitchen to a Civil War-era brothel.

On the site for the planned National Museum of the American Indian, researchers found dinnerware, leftover bones from beef, pork, poultry, fish and even a turtle, berry seeds, coconut shells, and champagne bottles. The brothel is believed to have been built in 1840 by a young woman and records reveal that it was the biggest in D.C.

Naturally, countries older and richer in history than ours are constantly uncovering relics from ancient empires within urban areas. Across the Atlantic, in the heart of London's East End, a Roman sarcophagus and coffin were discovered on the site of a future office complex. Archaeologists date the burial site to around the third or fourth century.

In Paris, two Celtic chariots dating to 300 BC were found at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport during runway construction. Warriors were buried inside the chariots, along with their iron swords in a sheath and lances to accompany them to the afterlife.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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