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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The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

This Just In
What Do You Get the Person Who Has Everything? Perhaps a German Village for Less Than $150,000

Looking for a gift for the world traveler who has everything? If cost isn't an issue and they're longing for a quiet country home, Fortune reports that an entire village in East Germany is up for sale. The tiny hamlet of Alwine, in Germany's Brandenburg region, is going up for auction on Saturday, December 9. Opening bids begin at $147,230.

Alwine has around one dozen buildings and 20 full-time residents, most of them elderly. It was once owned by a neighboring coal plant, which shut down in 1991, soon after East Germany reunited with West Germany. Many residents left after that. Between 1990 and 2015, the regional population fell by 15 percent, according to The Local.


In 2000, a private investor purchased the decaying hamlet for just one Deutsche Mark (the currency used before the euro). But its decline continued, and now it's up for grabs once more—this time around, for a much-higher price.

Andreas Claus, the mayor of the district surrounding Alwine, wasn't informed of the village's sale until he heard about it in the news, according to The Local. While no local residents plan to purchase their hometown, Claus says he's open to fostering dialogue with the buyer, with hopes of eventually revitalizing the local community.

[h/t Fortune]


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