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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Air Quality in American National Parks and Big Cities Is Roughly the Same

National parks usually have more vegetation, wildlife, and open spaces than urban areas, but the two don't look much different when it comes to air quality. As City Lab reports, a new study published in Science Advances found that U.S. national parks and the nation's largest cities have comparable ozone levels.

For their research, scientists from Iowa State University and Cornell University looked at air pollution data collected over 24 years from 33 national parks and the 20 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Their results show that average ozone concentrations were "statistically indistinguishable" between the two groups from 1990 to 2014.

On their own, the statistics look grim for America's protected areas, but they're actually a sign that environmental protection measures are working. Prior to the 1990s, major cities had higher ozone concentrations than national parks. At the start of the decade, the federal government passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments in an effort to fight urban air pollution, and ozone levels have been declining ever since.

The average ozone in national parks did increase in the 1990s, but then in 1999 the EPA enacted the Regional Haze Rule, which specifically aims to improve air quality and visibility in national parks. Ozone levels in national parks are now back to the levels they were at in 1990.

Ground-level ozone doesn't just make America's national parks harder to see: It can also damage plants and make it difficult for human visitors to breathe. Vehicles, especially gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, are some of the biggest producers of the pollutant.

[h/t City Lab]

Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.

There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]


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