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5,000 Historic New York Artifacts Found Beneath Fulton Street

By Julie Shapiro on December 5, 2011 2:25pm | Updated on December 6, 2011 8:20am

Teapots found beneath Fulton Street in the fall of 2011.
Teapots found beneath Fulton Street in the fall of 2011.
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Chrysalis Archaeology

LOWER MANHATTAN — Workers installing a new steam pipe on Fulton Street this fall stumbled across an archaeological treasure trove of more than 5,000 objects dating back to the turn of the 19th century.

Among the discoveries made in an old basement foundation at 40 Fulton St. were a bone toothbrush, a copper half-penny and hundreds of shards of pottery.

The range of bottles, goblets, gravy boats and dinner plates — including some imported Chinese porcelain — suggests that the home there belonged to a wealthy family with access to a wide variety of goods and foods, said Alyssa Loorya, the archaeologist who excavated the artifacts.

"It really creates a picture of what the historic area was, what life was like," she said.

Loorya's firm, Chrysalis Archaeology, has been monitoring the city's construction on Fulton Street and last spring uncovered a 300-year-old well on the same block between Pearl and Cliff streets.

The latest discovery occurred in October, as Con Edison was digging up the street to replace a steam pipe that was installed in 1900, Loorya said.

"We initially just saw part of what appeared to be a wall," she noted. "Then we realized the wall was continuing, and we started to see the artifacts."

Loorya and her team spent two-and-a-half days carefully removing the thousands of pieces by hand, and since then they have been studying and storing them at a lab in Brooklyn.

Loorya believes the items were discarded by a former owner of the house who may have left them behind when moving elsewhere around 1825. The home may have belonged to the Van Cortlandt family, descendants of Stephanus van Cortlandt, New York's first native-born mayor, she added.

Workers on Fulton Street also recently uncovered sections of old wooden water mains from as far back as the early 1800s, along with a second well — an interesting parallel, given the artifacts were only uncovered because of a modern-day water main project, Loorya said.

"It's fascinating to see how New York City has dealt with getting fresh water throughout its history," Loorya said.

The Fulton Street corridor has been a rich one for archaeologists, who have made many discoveries there since the city's Department of Design and Construction launched a major overhaul of the area's utilities in 2007.

In addition to running through one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in New York, Fulton Street also has the advantage of not having been disturbed much over the years.

"It's always been fairly well-recognized as a historic area," Loorya said. "As such, there hasn't been immense development — there's been a degree of preservation."

She expects to continue making discoveries in lower Manhattan, as the Fulton Street project moves forward and a four-year water main overhaul on Peck Slip gets under way.

Already, workers on Peck Slip have uncovered pieces of the wooden landfill that extended Manhattan's shoreline outward over hundreds of years.

"We have an idea of what we might find," Loorya said, "but we don't know."

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