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Burial Vaults at Washington Square Park Belong to One of Two Churches

 Archaeologists were at work Thursday photographing the human bones found by water main workers in a burial vault earlier this week.
Archaeologists were at work Thursday photographing the human bones found by water main workers in a burial vault earlier this week.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Archeologists working to identify human bones found in two burial vaults unearthed by a city water main project near Washington Square Park have zeroed in on two churches as possible sources.

The two vaults were found on the eastern edge of Washington Square Park this week by a workers on a Department of Design and Construction project meant to upgrade the city's century-old water main system, a DDC spokeswoman said.

The first was uncovered Tuesday night, and the second was uncovered Wednesday night.

Alyssa Loorya, president of Chyrsalis Archeological Consultants, said the vaults dates back to the late 18th or early 19th century, when there was a church cemetery on the corner at Washington Square Park East and Waverly Place.

Loorya was hired by the city to determine the origin of the burial vaults. She has already confirmed that the vaults were connected to one of two churches: the Pearl Street Church and the Cedar Street Church.

"We're hoping now to confirm what the descendent church might be," Loorya said at the construction site Thursday afternoon.

Loorya also recently learned that the remnants of a church facade remain nearby on New York University property, but that the vaults were not connected to that church.

She added that it's not uncommon for traces of the city's history to be revealed by construction work, but that remnants of old buildings are more likely to be found than artifacts. 

"You normally don't find burial vaults beneath the city streets," Loorya said.

Loorya said the vaults likely functioned the same way vaults in cemeteries today do, and could each hold the bones of just one family. She doesn't yet know how many people each vault held, but took photographs that she will use "to try to make those determinations."

She will also do historical research to try to figure out exactly who the people were.

The vaults' ceilings were roughly three and a half feet below the street, Loorya said.

The city is now strategizing how to rework the water main project so that it doesn't disturb the vaults.

"It's the city's policy to leave burials intact and in place unless absolutely necessary to move them," Loorya explained.

Loorya has helped the city on several archeological finds.

Her firm helped identify a mysterious object found buried near City Hall.  It was an early feminine hygiene device. 

She also worked on a site near Fulton Street where thousands of 18th-century liquor bottles were found