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Washington Square Park Burial Vault Skeletons Will Not Be Disturbed

GREENWICH VILLAGE — The bones and coffins in the burial vaults unearthed by a city water main project will not be disturbed, even by the archaeologists attempting to pin down exactly where they came from and who they were.

The water main project, along the northeastern edge of Washington Square Park, was meant to upgrade the century-old infrastructure in the area around Washington Square Park East and Waverly Place, where the vaults were discovered by workers contracted by the city's Department of Design and Construction.

Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants was already on site since Day One, because the city knew it was likely that they might encounter a burial vault — just one, though.

"The first vault was not a surprise," Chrysalis archaeologist Alyssa Loorya said. "The second vault, we did not expect."

Loorya and her team won't enter either vault, or handle any of the remains.

They were careful to remove only a small stone from the vaults' eastern walls, just big enough for the telephoto lens of their digital camera. They are also considered putting the camera on a boom so that they can get it inside the space for better angles.

The archaeologists will analyze extremely high-resolution images of the space. Loorya said there's been "a good degree of preservation" in both vaults.

The photos are so detailed that they may be able to see distinctive markings on teeth, or traces of sutures or diseases on bones. They can also determine whether the skeletons were female or male based on their pelvic bones, Loorya said.

"We'll be able to get a lot of information, hopefully," she said.

The first vault was "disturbed," Loorya said, which is what accounts for the jumbled heap of disconnected bones it revealed.

While a 1965 New York Times article described it as having two dozen skeletons, Loorya and her team have so far only confirmed 12 bodies in the scattered bones.

They determined the current body count because 12 skulls were immediately visible, but Loorya said there's a chance they could locate more when they further analyze their photos.

A local historian onsite Friday suggested the disturbance may have occurred when it was discovered by Con Edison in 1965, but Loorya said, "I choose not to speculate."

While some of the coffins in the second vault appear to be in disarray, the vault itself "doesn't show any indication of having been breached at any time," Loorya said.

Loorya's telephoto lens has been able to capture some of the dates on the coffins, which is what has her leaning toward the early 19th-century in her determination of when the vaults were actively in use.

They have been able to make out the first two digits of a year: 18.

"We can see bits and pieces of information but we haven't been able to read them completely," she said.

The two vaults are expansive, and located mostly below the sidewalk and the edge of the park, next to the trench in the road dug by the DDC workers who discovered the vaults. Each exterior spans roughly 15 feet, Loorya said, and from the eastern wall to the western wall is approximately 27 feet.

They are identical in their construction — with arched brick-domed roofs over ceilings about eight feet off the floor.

The doors of both vaults, on the far west wall, "look completely intact," Loorya said. Each vault has three steps leading to "a wooden door and what appears to be potentially copper or iron hinges and a box lock."

Loorya was previously working to determine which of two churches the vaults belonged to, and she thinks she's zeroed in on the one.

"As of now, everything points to the Cedar Street church," she said. "And actually they potentially have two descendent churches," due to splintering of churches that was common at that time period.

Loorya and her team have started to make a timeline to try to track the church's split and the following changes.

The Cedar Street and Pearl Street churches were both offshoots of the Scotch Church, Loorya said. As city life migrated north, the Cedar Street church became Fifth Avenue Presbyterian at 55th Street.

But the Scotch Church became the Second Presbyterian Church on 96th Street.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian has some records dating back to the early 19th century, Loorya said, but none associated with these cemetery yards.

Second Presbyterian has no records, but Loorya does have a lead that she's hoping could bear fruit.

"A pastor left the city with his records and diary and moved to upstate New York," she said.