Excavation Reveals New York 18th Century History

Excavation at South Street Seaport reveals 18th-century liquor bottles
Excavation at South Street Seaport reveals 18th-century liquor bottles

New York is known as the city that doesn’t sleep. There is something going on all the time, and that includes its history. Last week, as construction workers dug below street level to install new water mains, they discovered more than 100 liquor bottles from the 18th century. These were found seven feet underground in a 15-foot section at the corner of Fulton and Water Street in lower Manhattan at South Street Seaport.

Chrysalis Archaeology, headed by archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, has been overseeing the Department of Design and Construction’s excavations in the financial district including South Street Seaport since 2009. While the DDC is making utility upgrades in the area, Chrysalis is checking for historic artifacts from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Previous excavations near Fulton and Pearl Street unearthed items from the American Revolution. Belt clasps, buttons from soldiers’ uniforms with the Army regiment number engraved on them, shoe buckles, pottery fragments, and medicine bottles were found last year. During that time, workers also uncovered a six-foot stretch of wall that has been traced to the Revolutionary Era.

Lower Manhattan has been extended further out into the East River since it was first settled by the Dutch in 1624. About one-third of the area is landfill. Different streets throughout history have been the first street along the waterfront. Pearl Street–so named because oyster shells used to wash up on land—was the original waterfront street, followed by Water Street, then Front Street, and later South Street.

Many ships docked at the South Street Seaport. Sailors, soldiers, merchants, and fishmongers would frequent the nearby pubs and taverns. Those items that got dropped or thrown away eventually ended up embedded in sediment either on land or under water. Rising tides from hurricane Sandy also swept a lot of water and debris ashore.

There’s a great deal of history in Lower Manhattan, both above and below ground. It’s easy to spot the historic buildings, but the artifacts found below the surface reveal details about life centuries ago. Whether the results are as small as a button, or as large as an old ship, or as hallowed as an African burial ground, the city that never sleeps has a lot to say.

Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent


Working Harbor Committee

Archaeology Magazine

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