Professor excavates history under everyone’s soles


Allan Gilbert is digging up the earthy secrets of the borough’s past in a probing yet wide-ranging new book on local archaeology. It’s by and for those who do it professionally, but also for curious laypeople as well.

Gilbert — a professor of anthropology at Fordham University and editor of “Digging the Bronx: Recent Archaeology in the Borough” — said archaeological digs here happen for pretty much the same reasons they happen in any other borough, or really, anywhere else in the world. Those include restoring the environment, educational excavations involving colleges and universities, and even people hunting for artifacts in their own neighborhoods.

“There are archaeological remains in the ground beneath our feet,” Gilbert said. “Some of them actually contain useful information that supplements or corrects historical documentation.”

In fact, most countries have laws designed to protect their archaeological heritage, and the United States is no exception, according to the Society for American Archaeology. Here, the federal government’s concern for preservation of archaeological sites began in response to the destruction and looting of Indian ruins. The Antiquities Act in 1906 made federal officials responsible for protecting archaeological sites as public resources for combating looting and vandalism.


Future destroys past

Despite multiple laws enacted since then, however, archaeological site destruction continues at a rampant pace, according to the society, as industrial plants, housing developments, and highway networks are built, and as land is leveled for farming and other enterprises. Ultimately, archaeology depends on broad public understanding and support, leaving archaeologists tasked with convincing residents how relevant archaeology actually is.

Archaeology also happens as part of environmental impact law, Gilbert said, which requires analysis of other factors beyond archaeology. The archaeological component is referred to as “cultural resource management.”

“It’s basically the group of people who bid on contracts to do this kind of archaeology in order to safeguard remains, or discover whether there are any there, prior to construction that could really damage them forever,” Gilbert said. “That sort of thing goes on in the Bronx all the time.”

Then there are curious residents who wander around hunting for artifacts in their own neighborhoods, Gilbert said, which isn’t ideal.

“We would prefer that people not damage an archaeological site in the process of obtaining souvenirs,” he said. “It’s not something we sustain. We would prefer that people would participate in archaeology in the context of a controlled excavation, supervised by professionals.”

In fact, many such opportunities exist around the globe open to volunteers, Gilbert said. Still, “Unfortunately, there are people who dig their own holes and remove artifacts — and as a result, damage the archaeological record.”


The real Indiana Jones

As far as how archaeology actually gets done, there are various avenues, Gilbert said, including through colleges or cultural institutions like Wave Hill. Some Fordham students embark on summer excavations between semesters for college credit. There’s also public archaeology, including a Wave Hill project tracing back to the 1980s exploring Riverdale Park where volunteers participated in an investigation of their own neighborhood.

Finally, there’s analysis of excavation materials after the actual excavation is over, Gilbert said, which in many cases can lead to conclusions that weren’t foreseen at the moment of excavation. “Because you simply do not know everything at the time you dig things up.”

There’s no shortage of local examples, including some highly eroded materials in Riverdale Park, where an embankment unearthed Native American artifacts. Prehistoric materials probably date back as far as the late Woodland Period — between 300 and 1000 — and are largely shell middens, or places where debris from eating shellfish and other food has accumulated over time.

They were created from Native Americans basically picking out shellfish, carrying them up to the heights above the river, and then creating large middens of oyster shells, Gilbert said, whether from fresh or brackish water.

Along with being eroded, much of that material has been used to produce lime for cement manufacture. In fact, the excavator uncovered a lime kiln, where shells were shoveled into the fire, reduced to calcium oxide, which in turn was used in production of lime plaster, or cement.


Exploring the Van Cortlandt House

“Much of the Native American evidence has basically been consumed in the industrial age for construction material,” Gilbert said, all of which was revealed by excavating.

But excavation also occurred at the Van Cortlandt House Museum, he said — unusual because the house itself still stands.

“Normally we think of archaeology having to do with a house that’s been demolished,” Gilbert said, where “its foundations have been sitting in the ground for decades or centuries, so we have access to every place.”

That’s not the case with the Van Cortlandt House Museum, however, where over the course of repairs and additions to the structure, the ground has been disturbed. A Brooklyn College team that dug there for several seasons during the early 1990s was basically implementing small exploration trenches in various locations on all sides — east, west, north, south. One small pit uncovered another oyster shell midden.

“We don’t know where Indians collected shellfish and where they left their middens,” Gilbert said. “It’s not predictable,” but it’s clear they existed along the shores of the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, as well as in the southern part of the Bronx.

Many of those however, were destroyed by Robert Moses, the public official known as the master builder of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, Rockland and Westchester counties, and by the highways he constructed, Gilbert said.

“Digging the Bronx” was published last May by the Bronx County Historical Society. It’s Gilbert’s hope the book conveys to readers that seeking instant gratification through archaeology is a mistake.

“Simply digging in the ground looking for things misses almost 90 percent of the real educational and historical benefit of archaeology,” Gilbert said. “The book was an attempt to show what more we can learn about an artifact by excavating carefully, and by doing analysis of the artifact. And I wanted to write it in a way that would satisfy the professionals, but also to make the text accessible to amateurs … who would benefit from knowing how difficult it is, how we reason in the field, how we strategize, how we dig, and then what we do with artifacts once we get them out of the ground.”