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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Unearthing Gotham

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood talks with author Diana diZerega Wall about the landscape of New York City, then and now, and her new book, "Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City."


CURWOOD: The trash cans and dumpsters of modern cities may not be the first things that come to mind when you think archaeology. But Diana diZerega Wall says today's refuse containers and 15th century urns share a common relic status. Ms. Wall is co-author of the book "Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City," and she says the city's diverse landscape and what lies below it is every bit a worthy dig.

WALL: I think that most people think of archaeology as the study of something long ago and far away. And this is less true now, but particularly when I first started doing urban archaeology in New York, about 20 years ago, one would go to some sort of a party or something like that and people would say, "What do you do?" And I'd say, "Oh, I'm an archaeologist." And they'd say, "Oh, where do you work, Israel, Turkey, etc?" And I'd say, "No, actually I just take the #6 to get to my site." The #6 is the subway line in New York.

CURWOOD: We have plenty of history books, Professor Wall. Why use archeology to look at the history of New York City?

WALL: I think that what we get from archaeology is we get a more democratic approach to history. Archaeologists basically study garbage, and everybody leaves garbage. Groups aren't systematically left out of the garbage record the way groups can be left out of the written record. But what appeals to me about archaeology is that you can gain insight into the ways of life of these groups that we don't really know that much about historically, by studying their garbage.

CURWOOD: Equal opportunity garbage, huh?

WALL: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Now, you write that the archaeologists can determine the eating habits of a particular household at a particular moment in the history of early New York City. How do you go about doing this? What do you look for?

WALL: What we look for is what archaeologists would call a feature, which is basically defined as a non-portable artifact, something that was made and used in the past. And inside the feature, which could be the pit from a privy pit in a backyard. Remember that people used to have out houses before they had flush toilets. Those were items that were introduced into New York City homes only beginning in the 1840s and 1850s, then.

CURWOOD: So, you're telling me you're digging in old privies.

WALL: Exactly. But what happens is, after those features have been used for their original purpose, and while they're being used for their original purpose, if we're talking about privy pits, people would use them to throw their trash away in. Archaeology is very good at being able to look at these very sort of mundane things like what people are eating and to be able to make up stories, looking at all of these different pieces of dishes and animal bone and seeds, etc.

CURWOOD: What kind of story would these dishes, bones, and privy remains tell you?

WALL: They could tell us what kind of china people were buying. They could tell us how people in the 1820s were using a kind of china which was very different from what they had used early in the 19th century, and then, in the later 18th century, it was different again. I was interested in looking at that when I was trying to look at the redefinition of what it meant to be a middle-class woman in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This is the moment when businesses were leaving homes and women were developing the sphere of domesticity. And what I could see, in looking at the dishes that they were using to set their tables and things like that, is that they were putting much more money, for example, into their dishes in the 1820s than they had in the 1780s and 1790s. And that told me something about their role and how they were rewriting their role.

CURWOOD: One of the things I found most fascinating about your book was that you said, hey, New York City is one archaeological site.

WALL: Mm-hmm.

CURWOOD: You treat it that way. What are the advantages of thinking that way?

WALL: I think that what that approach gives us is a different view of the city--it gives us a long view. It looks on a city as a part of its environment. We have about 11,000 years of history, in fact, that we can talk about, talking about the Native American presence here, before the city is even created at all, as a city. The other thing that's interesting is it allowed--these are things that I hadn't really seen, until we started looking at the city this way. This is a city that, until the early 19th century, was marginal. It was first marginal, during Native American times, to what was going on in the Midwest. The more advanced chieftain forms of cultures were located in the Mississippi Valley and the great waterways of the southeastern United States. We were just this marginal, peripheral little area, a little backwater, if you will.

CURWOOD: That's a fascinating notion: New York City, a hick town?

WALL: That's something, yeah. In fact, it wasn't even a town, it was a hick, I'd guess we'd have to say. A hick area.

CURWOOD: What one piece of material do you feel can capture the city of New York at this moment?

WALL: Are you speaking in light of the recent events on September 11th?

CURWOOD: It's hard to ignore them, isn't it?

WALL: It certainly is, yeah. When I have gone down to look at the site--and I have no special access. I stand back several blocks from where people are actually working. For a long time there was a large piece of the stainless steel facade of one of the towers that was made. If you're not familiar with the World Trade Centers up close, they were made in the form of sort of abstract gothic arches on the facade. There was a part of that facade hanging at about a 45 degree angle over the site. Somehow, having those gothic arches, with their sort of religious symbolism, to me, that was something that was enormously powerful, and it was also something that you could see, as sort of a landmark, from blocks away. So, even if people couldn't get close to the site they could see that, and of course those arches to them meant, this is the World Trade Center. And I think that that symbolizes the city at this moment. I think it sort of symbolized the fact that morality had gone awry in the city, as morality had gone awry in terms of our lives, that things were out of kilter.

CURWOOD: Diana diZerega Wall is associate professor of archaeology at City College in New York, and she's co-author of the book "Unearthing Gotham: The Archeology of New York City." Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.

WALL: Thank you so much, Steve. It's been a pleasure.




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