Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Although most curators and museum- goers engage with objects that are largely intact, archaeologists commonly work with fragments. In New York City, excavators may find a mix of intact and fragmented artifacts, and even very important sites can be filled with small pieces of glass, metal, and ceramic. That is, most of the time archaeological work in New York City focuses on things that are broken. These pieces can elicit a lot of information about New Yorkers of the past.
What can we learn from something that is in very small pieces, though? On excavations, where there are large quantities of similar pieces, some may be candidates for “destructive analysis,”
in which artifacts may be ground, drilled, or carved with lasers to reveal their chemical makeup. Such work can reveal what substances were stored in a particular vessel, or where a particular type of clay comes from.
In some cases, these broken pieces provide more information than they could if they were whole. On a broken piece, we are able to see a cross section of the composition of the clay or other material the object is made from. This helps archaeologists determine how and where the artifact originated.
Even though these objects are broken, it is possible for archaeologists to recreate their size and shape by looking at details such as a the curve of the bases and rims. In many cases it takes only a very small fragment to understand the shape of an artifact’s intact form.
Small pieces may form a larger whole once cataloged and analyzed in the lab. Sometimes, bones or other artifacts that did not appear related or that were difficult to “read” in storage bags are much more easy to understand once laid out offsite.
In looking at groups of fragments, archaeologists are able to ask questions about the “life” of these objects – were they broken in this way before they were deposited or was damage caused by shifting in the ground? Was this artifact or group of artifacts abandoned, or was it thrown away because it was broken? Why makes artifacts found in Manhattan different from ones found in Brooklyn? What does all of this tell us about past New Yorkers?
Sometimes what matters most is the very fact that they exist, and that they were unearthed together. In addition to rarity, visual beauty, and age – it is the relationship between the pieces and their archaeological context (that is, where in the ground were uncovered) as well as their relationship to one another that is the subject of most archaeological analysis.
In New York City, the long term density and diversity of residents has resulted in wide ranges of archaeological artifacts. Excavations often unearth fine porcelains from China, utilitarian bottles from Germany, and/or decorated ceramics from the United Kingdom. Such pieces did not arrive by accident: they were the result of long sea journeys that could have been interrupted by trade disputes or wars. That these objects made their way to New York and ended up mixed together with locally made artifacts speaks to the complexity life in New York City in the past.
Why undertake such detailed analysis of such small objects? To quote anthropologist James Deetz: For in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured. We must remember these bits and pieces, and we must use them in new and imaginative ways so that a different appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past, can be achieved. (Deetz., J. In Small Things Forgotten:An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor, 1977/1996 pg 260)
These artifacts, and many more, are being cataloged and digitized by the Museum of the City of New York in preparation for public access and long-term care at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Archaeological Repository. Research inquiries can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on the project may be found here.