MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at

Photographing Fragments of New York City’s Past

Archaeological collections preserve a rich record of places and objects. In New York City, the recently opened Archaeological Repository holds a labyrinthine collection of more than 350,000 objects, including material culture (man-made) and environmental specimens. Since the 1970s, archaeological excavation has been a routine part of construction at hundreds of sites across New York City. Based on a policies enacted by Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), artifacts are continually being extracted and preserved on a minute level.

Level S4C3, Snug Harbor, Matrons Cottage (1987)

Snug Harbor, Matron’s Cottage (1987), Level S4C3. 

The Museum of the City of New York has partnered with LPC to create a digital archive based on a significant sampling of over 28,000 of these objects, with the ultimate aim of freeing them from their dark boxes and unlocking the stories they hold for the public. During the past months we have photographed over 1,500 objects using state-of the-art digital technology. The photographs detail specific collections by displaying objects in a range of variations based on specific excavation layers, materials (ex. metal, glass, etc), as well as shots of individual artifacts.


Stone Street (1998), Shell.

Visual documentation is integral to both the practice of archaeology and of photography. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the two disciplines have developed side by side. Photography has a knack for creating records rich in information. Point your lens at a local church and you will most likely record much more than a church building. The camera automatically gathers often-unintended details that contextualize a photograph’s intended subject: human activity, vehicles, homes, natural elements (or lack thereof). The resulting document becomes its own archive of information; a simple snapshot is transformed into a historical document, a sociological artifact, or a piece of evidence. In fact, photography is quite closely related to archaeology, which is the practice of gathering a vast cross-section of materials related to a specific place (many of which were probably not expected to be preserved or recorded by their original owners).

 Johann Gustav Hoch, Seventeen large and small tropical kaurie shells, ca 1726 - 1779. Rijksmuseum, RP-T-1881-A-105.

Johann Gustav Hoch, Seventeen large and small tropical kaurie shells, ca 1726 – 1779. Rijksmuseum, RP-T-1881-A-105.

The combination of art and archaeology dates back far earlier than the invention of photography. Early depictions of natural and material culture, such as the Antiquaries of the 16th century, were largely fixated on the anomalous or unique, but beginning in the 17th century, the scientific revolution spurred the proliferation of private collections and profusely illustrated texts that attempted to visualize nature and impose order on the world through measurement and comparison. At this time, groupings of similar objects emerged as a tool for observational examination. This method for creating visual order is known as ‘typology.’

The creator of a typology sorts through the complexity of the chaotic material world, isolating objects of a specific ‘type’ based on their physical characteristics. Typologies offer a way to organize and visualize archaeological evidence. For example, by grouping objects according to material–bones, ceramics, glass, shell, or metal–patterns emerge, and superficial signifiers such as color, texture, and shape can be isolated amidst the initial disarray of a mass of data.


Various material typologies. 

Mundane everyday materials such as nails or glass become visually arresting when placed in a larger arrangement.  Since the 19th century, archaeologists have been using photography to document their findings visually. In our case, visualizing the collection at the city’s Archaeological Repository is essential to preserving the objects, and will allow archaeologists and non-experts alike to understand their significance. By using cutting edge digital technology and the highest standards of museum photography, common objects affected by corrosion, decay, and the unpredictable patterns of breakage are optically elevated by revealing subtle differences in texture and color.

Transfer Print, Snug Harbor, Matron's Cottage (1987)

Snug Harbor, Matron’s Cottage (1987), Transfer Print.

Paired together, photography and archaeology create a time capsule, synthesizing both science and aesthetics. The visual assemblage of these collections creates a dynamic archive in which layers of cultural importance can be continuously revealed. The decisions that we make as archaeologists, catalogers, and photographers will affect how people understand and interpret these objects for years to come, which is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

WSC, College Point, DogBurial, Box 21, Wisniewski-Solecki Collection

Wisniewski-Solecki Collection, College Point, Dog Burial, Box 21. 

About Lissa Rivera

Photographer and Educator

2 comments on “Photographing Fragments of New York City’s Past

  1. Pingback: Wonderful Things from the South Ferry Terminal Collection at New York City’s Archaeological Repository | MCNY Blog: New York Stories

  2. Pingback: Broken Tulips at the Pier: The Archaeology of Whitehall Slip | MCNY Blog: New York Stories

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