MCNY Blog: New York Stories

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

Gems Beneath South Ferry: Artifacts from the Terminal Collection

Fragments of pottery, tiles, nails, stone, and smoking pipes from the South Ferry Terminal Collection. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

A group of artifacts from the South Ferry Terminal Collection.

In 2005, a team of New York City archaeologists turned up new evidence of Manhattan’s dynamic past during excavations for the South Ferry Terminal Project. As the city renovated its South Ferry subway station, archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of artifacts buried amongst the structural remains of colonial New York’s Battery Wall and Whitehall Slip.

As part of an ongoing project with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Museum’s archaeology team is now digitizing the South Ferry Terminal Collection and more for public access at the the New York City Archaeological Repository. At the conclusion of the project, we’ll launch an online database featuring vivid digital images that will be fully searchable by the public.  In the meantime, through the Activist New York gallery, we are currently displaying three Dutch tiles from the Battery Wall. And below, I present a few other exceptional finds from the South Ferry Terminal Collection.

Passenger Pigeon Bone

Passenger Pigeon bone. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Passenger Pigeon bone from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

The bone on the left is from the wing of a passenger pigeon. Billions of wild passenger pigeons once lived in North America. The birds were common in New York, so archaeologists often come across their bones in the city.

Sadly,  you will not find them flying around Central Park today. The last known passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

 

 

Colonial Governor Benjamin Fletcher’s Glass Bottle Seal

Governor Fletcher's bottle seal. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Governor Fletcher’s bottle seal from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

The glass bottle seal shown to the right bears the family crest and coat of arms of Benjamin Fletcher, the British colonial governor of New York from 1692 to 1697. Glass bottles were 17th century luxury items and bottle seals were a fashionable way to distinguish a bottle’s owner in Britain and its colonies.

Most colonial New Yorkers purchased wine from merchants in ceramic jugs filled from barrels, but the wealthy used their own glass bottles, which sometimes featured personalized seals like this one.

This seal probably graced a wine bottle used by Governor Fletcher during his tenure in the colony.

Admiral Edward Boscawen Louisbourg Medal 1758

Front of medal with Admiral Boscawen's half-length figure, inscribed: "ADML BOSCAWEN TOOK CAPE BRETON." Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Front of medal with Admiral Boscawen’s half-length figure, inscribed: “ADML BOSCAWEN TOOK CAPE BRETON” from South Ferrry Terminal Collection.

This pewter medal commemorates Admiral Edward Boscawen’s role as naval commander in the British capture of the Fortress of Louisbourg in 1758.

Back of medal with ships in Louisbourg harbor, inscribed: "LOUISBURG HARBOUR IUL 26 1758"

Back of medal with ships in harbor, inscribed: “LOUISBOURG IUL 26 1758” from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

Louisbourg, located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, was established as a French settlement in 1713 strategically situated near the entrance of the St. Lawrence River.

King George III honored Admiral Boscawen with a gold medal. Copies were made in copper, brass, and pewter. The medal shown here is not particularly well made, but it probably had special personal value because it was roughly pierced with a hole, possibly to wear as a pendant.

Sugar Mold

Base of a sugar mold. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Base of a sugar mold from South Ferry Termrnal Collection.

Base of a sugar mold. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Base of a sugar mold from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

Illustration of a conical sugar mold and syrup jar. Figure 1 from Magid (2005)

Illustration of a conical sugar mold and syrup jar. Figure 1 from Magid (2005)

The cone-shaped object shown above is a fragment from the bottom of a sugar mold, an indispensable tool for refining sugar before the advent of mechanized refineries in the mid 19th century.

A sugar mold filled with raw sugar was placed on a syrup jar, then a layer of wet clay was poured over the sugar.  Molasses and impurities separated out as liquid from the clay passed through the sugar and drained from the hole at the bottom of the mold into the jar below. Refined sugar was collected from the mold and the molasses could be used to make rum at the city’s distilleries.

There were no sugar plantations in the city, but this object shows how New York nonetheless played a role in the sugar trade, an enterprise inextricably linked to slavery. Raw sugar produced by enslaved workers on Caribbean plantations was shipped to New York where it was refined at sugar houses using sugar molds like the one shown above.

Scratched Pebble

Pebble with scratched surface. Image of courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Pebble with scratched surface from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

Archaeologists believe the “X” or “+” scratched into the surface of the pebble pictured on the left might be a West African cosmological symbol.

Other artifacts with similar marks have been found in New York and the Southeastern U.S. in caches and riverbeds. These objects may have been deposited during a ritual informed by West African beliefs about the connection between the living and the dead.

This small pebble conveys a profound reminder that urban slavery was a part of everyday life in New York well into the 19th century.

Back of pebble. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Back of pebble from South Ferry Terminal Collection.

About 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. They worked as domestic servants cooking and cleaning, or with craftsmen in skilled trades and manufacturing. Slaves provided most of the heavy labor that built New York’s early roads, docks, and structures, including the colonial Battery Wall.

Artifacts like this pebble support evidence from the African Burial Ground and elsewhere that enslaved Africans held on to the traditions of their homelands and gave them new expression in America.

For further details about these objects and more, please follow this link to the South Ferry Terminal Project official report prepared by lead authors Diane Dallal (AKRF, Inc.), Meta Janowitz (URS Corporation), and Linda Stone.  Research inquiries may be directed to archaeology@mcny.org

4 comments on “Gems Beneath South Ferry: Artifacts from the Terminal Collection

  1. Diane Dallal
    April 7, 2016

    It would be nice to include the names of the firms and archaeologists who excavted the site and wrote the reports and provided all of this information

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

  3. bob kautz
    May 27, 2016

    wonderful work

  4. RS Glass bottle
    July 9, 2016

    Awesome post .Beautiful work

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