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