when I am out scouting locations to dig for New Yorks
past, landowners and builders do not realize that the buildings
they live in or sites they are working on are old enough
to have fairly large deposits of bottles, pottery and other
relics from the 1870s and on back in time. Many parts of
Manhattan including virtually every block south of 34th
Street from the East River to the Hudson will have these
precious objects of New Yorks past.
This is likewise true for many square blocks of Brooklyn
spanning Greenpoint and Williamsburg to the Heights and
Red Hook, and even for all of the old towns of Queens, the
Bronx, and Staten Island. Anywhere there was a house or
a business that predates the Civil War even if the original
structure was destroyed a century ago there will be a repository
of discarded or lost bottles, ceramics, and other past objects
much like on every page of this website.
reason is that regular municipal water
delivery, sanitation pick-up, and sewer hook-ups did
not happen in New York City until the 1850s at the earliest
and, usually, into the 1870s. Therefore, every backyard
yes, every yard in the city typically had both a brick-lined
cistern for storing rain water and a stoned-lined privy
for "necessary" use and depositing household waste.
Over time, as plumbing became required and the cisterns
and privies were no longer needed, the original "deposits"
were left, some additional basement trash added, and then
they were capped with fill dirt to level out the yards.
These time capsules usually no newer than the 1870s are
waiting for us today. Inevitably these historic treasures
are destroyed during construction projects and renovations,
that is, unless aware owners and builders get in touch with
us or we stumble upon a likely site in our travels and we
show the property owner what lies in their yard.
And this is how so many landowners invite us to search their
construction sites, vacant lots, or house renovations to
locate these cisterns and outhouse wells located in the
back yard before these traces of the past are lost.
a landowner or builder wants us on the site to retrieve
the irreplaceable before it is destroyed, we first review
historic maps of New York to the early 1800s through to
the modern day to understand the development of a property
over time. Then, we visit the property and using a simple
spring steel rod, called a probe, we gently slide it into
the ground to feel for the cistern or privy walls (brick
or stone) and disturbances in the soil. In this way, we
can pinpoint the location to your privy or cistern before
Thereafter, the dig for these historic past objects usually
takes from one to four days to complete as we examine the
identified privies and cisterns taking great care to maintain
a neat site. All objects of history and interest are extracted.
To make sure we are not missing anything, the entire trash
layer of the privy is also sifted for small objects such
as marbles, coins, clay pipes, buttons, and even pieces
of broken pottery.
the dig is completed, and the site restored to the condition
as found if not better, we freely share many of the bottle
finds with the owner or builder in fact, some property owners
have received so many bottles they have incorporated them
into entire display cabinets showing the history of their
site. All other artifacts, primarily pottery, are washed
and restored or used for artifact art (collages, shadow
boxes, and jewelry) such as on this website. Any pottery
that can be readily fixed, because there are enough shards
to glue together most of a vessel, will be glued, the holes
filled with plaster or epoxy, the historic patterns painted,
and the in-fill glazed. This is an intense and time consuming
process. Pottery that cannot be mended will be used in collages,
shadow boxes, or made into jewelry.
Restored pottery or artifact art from a dig location is
always brought back to the property owner for their first
right of refusal, if they desire and without any obligation,
to purchase any pieces. Landowners often request special
collages or jewelry be made from particular relics uncovered
from their property. We must admit that as history is our
passion and artifact art our livelihood, we wish that we
could give everything away but we cannot; however, on this
journey together we can share in New Yorks past and
bring it to life again.
Would you like to share in the adventure