Alyssa Loorya
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As New Yorkers, we're often busy looking up at the development going on around us. We rarely stop to consider what lies beneath the city streets. And it's really hard to imagine that this small island village would one day become a forest of skyscrapers. Yet, as an urban archaeologist, that's exactly what I do. I consider landscapes, artifacts to tell the stories of the people who walked these streets before us. Because history is so much more than facts and figures. When people think of archaeology, they usually think of dusty old maps, far off lands, ancient civilizations. You don't think New York City and construction sites. Yet, that's where all the action happens and we're never sure exactly what we're going to find beneath the city streets. Like this wooden well ring which was the base for the construction of a water well. It provided us an opportunity to take a sample of the wood for tree-ring dating, and get a date to confirm the fact that we had indeed found a series of 18th-century structures beneath Fulton Street. Archaeology is about everyday people using everyday objects, like the child who may have played with this small toy, or the person who consumed the contents of this bottle. This bottle contained water imported from Germany and dates to 1790. Now okay, we know New Yorkers always had to go to great lengths to get fresh drinking water. Small island, you really couldn't drink the well water, it was to brackish. But the notion that New Yorkers were importing bottled water from Europe, more then two hundred years ago, is truly a testament to the fact that New York City is a cosmopolitan city, always has been, where you could get practically anything from anywhere. If you and I were to walk through City Hall Park, you might see an urban park and government offices. I see New York City's largest and most complex archaeological site. And it's significant not because it's City Hall, but because of the thousands of poor prisoners and British soldiers who lived and died here. Before it was City Hall Park, the area was known as The Common, and it was pretty far outside the city limits. In the 17th century, it was a place for public protests and execution.

And its remote location made it an ideal spot for the city to construct its first poor house. And it's from that period, circa 1735, that we find these bone buttons. These were made by poor persons in the almshouse. Poor persons in the almshouse were assigned various tasks to earn their keep, among them, shredding old rope for reuse, dressing hemp, picking oakum, making bone buttons, in the thought that hard work would reform these poor persons into productive members of society. The almshouse served several groups: poor needy persons, sturdy beggars, idle wandering vagabonds. And reasons to be admitted? Insanity, pregnancy, or being a widow or an orphan who could no longer pay their way. Which makes this piece all the more interesting. This child's plate was found within the walls of the Bridewell. The Bridewell was one of the most feared and notorious prisons of its time, and it happened to have been right next door to the almshouse. In fact, there were prisons on either side of the almshouse, and at times, these institutions were so overcrowded. Prisoners and poor persons were sharing the same spaces. And while there is a lot of clamor about how can you expose children to hardened criminals, let's not forget that children as young as twelve were convicted to the Bridewell for stealing bread. What all this gives us is an insight into life in the 18th century, what it was like to be poor in the 18th century, perhaps being segregated from a portion of society, perhaps being assigned tasks to earn their keep. It was a time when three-fifths of New York City's population were living at or near the subsistence level, if not below. And 10% of the population owned more than half of the city's wealth. The past has a lot to teach us about our present and our future. I'm a firm believer that in order to have a sustainable future, we must have a well-understood past. Archaeology affords us New Yorkers and pretty much anyone in an urban center the opportunity to incorporate the knowledge of our past into our present-day dialogues, into the dialogues about our futures, incorporate the information into our shared spaces, and hopefully, it can bring all of our diverse communities within New York City, again, within any city closer together. And if I can get just one person to think a little bit differently about what they see when they walk down the city streets, or through an urban park, then I've done my job of sharing the past. Thank you. (Applause)