The streets, sidewalks and yards of the Bronx might appear to be unremarkable, but what lies underneath is a cornucopia of historical treasures. Allan S. Gilbert, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, wants you to know about what lurks below the surface of New York City’s northernmost borough and the longtime home of Fordham University.
Gilbert, who teaches in Fordham College at Rose Hill, is in the process of finishing a new book on Bronx archaeology, tentatively titled Digging the Bronx: Recent Archaeology in the Borough, which will be published by the Bronx County Historical Society. What made the Bronx such an exciting topic for Gilbert is the great finds to be had beneath its soil, and that there was so little awareness that archaeological study within the borders of New York City had ever been done outside of Manhattan.
“Because there’s nothing like it,” said Gilbert on why he put together the new book. “It’s a bit of a first. It’s not that archaeology has not been done in the Bronx before, but it has not been done with a view towards letting the people who live here know what’s going on.” Gilbert hopes to make the book accessible to the everyday Bronx resident or any layman with an interest in what exists just below the ground they walk on every day.
“There are good things, interesting things, going on in the outer boroughs as far as archaeology is concerned, but the work focused on Manhattan is what people think is really important,” he said.
The Bronx County Historical Society has done a great deal of work when it comes to the borough’s archaeology, Gilbert said, so it was the logical choice to combine with them to publish the book; a decision he made roughly a decade ago.
“I didn’t just think of this,” Gilbert said. “This has been in progress, with various obstacles, since at least 1997. It occurred to me in the mid-1990s that we needed to report on this. And the Bronx County Historical Society was the perfect vehicle to get this information out.”
Gilbert hopes to put the final touches on the book in the summer and is optimistic about it being available for sale during the Christmas season. Once completed, the book will feature six separate essays by varied contributors on archaeological finds throughout the Bronx and the need for their preservation. One chapter, co-authored by Gilbert and fellow Fordham professor Roger Wines, Ph.D., will cover in great detail the archaeological dig that took place next to Collins Hall on the Rose Hill campus, in which he uncovered the remains of the original Rose Hill Manor. At 17 years, this dig was the longest continuous archaeological project in the city’s history.
The book will also cover the excavation of the Van Cortlandt House in Van Cortlandt Park in Riverdale and the discovery of a turtle petroglyph found in the New York Botanical Garden, perhaps the oldest piece of Native American artwork found in the borough. For Gilbert, it is not only interesting that such artifacts have been found in the Bronx, but that work is finally being done to find such pieces in all the outer boroughs. “It’s not that The Bronx is in some way more special than any other place,” said Gilbert. “Archaeology is as interesting as the interest that people have in knowing what went on, and that goes for any place. It doesn’t matter whether New York is mostly streets and sidewalks and buildings. Underneath that crust there is archaeological material. It hasn’t been totally destroyed. And as a result there are things that you can learn about people who came before, here and anywhere.”
Gilbert is also devoting part of the book to the practice of archaeology, not simply what has been found but also how it was found.
“It occurred to me that not only could we alert people to what’s been found,” Gilbert said, “but we could explain to them in the book how the archaeology gets done in all of the diverse ways that it can. So the book is instructive not only in substantive ways, but it’s instructive in terms of the methods, the way archaeology gets done.”
In the foreword to the book, Gilbert notes the importance of preserving the archaeological history of not just the Bronx but New York City as a whole, if not the entire world, comparing artifacts to “unread books in a library” and discussing the need for their preservation. To appreciate these finds, people need to be able to grasp them, and Gilbert hopes that his book, which goes to great lengths to make the information accessible to everyone, will aid in that process.
“If you ruin [the sites and artifacts], it’s like you took all these fresh books that no one has ever read and threw them in the garbage,” Gilbert said. “People may not care, but I think that if they don’t care it’s because they don’t know.”
By John DeSio