Archeology Goes Urban
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you’re speed-walking past tourists — atop untold bits of history.
By Farah Halime
Empty your mind of iconic bridges, hipster boutiques and Coney Island. There’s another Brooklyn, one with white picket fences, manicured lawns and rows of American flags. And like any Everytown, Marine Park has a haunted house.
Which happens to be the purview of Alyssa Loorya. She has a curious archaeology job in a branch known as cultural resources management — but you can call Loorya an urban archaeologist. As such, she excavates and researches on behalf of developers and New York City, applying the work we associate with fossilized pterodactyls to the world’s busiest cities. Loorya is now restoring the Lott House, an 18-room colonial home and onetime slave quarters built in 1720, parts of it predating the founding of the United States. Eventually, it’ll be a museum. “It’s kind of like the Tardis,” Loorya says. “It’s even bigger on the inside.” If this sounds like a hot job, that’s because it is.
The galloping pace of urbanization has stoked nearly unprecedented demand for urban archaeologists. Urban development is booming to keep up with population increases, and as construction spending surges — it rose to the highest level in more than seven years in July, to more than $1 trillion, according to the Department of Commerce — so have urban archaeology gigs. They are projected to grow 19 percent over the next 10 years, faster than average for other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
History and the future can come to blows.
It’s one of the many ways that savvy professionals, both junior and midstream, are spotting trends and adapting their careers to make the most of them. Like journalists jumping from print to digital, or aspiring healers who choose nursing instead of an M.D., these Indiana Joneses of cities are preserving the past according to the needs of the future — especially by helping developers comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
They don’t work on every construction project, of course. Projects with federal funding must get an assessment of potential archaeological impacts. Conversely, developers who don’t seek federal funds could put a perfectly preserved T. rex through a meat grinder if they chose to. That said, the feds aren’t the only ones worried about preservation. State, municipal and tribal governments often require such assessments — and they’ll excavate or move a project if it’s deemed historically important.
That’s when history and the future can come to blows. Some in the business of building cities’ futures argue that too much focus on the past is a detriment to progress. “You have to balance moving forward and respecting what was, you know?” says Aaron Keller, co-founder of Capsule, a Minneapolis design firm. Christina Birkentall, a consultant for corporate design and lecturer at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, agrees: “People place a value on salvaging old buildings, even though not all of them are worth saving.”
Yet the finds can be brilliant. Loorya and her team, for instance, have collected hundreds of artifacts that accumulated in Lott House over the centuries. Dozens of Saks Fifth Avenue hatboxes are piled in one upper bedroom lined with Laura Ashely–esque floral wallpaper dating from the 1800s; shovels, pitchforks and other rusted farm tools, mementos of the farming heyday, lie in piles near the basement; and ritual materials kept by the slaves that worked the grounds and home, including half an animal pelvis, have been delicately glued together from shards.
They will have stiff competition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects only about 1,400 new jobs in the next decade, in a climate of Ph.D. programs that overproduce graduates. Plus, the pay is not exactly T. rex in size. Although it varies by region, compensation averages $15 to $20 per hour for “shovelbums,” short-term field archaeologists who work on a project basis; on the other end of the spectrum, principal investigators, who manage large projects, can expect up to $60,000 a year. For those like Loorya who set up their own firms, the money can be much better, but the field is prone to fits of boom and bust. The finds don’t always make up for the money either. “When you walk 20 miles and all you find is dirt, and you get rained on, it loses its glamour,” says Ken Basalik, president of Cultural Heritage Research Services, a Pennsylvania-based private archaeology firm, and a specialist in urban archaeology with 40 years’ experience.
Then again, the find of the year sometimes turns up underfoot. Last month, Loorya was called in when contractors working to replace a 100-year-old water main in New York City’s Washington Square Park found something unexpected. They’d happened upon two 200-year-old burial vaults — the city had actually found one of them in 1965 but then forgot where it was. This site, by the way, is steps from NYU’s own department of archaeology.
“I expected that we would encounter a potential for human burials on this project,” says Loorya. In other words: Just another day on the job.
- Farah Halime, Farah is a British-Palestinian transplant to Brooklyn who is still trying to figure out the strange habits of New Yorkers. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and she’s the founder of a blog called Rebel Economy. Follow Farah Halime on TwitterContact Farah Halime