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Cover-up at City Hall? Volume 52 Number 5, September/October 1999
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

[image] Burials found to the right of City Hall are shrouded in secrecy. (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE]

It's been a hot summer, but that's not why archaeology insiders in Lower Manhattan are stewing. Here, just outside the mayor's office in City Hall Park, an excavation is under way tied to the restoration of the park to its former "setting of grandeur" and "historic significance." Archaeology, however, has turned up not proud monuments of nineteenth-century glory, but modest burials in a corner of the park. City officials say the 11 bodies (there may be more) belong to an eighteenth-century alms house, although it seems equally likely to one local archaeologist not associated with the dig that they could be related to a French-Indian War barracks, or a contemporary prison that occupied the site, or even a neighboring medical school. But there's another possible explanation for the bodies, one that strikes fear in the hearts of city officials: that they belong to the African Burial Ground (see "Bones & Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbroglio," March/ April 1993), which appears on historic maps to stop north of the park but whose bounds have never been determined archaeologically. The burial ground, which spanned six acres, was a political hot potato five years ago when the black community demanded that they have a say in the fate of the 420 skeletons unearthed on the site of a planned federal building.

Further investigation would seem a logical next step, but it's unclear whether that will happen, and archaeologists aren't talking. Sources tell Archaeology that city contracts forbid speaking about the project, and that the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city agency directly overseeing the excavation, has threatened to silence loose lips with a $1,000 fine. Archaeologists associated with the project refused comment for this article.

Green plastic tarps hung on fence hide emerging bones from passersby. (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Green plastic tarps on a fence surrounding the site obstruct any view of it. The New York Times called the tarps a step "to preserve the dignity of the dead," but Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's press office has been so unresponsive to ARCHAEOLOGY's questions about the project (insisting that all requests for interviews be channeled through it and then failing to return multiple phone calls) that the tarps seem rather a step to shield the site from public scrutiny.

"These are public moneys," says Ayo Harrington, community activist and chair of Friends of the African Burial Ground, referring to the City Hall Park restoration's $20-plus million pricetag. "That requires public input every step of the way. There's no reason historical preservation should be political, but with this administration, that's wishful thinking."

The skeletons have lain exposed to the elements for at least two months as bureaucrats have debated whether to rebury them in situ or remove them for study; whether the skeletons can support the weight of a path planned to run over them, and if not, whether to rebury them elsewhere (with or without pomp and circumstance) or to redesign the path. Reburial in situ, in keeping with the city's protocol on primary burials (according to ARCHAEOLOGY's sources), is now the favored option. That would leave unanswered questions that a physical anthropologist could resolve given a week with the bones.

But forgoing the chance to document these lives may not be the only squandered legacy of City Hall Park. "What a superb opportunity missed to reach out to the children of New York," said Diane Dallal of New York Unearthed, New York City's archaeology museum. "Here was an educational opportunity right at the tip of Manhattan; instead, history may be covered over."

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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