A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
On the day before Valentine's Day in 1993, workers from Con Ed tried to install electric transformers beneath Chambers Street, just north of the Tweed Courthouse. They dug a trench about 20 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 13 feet deep--and literally turned some heads.
Eric Byron of the museum New York Unearthed walked past the site on his way to work and saw the bones being dug up. He made several telephone calls alerting archaeologists and others to the situation. Soon after, Gina Stahlnecker, special assistant to State Senator David Patterson, who had vigorously fought for the preservation of the African Burial Ground in 1991, arrived at the scene and immediately called police. "The hole was chock-a-block with bones," said Stahlnecker. "There were broken jaws with teeth in them, loose teeth, and chips of bone the size of a thumbnail. I think the police first thought it was Mafia related, but Con Ed knew the area was archaeologically sensitive. They got their permit from the Department of Transportation because they knew if they contacted the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a permit they'd have to jump through hoops and it would be very costly."
A Con Ed spokesman told reporters that the electric company obtained valid permits that didn't mention Chambers Street's potential to yield human bones. A transportation department spokesman said they will henceforth refer all permit requests for the City Hall Park area to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Before these statements were issued, however, Stahlnecker said she, Con Ed workers, and the police engaged in a lengthy confrontation, and a crowd began to gather. A staff archaeologist from the commission acknowledged the bones, and the city assigned a 24-hour police watch to guard the dirt, as well as the truckloads that had already been hauled away. All the soil was later dumped on the fenced playground at Stuyvesant High School, located at the west end of Chambers Street.
"It rained on the dirt; the sun baked down on it," said Stahlnecker, who called the cable television channel New York 1 News to expose what she considered city negligence. "I could see where the bones had washed out from the dirt. The out-shoot from the press was that the city put plastic over it." An archaeologist and daring Stuyvesant science students picked through the soil and collected 17 two-by-one foot, acid-free boxes of human remains, Stahlnecker said. At first they were stored in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse, but they were sent to Brooklyn College for storage during the renovation of the courthouse, which is still underway. So far an inventory of the remains, which are very fragmentary, has not been conducted. Because of their poor condition and the way in which they were unearthed and treated afterward, the remains may yield little information.
That embarrassing episode from 1993 may have caused the city to reconsider how it treats the dead. Last October a water main broke on Chambers Street between Centre Street and Broadway, and in the process of fixing it emergency workers from the Department of Environmental Conservation found human bone fragments. This time the mayor's office dealt with the situation in an open, agreeable manner. An urban archaeologist, a medical examiner, homicide detectives, and a priest were all called to the site. The bones were determined to be from one or more Caucasian bodies, and not from the African Burial Ground. The remains went peacefully to a climate-controlled room in the nearby Tweed Gallery.
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