Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
interactive digs
Field Notes 2000 "Brooklyn's Eighteenth-Century Lott House"
August 3, 2000


More than 18 students and volunteers (some from as far away as the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles) participated in July. You can read excerpts from two of the student's notebooks. All of us at BC-ARC would like to express our gratitude to all the students and volunteers who helped us out this year. It was an incredible crew and we wish we could have spent more time in the field working with all of them. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

Field Season 2000 Raises Tantalizing Questions
Field Season 2000 was supposed to wrap up the excavation of the exterior of the Lott House unless the neighbors to the north of the property allowed us to excavate their backyards. As planned, we were then going to wait for the asbestos to be removed from the basement of the house so that we could begin digging inside the house. At least, that was the plan.

Well, the adage "So what have we unlearned today" seems to be the defining statement of the moment.

July saw a continuation of work around the foundation of the house as well as the expansion of the trenches from June in which stone foundation-like rocks and the circular concrete cover was uncovered. July's work revealed even more odd features and stratigraphy.

If you recall, prior to work in June we reported that we expected to find little in terms of artifacts during the June-July field season. We knew going into this year that our goal was to uncover areas that would provide information with regard to the landscape around the house and the foundation wall of the house. This excavation strategy was set to help further our understanding of the different construction periods of the house as well as the various ground surfaces throughout the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. Sure enough, opposed to the almost 60,000 artifacts recovered between 1998 and 1999, this year's work recovered only about 3,000 artifacts. The majority of these were square-cut nails and shells. Little in terms of glass, marbles, buttons, children's toys, and ceramics were recovered. This was disappointing for the students, but we continued to tell them that archaeology is more than just the recovery of artifacts...but in fact, the recovery of information from all sources, including artifacts. With this understanding, our Y2K dig (bet you thought we weren't going to sneak one of these in!) was incredibly successful. So much so that we can't provide one answer to the questions it has all raised.

So, here's what was found, what we thought it should have been, and what we think it all means. We're going to need your help in interpreting this one, so get those thinking caps on and let's see what you think about the following.

In June we believed we had uncovered the cap to either a well or a dry well just to the northeast of the house and the north of the stone foundation/kitchen that was recovered in 1998. This is the general area where a ca. 1900 photograph shows the location of a small wood-framed structure that most likely was a wellhead covering/shack. All of us were excited to return in July to open the cap and excavate the "well." Until, that is, a cast iron waste-type pipe was uncovered running from inside the feature towards the house.

We believed we were uncovering the cap (right) to a well. However, under the cap we found a baffling system connected to the kitchen sink. (Photograph courtesy Brooklyn College)


This type of pipe usually shows up on early twentieth-century sites. Yet, what is strange about this pipe is that it is running in the wrong direction to be a waste pipe...or so we believed. Waste pipes work, in part, with the use of gravity and slope away from houses. Water and waste is pulled towards a septic tank, leach field, or sewer. Yet, this pipe slopes into the house. This made some of us believe that the feature was a dry well or cistern. Water would have been collected in a well, fed into this small feature and funneled into the house through the "waste" pipe. Ok, so this is a bit far-fetched, but possible considering the slope of the pipe. We also know that the only bathroom (there is only one for the 20+ room house) runs out a six inch cast iron pipe and into a septic pit that sits underneath the modern-day garage, approximately 10 meters to the west of this feature.

The only way to tell was to pry the concrete cap off the "tank". It was very exciting with almost all of the field crew watching as three of us lifted it off. What was exposed? A rather smallish circular hole (maybe only about a half meter wide) and covered in roots and vines. It was definitely not a well, as there were no stones to make up the walls. In fact, there were no walls at all. This was a dug pit that had three courses of concrete blocks close to the surface. From there down (which was about 1.5 meters) was just dirt and roots. It was very dry at the bottom of the feature. It was also empty.

To figure out what the function was we began to turn on all the sinks in the house. Nothing from the bathroom fed into this tank, and Dr. Bankoff began to think of it as an overflow tank in case of blocked pipes in the main lines. However, once the kitchen sink was turned on, a very minute trickle of water began to come out. This was really strange. Why connect one sink to such an elaborate system? Remember, running water from the city water system did not enter the house until 1927. This feature has to date from post 1927. Yet, if its purpose was to dispose of water from just one sink, why did they not just connect the house to the city sewer system? It makes no sense. We cannot adequately explain what the purpose of this feature is.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the Manhattan mica-schist stones to the west of the circular tank. The tank itself is intrusive to the stones. But what are they?

If you recall from our discussion of the 1998 field season and the stone feature/kitchen, Manhattan mica-schist, it is generally believed, was not used until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The stone feature/kitchen's foundation was made up of these exact same stones. This structure was dismantled ca. 1927 when the city street was laid.

It appears that the stones recovered in 2000 were from the remains of the stone feature/kitchen. Yet, as one student pointed out, if the stones were from that feature, why was there no indication of mortar on them? The stones from the stone feature/kitchen were mortared together and therefore would have had some remains still attached.


The stones are a single layer deep and are (generally) placed in pairs. Approximately 7 meters of the feature was uncovered this year. It is located not too far below ground (only about 25 centimeters). At first we believed it might have been the foundation to the wood structure that surrounded the well. We believed that there was a well just to the north of the house in this area. Yet, it did not turn to make a square. Instead it looks more path-like as it runs, generally, in a straight line on an angle to the house. It really looks like a path, but this is strange for three reasons.

What are Manhattan mica-schist stones doing in this trench? (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

First, the Lott's had made use of cut square flagstones around the house. These were available to them during this time period. Secondly, the schist is not a flat, level stone but instead is bumpy. It does not make for smooth walking, horse riding or carriage riding. Finally, its location in relation to the house is strange in that it appears to run adjacent to the lean-to.

So, when was this feature laid and why?

To the west of the house we excavated a trench just to the south of the western entrance to the basement. We were excavating in this area to uncover evidence on the construction of the western wing based, hopefully, on the discovery of a builder's trench. Unfortunately, confirming work done in 1999 and 2000 on the northern side of the house, it does not appear that a builder's trench exists...or does it...but more on this in a few moments.

What was uncovered was a dry well. Under the eve of the house, where the wooden gutter ends, was a wooden barrel that was sunk in the ground to help keep water away from the foundation. This barrel was banded with wood and not metal, which leads us to believe that it was constructed on site and may be contemporaneous with the construction of the ca. 1800s western wing of the house. The barrel had no bottom so that the water could drain out. Of course, if you think about this, doesn't that defeat the purpose of the dry well itself? Won't the water seep towards the foundation and the limestone plaster that serves as the mortar?

A barrel may have caught rainwater, keeping it away from the house foundation. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)


Unfortunately the only artifacts to come out of the barrel were bricks. Generally, bricks are not the most useful artifacts, due to the traditionally nondescriptive nature of them, but these bricks are typical of those formed in the early nineteenth century. They are thin and include lots of inclusions...all signs of being locally manufactured.

The stratigraphy around the barrel it also supports the early placement. During the mop-up of the trench, however, we noticed that the northern wall of the trench had a curious dark brown clay-like layer that was actually under what we have believed to be the sterile soil layer of the Lott property: a thick, wet red clay layer. The red clay layer, which was on top of the brown clay-like layer, appeared in the eastern corner adjacent to the foundation wall to dip like a traditional pit feature. It appears that the brown soil may in fact be the natural soil layer and the red clay may in fact be fill.

FILL! Yikes! Now what?

If the red clay layer is fill, where did it come from? This layer is everywhere on site. What does that mean? Does it also mean that we should go back and re-excavate every single trench on site that was stopped due to this layer? And just where the heck is the builder's trench? See the "What's on Deck?" section at the bottom of this report for our plan of attack.

Finally it is time to discuss one the greatest surprise findings of the Lott House Project.

To continue our foundation wall study, we had decided to put a two-meter trench along the south side of the western wing of the house where it joins with the central wing and the porch. Once the red clay layer was hit, prior to the discovery in the western foundation trench, the students had wanted to move on. On the north side of the house, pretty much opposite of where they were, they uncovered the modern cast-iron waste pipe that runs into the septic tank. So, they wanted to go to another area, away from the foundation of the house in the hopes of finding, as they put it, "ANYTHING...aside from stones." But Dr. Bankoff, Alyssa, and I all said, "Let's just take it down a bit more." And this time, WE WERE RIGHT!

The students uncovered the foundation remains of an early doorway that led into the basement of the house. This really surprised us all. We had no idea that this would be here. From inside the basement, there is no indication of a doorway. The area that it would have led into is presently covered with late nineteenth-century wainscoting. We believe this room was redone in the late nineteenth century.


The doorway juts out of foundation. It's massive. Plaster remains on both sides of it, and a stone step, which we presume to be the bottom step, is still in place. What makes this even more special is that this feature mirrors the basement entrance on the eastern side of the south facing foundation between the porch and the 1720s wing of the house.

Left, a surprising new doorway once accessed by the basement (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

So, this Dutch Colonial-American house exhibits yet another Georgian-style symmetrical feature. Why was this doorway closed off? We assume that the entrance to the basement on the western wing of the house, which leads into the same finished room in the basement, was constructed after the ca. 1800 construction of the house itself. If they already had an entrance to this room, why close it off, which blows the symmetry of the house, only to construct another entrance into the same room?

Next to and on top of the doorway foundation were green shell-edge rim fragments. These date between 1800 and 1840, but are generally uncommon on sites after the 1830s. So, can we assume that these are terminus post quem's for the site? If so, does this mean that the door was closed off within 30 years of its construction? If so, why? When was the entrance to the west constructed then?

What's on Deck?
Next week, we're going to be discussing the issue of the stratigraphy of the landscape. So, just how flat was the historic town of Flatlands? Yup, you guessed doesn't appear to be flat at all. So what's up with the red clay layer? Where's the builder's trench and if there isn't one, just how was the house built? More on this next week.

A week or two after that we'll update you on the various school groups that came to the house between June and August to help us dig. As important as this research-oriented dig is to all of us, involving children in the actual dig site so they can learn about what archaeologists do and the history of their state hands-on is just as important.

Finally, beginning in early September, as the students return to school, we'll update you with lab work and our overall findings on the site. Topics of these updates will include information based from our three doctoral dissertations, two of which BETTER be finished by the fall or else! Stay tuned for information regarding the uncovering of evidence of enslaved Africans on site!

previous next

Lott House Main Page | Field Notes | Bulletin Board

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America