The Excavations

In the summer of 2011, archaeologists conducted excavations at Seneca Village. The excavation was a long time in the making. Preliminary research on the site began over a decade ago. The study of historical maps, soils, and ground penetrating radar allowed us to pinpoint locations where it seemed possible that traces of the village might have survived. There were six areas identified. Once we had gathered this information, it took us more than five years to get permission to excavate, a negotiation which was ultimately successful only because of the skills and dedication of some of our Advisory Board members.

When we began fieldwork, our research questions focused on several different levels of inquiry. We wanted to 'ground truth' the radar and see the extent to which the GPR had been successful in identifying archaeological remains. If in fact we found archaeological remains related to Seneca Village, we were interested in determining their extent and excavating a sample of them so we could explore the material lives of the people who lived there. Finally, assuming we recovered enough material, we were interested in exploring what it meant to be a member of the black middle-class in New York in the 19th century. We looked forward to comparing our finds with those from other contemporary middle-class African-American communities throughout the United States as well as with middle-class Euro-American sites in New York.

We received an REU grant from the National Science Foundation (#1062796), which supported the interns who worked with us throughout the field and preliminary laboratory phases of the project. We also received support from National Geographic, the Durst Foundation, the Friends of Cornell Edwards, and the Gilder Foundation.

Our eight week field program started in early June, 2011. We proceeded systematically, from area to area, and evaluated whether the features that the GPR had identified were relevant to the history of Seneca Village. The excavations were extremely successful. Although as expected some of the features pinpointed did not relate to the Village, we discovered two features that were very important. One was the foundation walls and cellar deposits of the home of William Godfrey Wilson, a porter and sexton of one of the village churches, and his wife, Charlotte, and their eight children. These deposits contain both architectural and domestic materials which will allow us to explore the lives of the Wilson family. Particularly evocative finds included a child's shoe, a roasting pan, and a tea kettle. The other feature was made up of the deposits from a buried ground surface behind two houses in another part of the village. We are looking forward to using the data from this feature to reconstruct the environment in this part of the site as well as the ways of life of the people who lived there. Thus, we expect to address all of our research issues.

The research focus of the Seneca Village project concerns the identity of its residents. Archaeologists have begun to consider the lives of middle class African Americans, focusing on the ways their consumption of material culture expressed class and racial identities. Historian Leslie Alexander believes that Seneca Village not only provided a respite from discrimination in the city, but also embodied ideas about African pride and racial consciousness. We are exploring this issue of "African" and "American" identities in the material culture from the excavations and comparing it that of other Black and White middle-class communities.

Most Americans underestimate the presence and significance of enslaved and free Blacks in the north. They are also unaware of the existence of middle-class African Americans. This project challenges these stereotypes by calling attention to the presence of a Black middle-class community in the heart of New York City, in Central Park, an iconic landmark.

– Diana diZerega Wall, Department of Anthropology, The City College of New York/The Graduate Center, CUNY
– Nan A. Rothschild, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, Columbia University