An Introduction to Urban Archaeology

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Cities have been built on top of the ruins of previous cities, and homes, over older homes for thousands of years. This worldwide tradition has lead many people, professional archaeologists and amateurs alike, toward an interest in what lies beneath the surface of city streets and below foundations. Today urban archaeology is unearthing more and more of the past, from remnants of everyday household items to entire structures, and unearthing long buried bits of the historic past.

Before garbage pickup and landfills, people buried their unwanted materials, broken items, and other debris beneath cellar floors, in the back yard, or simply threw these items down the family privy. These items are still there, and in some areas one or two hundred years of relics of the past may have accumulated, buried deep in the land. Archaeologists have long been aware of this from excavating ancient cities where buried ruins may contain everything from pottery to entire homes.

Urban archaeology became a great source of interest in the more modern cities as excavations began to reveal discarded treasures from the past. These items provide the researcher and archaeologist with a better idea of what neighborhoods consisted of, what businesses were there, and even the life in individual homes. Old tools, bottles, advertising signs, clothing, toys, pottery, and glassware are all good indicators of not only what was once there, but even the economic and social atmosphere of the area. As digging revealed more and more artifacts, mapping of certain city areas began, to determine how they looked in previous centuries, and what structures were once there.

An example of one urban archaeology project in New York City, called the Five Points Site, unearthed an entire 19th century neighborhood. This urban dig revealed businesses such as a tannery, and a brewery, as well as personal household items from neighboring homes which even included crystal, and imported china. Over 850,000 items were unearthed from this neighborhood alone. Unfortunately, only the pictures remain since they were being stored in the World Trade Center, and were destroyed.

Items found as a result of urban archaeology give historians a clearer picture of life in the past that can’t be obtained from books alone. By seeing actual everyday materials from these eras, they are able to better grasp what life was like, and by rediscovering lost neighborhoods and communities, they can map out the history of a city more accurately.

More about this author: Lenna Gonya

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