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August 10, 2005

Researchers Seek Buried Evidence of Early African-American and Irish Settlement That Flourished in Central Park

NEW YORK, August 10, 2005 – Archaeologists from Barnard College and The City College of New York (CCNY), in cooperation with the New York Historical Society, have renewed their exploration of Seneca Village, the 19th century African-American and Irish immigrant settlement in Central Park – focusing their search on evidence of burial grounds and residential areas.

Using ground-penetrating radar, the researchers hope to reveal evidence of old building foundations, privies and cemeteries during the three-day expedition that begins this morning and runs through Friday, August 12. Professors Nan Rothschild of Barnard, Diana Wall of CCNY, and Cynthia Copeland, intermediate and high school programs coordinator for the New York Historical Society, are conducting the research. Professor Larry Conyers of the University of Denver, the foremost scholar in the use of radar instrumentation in archaeological research, will direct work on the site.

Founded in 1825, Seneca Village was manhattan’s first significant community of African-American property owners. It was located between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues in an area that is now part of Central Park. In the 1840s, European immigrants, primarily Irish, began to move into the village. In 1855, approximately 264 people lived there, two-thirds of whom were African-American. Then, the homes were demolished by the city under eminent domain laws to make way for Central Park. At the time, newspapers described the houses as “shanties,” but they were, in fact, homes built in one of the few places African-Americans were able to buy land. Because at the time only property owners were permitted to vote, some of the landowners might have bought the land in order to vote. The village also included three churches, several cemeteries, and a school.

Last fall, the New York researchers conducted soil borings in several specific locations within the roughly five-acre site. They discovered areas where the soil was undisturbed and located artifacts and evidence pointing to the existence of Seneca Village structures. Now, the goal is to go back and look at these areas more closely to identify features such as foundation walls from the buildings that used to exist there. The team will also look for graveyards in areas where churches were located.

“Our work with documents such as maps and church records showed us the potential sites for the borings that we conducted last fall,” said Rothschild. “The radar offers a new form of information on sub-surface conditions and will help us pinpoint likely areas for further examination.”

Ultimately, they hope that the work with the ground-penetrating radar will help them identify the best places to dig. The eventual goal, should the results warrant it, will be to seek permission from the city to conduct an actual archaeological dig in the park in the future.

"One of the promises of the archaeological study of modern cities is that it allows us to find out about the ways of life of people whose lives never got recorded, such as the African-Americans and early European settlers who lived in Seneca Village,” said Wall.

Research on Seneca Village began in 1997 with the opening of an exhibit at the New York Historical Society co-curated by Cynthia Copeland. In 2000 and 2001, Rothschild, Wall, and Copeland directed a team of students from Barnard, CCNY, Columbia, Hunter, Lehman, NYU and BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) in conducting the first in-depth survey of Seneca Village.

The project has received funds from the National Science Foundation to City College, as well as grants from Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Theory and Research and the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York (PSC-CUNY) Research Award Program.