scorecardresearch Skip to main content

As urban archeology ramps up, sometimes the best sightseeing is beneath your feet

Many digs are open to the public, and visitors can see relics in their original settings rather than museums. Some can even roll up their sleeves and help unearth real stories.

A couple sits on the steps of Fort Greene Park's Monument Plaza at dusk in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Dec. 23, 2020. The monument marks the site of a crypt for more than 11,500 prison ship martyrs who were buried in a tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Beneath the feet of the dog walkers, children, and assorted hipsters treading across Fort Greene Park are the vestiges of one of the grimmest and most dramatic chapters in US history. And most Americans have never heard of it.

Here lie the remains of 11,500 American soldiers who died of starvation, beatings, and disease on overcrowded British prison ships anchored just offshore during the Revolutionary War, their bodies dumped overboard into what is now New York Harbor.

The details and scope of this story have emerged in large part thanks to urban archeology — excavations not in far-away deserts or long-ago battlefields, but just under the ground of cities where people live and work oblivious to what’s beneath them.


“Archeology has expanded the narrative and been the steward to ensure that we don’t neglect this history, or a sense of the sacredness of places,” said Alyssa Loorya, founder and president of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants and former president of the Professional Archaeologists of New York, who sometimes gives tours of Fort Greene.

Now urban archeology is enjoying a resurgence as technology advances that can pinpoint important dig sites, new finds emerge, and people seek a fuller accounting of the past and new ways to appreciate the layers of it underneath the cities that they visit.

“There’s a heightened interest in what we call difficult history — the difficult-to-face parts of American history,” said Kari Jones, chief archeologist at the Presidio Trust, which is excavating around the site of a Spanish fort built to police indigenous people in what is now San Francisco’s Presidio section. “Sharing the authentic history of this country really resonates with people, and urban archeology is a fantastic way to do that.”

The site of the Presidio Trust dig in San Francisco.Presidio Trust

Like the Presidio’s, many digs are open to the public, and visitors can see patterns emerge and relics in their original settings rather than museums. Some can even roll up their sleeves and help; the National Park Service’s Urban Archaeology Corps has resumed accepting recruits to work with partner organizations on archeology projects.


“People are inherently fascinated by what happened in their surroundings. It’s immediate to them,” Loorya said. Children are especially drawn in. “Adults often don’t see the thing you’re pointing at,” said Jones, “and kids can find the thing and see the patterns.” Plus, she said, urban excavations are so rich that “if you walk up and there’s an archeologist working, they will almost certainly find something while you’re standing there.”

Also in New York, archeologists have established the location of Seneca Village, a long-forgotten Black settlement that was demolished to make way for Central Park. The site, inside the park near its West 85th Street entrance, is marked, and the items dug up there — a toothbrush, kitchen implements, a shoe — helped historians re-create a Seneca Village home now on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Archeologist Eric Schweickart searches for artifacts at a dig in Virginia.Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post

The largest public archeology project west of the Mississippi, the Presidio digs have turned up Native American artifacts dating back 1,200 years and more recent objects from California’s Spanish and Mexican periods through the US annexation. Volunteers are at the site to answer questions on Fridays and Saturdays from May through October.

Travelers to Williamsburg, Va., can also watch archeologists at work and tour the lab where they examine what they find. Active digs include one of the house and grounds of John Custis IV and the enslaved men and women who built and maintained them, and the First Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest Black-founded churches.


Just outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was signed affirming that all men were created equal, is the preserved archeological dig that uncovered the brick mansion where George Washington lived as president — along with his enslaved servants. Archeologists have also found the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house, and his grandson’s printing office, where privy pits and an ice vault are visible.

A long-running archeological examination of Annapolis, Md., unearthed such oddities as an underground heating system in the home once occupied by Maryland Governor Charles Calvert that made it possible to grow oranges; the system has been left exposed through glass panels in the floor of the house, which is now an inn. Hidden under a door frame of Annapolis’s James Brice House, archeologists found African folk objects hidden there by enslaved people who believed that they would bring good luck.

Not all urban archeology occurs in places famous for their histories. The Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., is an active archeological dig site that is finding the tools and weapons of the indigenous Calusa people and the settlers who came after them.

Much of this work reveals the lives not of prominent people, whose exploits have been widely recorded, but of ordinary ones.

In New York’s South Street Seaport, for example, archeologists found bottles of mineral water imported from Germany around 1798, leading to the surprising revelation that New Yorkers were drinking bottled water as early as the 18th century. Further archeology in Philadelphia has turned up such things as a mid-18th-century tavern, an early 20th-century button factory, wig curlers, liquor bottles, and other everyday relics.


“Urban archeology finds what was buried because it was useless or discarded,” said Mark Leone, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland and director of Archeology in Annapolis, which has now turned its attention to a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the house where Frederick Douglass was enslaved. “It’s not necessarily rare or unique. What makes it important is what it tells you.”

A dig at the David Tilden House (circa 1725) in Canton, Mass. The work was conducted under a State Archaeologist's Permit issued by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

That’s increasingly attracting travelers who want to know more about their destinations.

The tour company Secret Vienna, for example, reports growing interest in the ruins of a Roman military camp and town from 97 A.D., discovered by archeologists near the middle of that city; the excavation includes taverns, thermal baths, shops, and theaters.

In Portugal, archeologists in the city of Évora have found not only Roman but also Visigoth and Arab influences dating back 2,000 years, and the ruins of a Roman city are drawing visitors to the town of Marvão.

“It’s one thing to go to a museum and read the little card. It’s another thing to see it and be able to ask questions, said Marco Fernandes, vice president of Sagres Vacations in Fall River, which runs trips to Portugal.


He said interest in archeological sites is up.

“We’ve seen in the last four or five years people looking for vacations that are immersive and cultural, and not just sun and fun,” Fernandes said.

By its nature, urban archeology means they don’t have to look far.

In this 2015 file photo, a worker stands in front of ongoing excavations at the Templo Mayor archeological site in downtown Mexico City.Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

Mexico City, built largely atop the Aztec civilization that preceded the Spanish colonial one, “is like Rome, in the sense that all the ruins are integrated into the central city,” said Sarah Casewit, Mexico Travel Curator for the custom tour operator Origin. “You’re going to a Michelin-starred restaurant for lunch and then you go over to this incredible archeological site for the afternoon. It’s a way of literally stepping into history.”

And more of it is turning up.

A huge and extremely well-preserved mosaic floor from Roman times was found by archeologists in February in London’s Southwark neighborhood. Archeologists near Basel in Switzerland discovered a Roman amphitheater in December.

But the flurry of urban archeology is often even closer to home.

“When people think about archeology, they think about Rome or Egypt or Mexico City and they’re often surprised that it’s here in San Francisco,” said Jones, at the Presidio. “What I hear most from visitors is, ‘How did I not know about this stuff?’ "

Jon Marcus can be reached at