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Archaeologists Seek Clues to Central Park

Archaeologists Seek Clues to Central Park
Settlement Founded by Free Blacks

Archaeologists are digging with electronic fingers into the soil of Central Park to learn more about Seneca Village, a vanished 19th-century settlement of poor folks — Blacks, Irish immigrants and others — that existed before the park landscapers arrived in the 1850s.

A team of scientists from Barnard College and City College of New York launched the two-day effort last month, using ground-penetrating radar to probe selected areas of the site that once covered roughly two blocks and was home to as many as 260 people.

The radar, or GPR, transmits ultra high-frequency radio impulses into the ground that are reflected back by buried objects or differences in rock density, forming a digital image on a screen without any physical disturbance of the site. Pulling the wheeled device along like a little red wagon, a GPR technician can probe as far as 15 feet below the surface.

The five-acre site that was the heart of the village was previously probed last fall, when 100 core-sample borings recovered pieces of ceramics, glass, pipe stems and other items reflective of daily life of the time, and narrowed the area to be examined further.

“We are trying to get a sense of how people lived in what was really a middle-class African-American settlement of the mid-19th century,” says Dr. Nan Rothschild, a Barnard archaeologist and co-director of the project. The project is sponsored by the schools.

Rothschild says any decisions to physically excavate the site would be based on what the radar discovered.

“Seneca Village has always been a part of the history of the park, and we are always interested in more information, but that is far down the road,” says Linda Blumberg, vice president for communications at the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park.

The “noninvasive” GPR technology has been used in recent years in many archaeological explorations around the globe, including Port Royal, Jamaica, destroyed by a 1692 earthquake; lost cemeteries; and battlefields of various wars. The U.S. military uses it to locate Missing In Action crash sites in Indochina, and ground-penetrating radar also has been used to locate buried land mines.

Often described as one of several “squatters camps” of huts and shacks that were displaced by the building of Central Park, Seneca Village actually was a more permanent and well-ordered community, with three churches, a school and some inhabitants who owned their property, experts now say.

Although founded by free Blacks, it later became a multiethnic settlement that included Irish and German immigrants and possibly some American Indians, according to various historical sources.

— Associated Press

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