Workers digging near New York’s iconic Washington Square Park have uncovered two burial chambers. The crypts house coffins and human bones thought to be about 200 years old.
So far the team has identified more than a dozen coffins in the vaults, which could have been part of the burial grounds of one of two now-defunct Presbyterian churches, according to archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, owner of Chrysalis, the company tasked with investigating the site.
Loorya soon hopes to be able to make out nameplates positioned atop the coffins. One of the crypts, which she says had clearly been disturbed by human hands, includes a pile of skulls and other bones that seem to have been stacked in the corner after the bodies disintegrated.
“We knew that we could be encountering some human remains,” says associate commissioner Tom Foley of New York’s Department of Design and Construction. That's part of why the group has been working with archaeologists since beginning its $9-million project to install a water main running from the east to west sides of town. “As you peel away the asphalt and concrete face of this city, you find its history.”
From 1797 through 1825, the location served as a “potter’s field,” a public burial ground. Experts estimate that tens of thousands of decomposed bodies lay beneath the stones that line the park and its pathways. After the land became a city park in 1827, a military parade that featured cannons reportedly overturned stones and revealed yellow shrouds covering the remains of people who died during yellow fever outbreaks.
Foley has firsthand experience unearthing Manhattan’s historical mysteries. Previous construction projects came upon artifacts including a commemorative plate from George Washington’s inauguration.
Skeleton remains also turned up in 2008 during a controversial park restoration project; soil testing by the city’s parks and recreation department found dozens of bones that the city left in the ground.
City policies prohibit entering the newly discovered chambers, which lie a mere three-and-a-half feet below a street that runs along the campus of New York University. But archaeologists hope to learn more by sticking a camera in through a hole and taking high-resolution photos that could reveal additional details about the coffins and the bones. They will try to match any names they spot to historical records from the churches that the crypts could belong to—though whether those records still exist is anyone’s guess.
When those churches still stood, this part of Greenwich Village was a very different place. Today, tourists flock to the area to gawk at the park’s massive stone arch and its street artists. But in the late 18th century, the then-rural area was inhabited by a different breed of pioneers, many of who had fled northward from what is today Wall Street in order to avoid rampant disease.
“One of the properties nearby may have belonged to a former slave,” says Loorya. “The remains could also potentially belong to the families of merchants who moved into the area.”
As archaeologists piece together the story told by the remains, city officials are working on revising their construction plan. “We’ll be making every effort to redesign the project to avoid impacts to the burial vaults,” says Foley. That redesign will likely involve changing the course of the subterranean pipes to be installed to avoid the chambers.
But given the rich history of the area, there may be more surprises in store.
“We don’t know what we will find,” says Loorya. “We might find other burial chambers.”