Shards tell bit of Brooklyn history

Revolutionary War era boys school excavated at New Utrecht church

August 04, 2002|By Jason Begay | Jason Begay,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Carefully examining a dozen glazed clay shards, Jennifer Borishansky, a third-year archaeology student, saw her duty as the sorting out of a 200-year-old Revolutionary War-era jigsaw puzzle.

The pieces were washed of the mud and vegetation that had clung to them through two centuries underground. Some of the pieces were about the size of Borishansky's palm, others just crumbs of what she thought was a crock pot, used to store food or water. "It probably wasn't used for cooking, but it was used for food for sure," she said.

Site of church

The shards, and thousands of others like them, were uncovered from the back yard of the New Utrecht Reformed Church at 84th Street and 18th Avenue in Brooklyn. They are believed to have come from a boys' school that existed during the Revolutionary War and into the first years of the 19th century.

Borishansky is one of 15 students in the three-week Brooklyn College summer archaeological field school who uncovered the site this summer.

After two days of digging, a group of students came across a fieldstone wall held together by a simple mortar mix. With further work, the students found a building foundation, about 18 inches high and 25 inches wide. From there the walls extended about 10 feet in one direction and 15 feet in another, although the exact dimensions of the building are still unknown.

"We knew what this was immediately," said Dr. H. Arthur Bankoff, who leads the field course. The structure was consistent with building foundations from the 18th century, he said. A Mexican coin, dated 1780, was found, confirming that the building was in use at that time.

Borishansky's research revealed that the 1800 census listed a schoolmaster, James Todd, and his wife living in that area with 27 15-year-old boys. But census records from 1810 give no indication of Todd, the school or its residents.

Records of the New Utrecht Reformed Church, which was built in 1828, show that Todd was buried in the church cemetery, although the tombstone has yet to be found. According to church and other records, the church was built directly in front of an abandoned building, which was soon demolished.

Borishansky learned that New Utrecht was one of many pivotal sites during the American Revolution. In 1776, Gen. William Howe of Britain anchored his fleet of 437 ships and 35,000 men in the Lower Bay. The British landing led to the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle of the war.

Delousing comb

While the New Utrecht site has not provided any new insight into local history, the biggest find so far has been a delousing comb made of bone, most likely from a cow or pig.

"It's pretty rare to come across something like this," said Alyssa Loorya, the laboratory director at Brooklyn College. Items made of bone tend to disappear completely, she said. "Everyone uses dishes and pots. This was a very personal item that was used by only one person."

There are also metal nails, caked in rust and mud; faded, fragile oyster shells, which may have been meant for fertilizer; and a hollow cow leg that was probably used in a stew, Loorya said.

The artifacts will be stored for the summer and studied by an archaeology class in the fall. The dig site has been filled in and marked with ropes, and may be opened again next summer.

After 20 minutes or so, Borishansky had reconstructed most of the base and about one-third of the bowl in her jigsaw puzzle, using clear tape to hold the pieces together. After inspecting its curved handle and the size of the pot, Loorya realized the bowl had not been used for food, but was actually a chamber pot.

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