Archaeologists were working at the site of two burial vaults on Nov. 6, just days after construction workers discovered two chambers of human bones on Nov. 3 and 4 along the eastern edge of New York City’s Washington Square Park.
The first vault, which contained scattered skeletal remains, was discovered Nov. 3, when contractors with the Department of Design and Construction began breaking ground to replace a 100-year-old water main with new distribution lines.
The second vault was discovered a day later, which includes an unknown number of bodies enclosed in fully intact wooden coffins.
“Its not unexpected, but it’s definitely interesting,” Alyssa Loorya, the principle investigator and archaeologist with Chrysalis Archaeological consultants told Tech Insider. “It’s not a common find, we don’t find this all the time, but we’re aware of the history.”
The archaeologists were taking measurements and discussing new ways to photograph the vault’s insides, which are currently closed to all foot traffic.
The team has been using high resolution cameras and a rigged lighting system to peer inside. One of their tasks was to measure the vault’s size — which Loorya preliminary estimates to be about 15 feet wide.
“Hey, you know what? It’s bigger than many studio apartments in the city,” Loorya told Tech Insider.
The two vaults lie adjacent to Washington Square Park, which sits atop an ancient potters field where many indigenous and unknown people were buried in the late 18th and early 19th century.
“After one of the epidemics of yellow fever, they had a decree that anyone who died of yellow fever had to be buried in potter’s field because they were so afraid of it,” Joan Ageism, an archaeological consultant told Tech Insider.
There was also a church yard on this block, which the vault is likely associated with, though the team isn’t sure which church it belongs to.
“The closest thing we know is that it was the Presbyterian Church, possibly,” Alex Agran, an archaeologist at Chrysalis Archaeology, told Tech Insider. “That’s the most likely candidate, though it’s unknown if other churches were sharing the space or not.”
The two vaults likely date back to the early 19th century — an estimate based upon the construction of the vault and the style of the coffins. High resolution photos uncovered a hint of a year on a date plate on one of the coffins, Loorya said, which begins with the number 18.
Loorya’s team is still trying to get an accurate estimate of the number of bodies in the vault, but they believe that there are most likely between nine to 12 individuals in the first chamber. They are still doing counts for the second.
Back in 1965, Con Edison workers had reportedly encountered a burial vault on the same block, though few details of the encounter are known. But they could possibly have been one of the two discovered this week, Agran said.
The city’s policy is to leave any human remains unearthed during a construction project untouched, but it’s possible that the Con Edison workers had removed some of the bodies from the first vault during that initial discovery.
“The bodies [in the first vault] are kind of jumbled together, there are no intact coffins,” Agran said. “In the second chamber, the coffins are pretty much intact.”
This may mean that the workers had disturbed the site of the first vault in the 1965 encounter, though this is pure speculation, Agran said.
Loorya and her team are currently discussing better options for recording the space, which could include rigging a camera onto a boom to extend further into the vault.
And whether or not this means that there are more bodies lying elsewhere beneath the city is still yet to be determined.
“We don’t want to speculate how many other bodies might be lying around NYC,” Loorya said. “There have been burial grounds found in the city before”
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