Cantwell (Anthropology/Rutgers Univ.) and Wall (Anthropology/City College of New York) pleasingly convey the palpable sense of orientation that archaeology—in this case, New York City’s—can give “to reach a deeper understanding of the human predicament.”
Being America’s oldest city, New York has plenty to reveal when you dig below its surface, and Cantwell and Wall treat it as one big site with a timetable stretching from the Paleoindians to the 19th century. Temples, agricultural fields, privies, backyards, cemeteries—all were as embedded in the everyday worlds of their makers as they are now hidden under a cap of cement and asphalt. They also have much to lend the multicultural movements and identity politics of today, not to mention their ability to assuage cultural anxiety and discontinuity. Cantwell and Wall tap into all this in their chronological survey. Though it’s difficult to coax any detail or intimacy from the ancient past, at least a general perspective can be gained from Staten Island Clovis sites, now nestled between the bunkering facilities of a huge oil tank farm; such strange juxtapositions are part of New York’s archaeological charm. Inwood Park’s late-Archaic stone habitations are still being used by people seeking shelter from storms, while the various Woodland sites give indications of the wide world of the native cultures running up and down the entire eastern seaboard. The authors also outline the difficulties of doing archaeological work in the city: in particular, the time constraints and logistics imposed on archaeologists, as real-estate interests snap at their heels to get a move on so development can proceed. They chart as well the political sensitizing of archaeologists as pertaining to burial sites, and the evolution of the historic-preservation movement.
An 11,000-year narrative of a great city, dense with detail and a specific cultural gravity as weighty, and as mutable, as quicksilver. (Illustrations throughout)