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South Ferry Terminal Project

Project Archaeology


Let's Talk History

The South Ferry Project area is rich in American History beginning when Manhattan was first settled by Native Americans more than 10,000 years ago. In 1624, the Dutch West India Company sent thirty families to secure the colony they called New Netherland and the tiny settlement at the tip of Manhattan was named New Amsterdam. The British captured the city and renamed it New York in 1664. After the War of Independence, New York City was designated the temporary seat of the new government. Government House was built on the ruins of the old Fort and George Washington was inaugurated in Lower Manhattan as the nation's first President. The thriving city of Manhattan started at the tip of the island, in the neighborhood of the South Ferry Terminal site.

1865 map of Lower Manhattan
From 1865 Map

Where does archaeology fit in?

Because the area is so important to New York City's history, the MTA has mandated that the South Ferry Terminal Project be planned, implemented and executed with history and archaeology in mind. During the project's planning phase, experts reviewed historical data to determine the archaeological potential of the construction site. During construction activities, archaeologists are present at excavations of soils that may contain archaeological features or significant artifacts.

Check out the Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment Report and the Historical Timeline for details about South Ferry's history . Also, click on the map image (to the right) where today's project appears on a map from 1789.

Click for South Ferry Historical Timeline

South Ferry Historical Timeline
(click for larger image)
1789 Plan-click for larger image

1789 Plan
(click for larger image)



What might we find?

Archaeologists might find the remains of the original Dutch/Anglo Fort (1625-1790) or a military barracks built by the British in 1766 prior to the Revolutionary War, as well as remnants of the colonial batteries and other historic buildings.

What has been unearthed so far?

Archaeologists have been on the site since October 2004. Major finds include remnants of the mid-18th century battery wall and the Whitehall Slip. A wide range of artifacts have also been recovered. The most exciting are a 1744 coin and a 1758 medallion. However, most artifacts are ordinary, common everyday items. These include giant oyster shells, pieces of stoneware chamber pots and porcelain saucers, clay smoking pipes, leather scraps from shoemakers' workshops, and remnants of meals eaten long-ago: animal and fish bones, cherry and peach pits and even some coffee beans. They have also found the yellow Dutch bricks that were used to build the houses of early New Amsterdam.

Stoneware chamber pot giant oyster shells
Stoneware chamber pot
Giant oyster shells
Sample artifacts from WHitehall slip  
Sample artifacts from Whitehall Slip

One of the most enticing finds was a counter commemorating the British capture of the French Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1758. A counter is like a coin, but it has no monetary value. One side depicts the battle and the other reveals an image of the British Admiral Boscawen who led the battle. The counter had been made into a medallion which could be worn on a chain or leather cord around a person's neck - see the small hole?

Excavated medallion (front side) Excavated medallion (reverse side)
Excavated medallion (front)
Excavated medallion (reverse)

How did they find that old coin?

The Archaeologists' first peek came when a giant auger (a corkscrew-like excavating machine) pulled up some soil from deep within the ground. The Archaeologists water-screened the soil and found the 1758 coin or medallion. Water screening allows archaeologists to recover artifacts from soil by washing the sediment through a mesh screen with water. The soil washes through and the artifacts are left in the screen.

Large auger bringing up soil to be sampled MTA Archaeologist water screening soil samples to look for artifacts
Large auger bringing up soil
to be sampled
MTA Archaeologist water screening soil samples to look for artifacts

What is stratigraphy?

Stratigraphy is the study of the relationship between the layers of soil (strata). When archaeologists excavate the ground, they look for slight changes in the color or texture of the soil. These differences look like the layers of a cake. Archaeologists call these different layers of the soil strata and the study of them is called stratigraphy . When archaeologists find artifacts in the ground, they record the type of soil the artifacts came from and measure the depth below the ground surface where they were found. The oldest artifacts are usually at the bottom and the more recent artifacts are at the top of the excavation. This is called the “Law of Superposition”. The two photos below show the stratigraphy of the soil in the South Ferry Project area.

Illustration of stratigraphy Illustration of stratigraphy
Illustrations of stratigraphy

What was Whitehall Slip?

1803 plan showing the Whitehall Slip
The slip was a place where boats would dock in lower Manhattan to load and unload cargo. It was located at the foot of what is now Whitehall Street and the Staten Island Ferry. In August 2005, the South Ferry Project archaeologists identified timber wharfage and cribbing that was part of the slip. Cribbing is a series of logs that were interlaced and then sunk in order to fill and expand the shoreline. The Whitehall Slip was built sometime after 1730 and was filled in beginning in 1770. The Slip was completely filled by the early 1850s. In addition to the wood, a section of the stone seawall at the head of the slip was also documented. Numeruous artifacts were recovered from the fill. These include everything from coffee beans to broken pieces of brightly colored ceramics to cow horns.
1803 Plan showing the Whitehall Slip

What's the story with the "Wall"?

The most widely publicized finding at the South Ferry Project is the "wall". It was part of the battery that protected the fort and also acted as a seawall made of stone. The battery would have had cannon mounted along it to fire at enemy ships. Four different sections of the battery wall have been found, spanning a distance of almost 600 feet. It ranges from about 8 to 10 feet wide. The largest section is about 75 feet long and up to four feet high, although it would have been much higher when it was built. There was a battery in the area during the 1600's, but the battery wall found at the South Ferry Terminal Project was likely built sometime after 1730, but before 1766. It was demolished after the Revolutionary War and buried with fill to create Battery Park. Parts of the wall will be preserved and later put on display in the Park and the new South Ferry Subway Station for all New Yorkers and visitors to see.
1766/67 Ratzer Plan showing the locations of three sections of the battery wall identified during construction
1766/67 Ratzer Plan showing the locations of three sections of the battery wall identified during construction
Section of the Battery wall (click for full image)
Section of the battery wall (click for full image)

This web site will be updated to keep visitors aware of the latest archaeological news at South Ferry.

Project Description | South Ferry Terminal & Battery Park | Environmental and Regulatory Process
Project Archaeology | Project Schedule | Presentations | Keeping in Touch


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