Exhibit Explores "Where New York Began: Archeology at the South Ferry Terminal"

It isn’t often that artifacts dating back to the 1600s from early Dutch and British settlements are uncovered in New York. “Where New York Began: Archeology at the South Ferry Terminal” presents over 100 artifacts of the 65,000 recovered at the South Ferry Terminal archeological dig in lower Manhattan.

The exhibition at the New York Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex in Grand Central Terminal offers a fascinating look into the creative and utilitarian use of clay as a base material and its conversion into items of service and beauty. Visitors will see shards of ceramic roof tile, cooking pots, dishes and pipes that still retain their luster and beauty after being discarded and buried for so many centuries. “Where New York Began: Archeology at the South Ferry Terminal” will be on public exhibition through July 5, 2010, and admission is free.

Imported ceramic items from the Netherlands and Britain served as decorative items for homes, along with vessels to prepare and serve meals in, providing the amenities of the old life in the New World. Clay also served as the base material for glazed roof tile, exterior brick, interior wall tile, earthenware floor tile, salt-glazed stoneware, cooking pots, plates and other household containers. An amazing collection of fragile and beautifully ornate Dutch and British manufactured pipes are also in the exhibition.

“This is an important exhibit for those with an interest in seeing how clay as a raw material was transformed into beautiful and functioning objects dating back to the 1600s,” says Roxanne Robertson, director of special projects for the New York Transit Museum. “It is also a visual treat to see the intricate old-world craftsmanship and makers’ marks that still hold their beauty to this day. This exhibit is, in part, a tribute to the staying power of clay as a viable medium and to the craft of creating household, industrial and artistic ceramic objects.”

Though many of the artifacts were small in size, they are large in what they reveal about the city’s past. Many pieces were excavated from secondary deposits (redeposited material dumped for landfill) and can’t be tied to specific people or households. However, they do tell us something about daily life in the city from colonial times to the 20th century. These fragments illustrate the color and textures of the city as it changed and grew over the centuries. Through these thousands of shards, the history of New York’s architecture, food, business and transportation comes alive.

Chinese Painted Porcelain Plate with "Canton" Motif (circa 1785-1850)

This plate was mended from 21 separate shards discovered in a single deposit. Though porcelain vessels exported from China were popular for much of the 18th century, they became more common in New York after the American Revolution, when direct trade between the U.S. and China began.

Wall Tile Depicting a Scene Probably from the Story of St. Jerome's Lion (circa 1625-1800)

Inside, walls were usually made of three layers of plaster-a base coat, a thick brown coat, and a thin finishing coat. The finishing coat could be painted, whitewashed or, in wealthier homes, fitted with wallpaper.

Tin-glazed tiles, almost always decorated with blue or purple hand-painted scenes, were commonly used around fireplaces and at the bases of walls. Because they depicted familiar stories, biblical scenes were popular topics for these tiles, but genre scenes, uniformed soldiers, children’s games and flowers were also common.

Pearlware Tea Pot Lid with Painted Floral Pattern (circa 1975-1830)

A small variety of ceramics dominated the excavation finds-pearlware and buff-bodied slipware. Buff-bodied slipware dishes, inexpensive and decorated only with contrasting-colored clay slips, were used in almost every British colonial household in 18th century New York. Pearlware, a delicate-looking decorated white earthenware, was very popular and was shipped in large quantities from England between 1775 and 1840. The muted colors of the first polychrome-painted decorations on pearlware were not simply dictated by the styles and tastes of the times: Until about 1830, these colors (as well as cobalt blue) were the only ones that could withstand the high heat of the kilns.

Fluted Pipe with Vertical Milling around the Rim and a Wheat Sheaf between Floral Decorations on the Side of the Bowl (circa 1810-1840, made in Chester)

Attesting to both their popularity and fragility, 1470 fragments of clay tobacco pipes were found on the project site. Though pipes are utilitarian objects, their design, decoration and makers’ marks can be seen as icons for the brief period of time in which each was manufactured and used. Tobacco, native to America, was introduced to Europe in the mid-1500s. By the 17th century, it was popular among all segments of society, regardless of class, race or gender.

Since pipes frequently broke and were easily replaced, they are often found in archeological deposits. Many pipes found at the project site showed signs of use-having been smoked, broken and then discarded as trash. We can tell that many samples were crudely or hastily made, leading to the conclusion that pipes sent to the colonies from Europe were often inferior products, or possibly “seconds,” in comparison to those sold in Europe.

All images courtesy of the New York Transit Museum.

For additional information, visit www.mta.info/mta/museum.

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