TAKE A PEEK INTO ALBANY'S RICH PAST
To archaeologists, a year passing doesn't normally count for much. Not even a thin layer of dirt to sift through.
Yet what a difference a year has made to archaeology as it is practiced and respected in the city of Albany. Last November, the $25 million State Dormitory Authority building on Broadway was finally under construction after a long and bitter wrangle with archaeologists over not allowing a proper dig in one of the oldest parts of the city to happen before erection. Last week, at the invitation of Troy-based archaeologist Karen Hartgen, I toured the extensive digs on the two city blocks north of the old Union Station that will become the new Department of the Environmental Conservation Department building, to be erected by the Picotte Companies. Since Aug. 31 more than 1,500 citizens, schoolchildren and the wandering curious have been welcomed and toured through the elaborate excavations that have laid bare the cities upon cities created here since 1750. There was no human habitation on this spot before then at what would have been the deep gorge of the Vosenkill -- Fox Creek -- because this area flooded substantially several times a year. Until fill was brought in a wheelbarrow at a time to bring it up to buildable level. Quite a feat of perseverance over many years of hand labor.
``Like I promised,'' said a smiling Karen Hartgen, ``the true banks of the Hudson River, around 1750.'' We were deep in a sharply defined trench carved by a backhoe and then refined by trowel. A time line of history was before us. The layers of fill down to the native clay, which then took a dip to an unmistakable sandy beach. At the edge of the beach there were still shells and broken dishes -- the shoreline trash of two and half centuries ago. A few yards away, an archaeologist was carefully removing fill from around the stacked logs of what is believed to be the first dock on the river at the mouth of Fox Creek. We were more than 20 feet below what is now considered street level, and only about 200 yards from Broadway. It was five times that from the remains of the dock to where the river's edge is today.
``This is Urban Archaeology University,'' effused historian Stefan Bielinski, whose specialty is the people of Colonial Albany. ``This is a WPA project for the culturally interested, '' referring to the dozens and dozens of volunteers and students caught up in the hands-on part of archaeology. He's very high on what's going on here. ``They're doing it right,'' said Bielinski. Compared to what, he didn't have to say.
The Picotte Companies are to be applauded for bringing in the Hartgen team, including project director Bob Bouchard, and then for extending the dig time for another month after it was clear there was a treasure trove under there. Archaeological treasures, to be sure. Sifting through the wet remains of old privies for broken bits of history is not everyone's cup of tea.
Officially, all tours of the digs are done now. Time runs out for the archaeologists on Nov. 20. But there's so much there to see I still recommend strongly to those who haven't been down to take a look. Even if it only from the street. Check out all the foundations, the brick work, the cisterns. Imagine the people walking in and out of these buildings before the great fire of August 1797. It's easy to do.
The state's Office of General Services is at this moment in the design phase of the actual building, a design we strongly hope will incorporate in one way or another working parts of this amazing history being unearthed. How is beyond my capacity to wonder. But including Albany's rich past in its future will keep the wonder of it alive. Our bare roots are an enormous asset to be tapped.