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Letter from the Bronx

The Past Becomes Present

A collection of objects left behind in a New York City neighborhood connects students with the lives of people who were contemporary with their great-great-great-grandparents

By PHILIP PANARITIS

Monday, August 11, 2014

Bronx-19th-Century-Refuse-Pit-2

 

It’s just after lunch on a chilly November afternoon in a fifth-grade classroom in the Soundview section of the Bronx. With the radiators blasting heat, this is the time when the 29 students might be inclined to nod off. But today, the room is alive with expectant chatter as they unseal ziplock bags and unwind layers of bubble wrap to reveal artifacts from a recent archaeological dig in Brooklyn.

 

Armed with an array of plastic calipers, rulers, and magnifying glasses, the students break off into small groups and begin to examine and measure the artifacts with the goal of identifying what they were once used for. The activity is part of a New York City Department of Education urban archaeology program I have helped administer for the past three years, which allows public school students to learn about the city’s history through actual artifacts. The program was funded by a federal Teaching American History grant, and its materials were developed by a team of teachers, curriculum writers, and New York City archaeologists.

 

This particular afternoon, I sit behind a group of four students and listen in as they work their way through a series of questions about one of the artifacts. Their teacher has provided each of them with an “artifact analysis template” to fill out, and the only information they’ve been given is that the object they are handling belonged to someone who lived in New York City five generations ago. Just as is sometimes the case in archaeological fieldwork, the students initially examine artifacts without the benefit of much context or background. That doesn’t deter them at all.

 

How wide is it? “About an inch,” states Marco [editors note, the students' names have been changed].

 

“One and an eighth inches exactly,” Rita corrects softly.

 

How tall is it? “Same thing, one and an eighth inches,” Mee says with just a hint of puzzlement.

 

“It’s square!” blurts out Neves, beaming.

 

What is it made of? “Not metal,” Marco says, striking the object against the side of his desk. He twists it hard until he grimaces and his arms shake. “It bends a little,” he announces. “Plastic maybe.”

 

How does it feel? “Smooth,” says Mee, running the front side over her palm. “Kind of like glass.”

 

“Like icing on a black-and-white cookie,” says Neves.

 

Their teacher walks over and smiles as she surveys the group’s progress. She leans over and whispers in Marco’s ear, “Please don’t bend the artifacts.”

 

“It’s a key ring,” Neves pronounces eagerly, turning the small, thin black object in his hands. But with no encouragement from his peers, he slumps back in his seat to await more fruitful suggestions. The other members of his group eagerly hold out their hands as they wait for the object to be passed to them.

 

“Might be a toy,” Marco opines. “See, these look like a castle,” he explains, pointing to the crenellations on all four edges of the bottle-cap-sized mystery. Noticing the slightly corroded pin and clasp on one side, he hurriedly adds, “And you pin it on your shirt.”

 

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