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  Library News: Walsh Library Exhibit Hall

Bronx Archaeology, Fall 2000

Although history and literature provide us with intimate details of the lives of our powerful and/or literate ancestors, archaeology is unique among academic disciplines in that its findings reveal the past lives of humans whether they were patricians or plebeians. More often than not, archaeologists reveal the lives of common people whose activities are documented nowhere except in the physical residues dug up under layers of dirt and debris.

In 1985, Dr. Allan Gilbert, an anthropology professor at Fordham, began digging near Collins Hall in hopes of uncovering the remnants of the Rose Hill Manor House dating originally from the 17th century. He and Dr. Roger Wines, a history professor, have spent the last 15 years sorting and conserving the thousands of items recovered from the site.

This semester the library is exhibiting some of the results of their digs as well as artifacts from other archaeological sites in The Bronx, chiefly from the Van Cortlandt Mansion and the various sites worked by Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff, founder of The Bronx Historical Society.

The farmhouse that eventually became the Rose Hill Manor was built in 1694, serving as the main residence of the various owners of Rose Hill Farm until 1839, when Archbishop Hughes purchased the site for his new college and seminary. The house was well known in the area and, according to a plaque placed near the site, was used by James Fenimore Cooper as the setting for his 1821 novel, The Spy. Until it was razed in 1896, it was used by St. John's College as an infirmary, a Jesuit novitiate, and as a residence for Jesuit brothers and other college workers. The exhibition contains examples of scholarly tools: pens, pencils, slates, ink bottles, etc.; dishes and other tableware; toys and games such as marbles, dominoes, dice, etc.; personal items: anti-lice combs, toothbrushes, medicine bottles, and so on; religious medals; and hardware from the building itself.

Items from the aboriginal and colonial Bronx have been borrowed for the exhibit from the New York City Parks Department, which stores the bulk of the Kazimiroff collection. Kazimiroff was a local area dentist and amateur archaeologist, who amassed an enormous collection of finds from numerous Bronx locations. Though the artifacts are uncataloged and their original sites uncertain, the collection was saved from destruction at a time of vigorous development when nothing of historical interest was being preserved. Much has changed since the 1940's and 50's when the likes of Robert Moses tore through The Bronx obliterating the past with expressways and housing projects. Since the 1960's, when legislation was passed mandating exploration prior to destruction, large construction sites must be examined for potential archaeological sites before construction begins.

In 1990-92, the Brooklyn College Summer Archeological Field School, directed by Professor H. Arthur Bankoff, excavated at the Van Cortlandt Mansion in Van Cortlandt Park, unearthing, among other things, a spectacular cache of ceramic and glass objects. They are valuable not only for their beauty but also for the sense of 18th and 19th century upper class life in The Bronx they conjure. These items have been stored at Brooklyn College but are being returned to the Mansion. In the meantime, Laura Correa, the Van Cortlandt Mansion curator, has agreed to lend a selection of items to Fordham for this exhibit. Professors Gilbert and Wines have organized this exhibit in the hopes of raising public awareness of the importance of maintaining the integrity of archaeological sites. Amateurs who remove objects from their context reduce their value and erase any knowledge they could have supplied us of our own history.

Article by: James P. McCabe, University Librarian

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