Rob Greenberg at construction site

Danger Zone

Several small boats, heavy with passengers and household goods, moved slowly up the West Creek. The men looked curiously at the bank, and at the rude dwelling which the hardy members of their advance party had constructed months before. The women glanced back at the sailing vessel, riding at anchor, which they had just left—and held their children tightly. The breeze blowing in from the harbor had a fresh smell, and the new foliage along the creek glistened in the sunlight. It was Saturday, April 24, 1638—and this was the Promised Land. …

On the next morning, after the sharp roll of a drum had broken the Sabbath stillness, the people gathered about a great oak tree. Under the branches stood the Reverend John Davenport, his left hand holding the Bible, his right hand raised toward heaven.

—Rollin G. Osterweis, Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-1938

On this April 24th, 376 years to the day since the founding of the colony that would become New Haven, self-styled local historian Robert Greenberg is also navigating uncharted territory, and praying like the dickens that things turn out all right. Not things in general, but rather some very peculiar things: rare and precious historical artifacts that he believes are resting beneath centuries of soil and debris—and, as of late, beneath heavy construction equipment primed to smash them to bits.

The construction site is the long-beleaguered super-lot between Crown Street to the north and George to the south, with College running lengthwise up the eastern edge. The developer, Middletown-based Centerplan, has held the property for about seven years, delayed in moving construction forward by the economic crash of 2008. College Plaza, a two-story, half-empty row of glassy storefronts, extended part of the way down College from Crown until its demolition in March. The rest of the site was a parking lot, nothing to get too excited about.

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Unless you’re a local historian like Rob Greenberg, anyway, who determined that that very site was the landing spot for the first permanent settlers in New Haven—just a stone’s throw away from the mighty oak that rose above John Davenport’s first sermon here—and that, unlike the vast majority of New Haven’s original nine squares, some of the ground below the parking lot’s asphalt may never have been disturbed by the deep and forceful digging that attends modern land development. Could it be that whatever was discarded or buried there during previous centuries might still be there, waiting to be unearthed?

A 2001 article he’d read in the New York Times, “The Old World Under the New,” got him wise to the fact that artifacts are often hidden beneath the visible surfaces of old cities like New York and New Haven. The primary subjects of that article, anthropologists Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, would soon put out a book, Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City—coincidentally published in New Haven by the Yale University Press—that inspired Greenberg to delve deeper into the theory and practice of amateur archaeology, pursuing makeshift excavations in both the Big Apple and the Elm City. The fruits of those labors—including many-splendored glass bottles and jars, decorative ceramics (pots, bowls and plates), pipes, ink wells, buttons and even old oyster shells (once a staple of New Haven living and, according to Greenberg, a telltale sign that you’re about to find other kinds of artifacts during a dig) from New Haven’s long past—are displayed on tables and within glass displays in his oddity-filled office on the third floor of Acme Furniture, the Greenberg family business.

It’s from here that Greenberg has conducted his deep investigation into the Centerplan construction site. He’s checked and cross-referenced maps, histories, photographs, newspapers and other records to chronicle what’s happened on the site from the city’s founding to its present. Ingeniously, Greenberg overlaid successive maps depicting the lot’s development over time and says he’s discovered, as he’d hoped, that much of it has escaped intrusive construction.

Until now, that is. Since putting all the pieces together, Greenberg’s been scrambling to mount a rescue operation. After trying unsuccessfully to get clearance from Centerplan to perform excavations himself during off-hours—even offering to take out an insurance policy, sign a waiver and comply with all OSHA standards required to be on the worksite—Greenberg appealed to the media. News articles in the New Haven Independent and the New Haven Register prompted Connecticut’s state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni to promise “to monitor activities and recover and record any artifacts,” as quoted in the Independent.

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Sure enough, Bellantoni was at the construction site yesterday. To date, he says, Centerplan’s been “very cooperative” and “given him everything I’ve asked for,” reporting that he and a team of helpers have found ceramics (including a chamber pot), glass bottles and “a lot of material from the 18th century” so far. <Ed. note: Following publication of this article, Bellantoni indicated that he meant to say “19th century.”>

Greenberg, also looking on, pointed out that they hadn’t gotten very deep yet at that part of the lot, and that he was surprised that they were finding so much material already. He was also surprised that it was being found outside of the hot spots he’d identified based on the locations of past structures. He thinks that makes it even more likely that there are intact treasure troves further down, an idea which causes him to become giddy with excitement at first, then terrified all over again about the prospect of machinery tearing through veins of New Haven history.

This fear seems well-grounded. Bellantoni says he and his team “can’t be there every day.” And even when they are, what they’re doing is triage at best. A 105,000-pound, seven-story rotary drilling rig is virtually guaranteed to break anything it comes into contact with, and a glass or ceramic artifact doesn’t stand a chance against the claw of a 106,000-pound excavator. Whatever artifacts are still intact now seem almost certain to come out the other side of this process in pieces, if at all.

As if on cue, after one of Centerplan’s excavators took a load of dirt out of the center-west part of the lot, Bellantoni, looking on from the western bank of the dig area, started waving his arms at the operator: He’d seen something in the soil. He made a motion directing the operator to dig somewhere else for a while; the machine’s long arm and claw complied. Bellantoni and team grabbed buckets and measuring instruments and jumped down to get a closer look at the find.

Within a couple minutes, the team was back on the edges with its haul, and the excavator was back on the same spot, digging deeper.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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