NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Archaeologists believe two centuries-old burial vaults discovered beneath a New York City street this week were likely part of a Presbyterian church cemetery.
The roughly 15-by-18-foot crypts near Washington Square Park East were found Tuesday, according to principal investigator Alyssa Loorya.
Loorya said the crypts were most likely built in the 18th or early 19th centuries.
As CBS2’s Meg Baker reported, Washington Square Park was used as a potter’s field — a public burial place — for yellow fever victims in the early 1800s. Others buried there were destitute or criminals.
“Chances are that they could have been merchants or artisans, early members of what would become the Greenwich Village community in the early 19th Century,” Loorya told 1010 WINS’ Al Jones.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have hung lights in the excavated area and will use digital cameras with zoom lenses to take pictures of the coffin plates in the hopes of identifying the buried. Members of Loorya’s team will also search old newspapers, death records and church archives to help with identification — if possible.
The discovery was made when workers beginning on a years-long water main replacement project happened upon the tombs’ brick roofs just 3 1/2 feet beneath the street.
“From historical data there was possibility of encountering remains,” Thomas Foley, Associate Commissioner, Department of Design and Construction, said.
One vault contains the remains of more than a dozen people, according to officials of the city’s Department of Design and Construction. More than a dozen stacked coffins are visible in the other, Loorya said.
“We don’t know the full extent of the church cemetery yard so it is possible that we could find more,” Loorya said.
She said it’s likely that the individuals names and dates of death are etched on the tombstones.
“Gives us a sense of who was living in early community of New York City, who walked these city streets before us,” she said.
Because New York City policy is to leave burial grounds undisturbed if possible, project engineers are planning a new route for the water main.
“We knew we could be encountering remains or other items in this area,” said Thomas Foley, an associate commissioner with the city’s Department of Design and Construction. “We’ll do some exploring to discover what other lanes we might have.”
This was not the first time human remains were discovered beneath Washington Square Park. It also happened in 2008 during a soil testing project by the city.
In 2005, 18th Century houses and wells along with Revolutionary War buttons worn by soldiers who marched in the Battle of Brooklyn were found during construction work in the area of South Street Seaport.
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