Students analyzing objects at the New York Archaeological Repository. Photo by Brayden Heath.

In 2021, Bard Graduate Center launched a summer school for undergraduate students, offering participants early access to graduate-level training to attract more young scholars to the decorative arts, design history, and material culture. The title of the summer 2023 course was “Excavating the Empire City: An Introduction to the Historical Archaeology of New York City,” modeled after a BGC course taught by assistant professor Meredith B. Linn.

While New York City is not typically considered a destination for archaeology, local historical archaeological studies since the 1970s have produced a rich array of material traces. “Excavating the Empire City” presented a new understanding of the city’s history from its days as a Dutch colony into the twentieth century. Linn led the two-week summer course, co-teaching with BGC PhD candidate Tova Kadish.

The critical analysis of material evidence was a key component of the course, framed by the following questions: What can historical archaeology reveal about the past that we wouldn’t know by any other means? How do we come to our assumptions of the past? How do issues of the past repeat or continue into the present? The course investigated to what extent material traces can relate people’s lives “on the ground” to larger historical trends, focusing especially on populations that have been neglected or misrepresented in written histories.

Assistant professor Meredith B. Linn aiding student in research. Photo by Brayden Heath.

Seminar discussions, including object handling and research presentations, structured half of the course. After a brief introduction to archaeological methods and ethics, the content progressed into a chronologically and thematically organized curriculum. The connection of the past to the present was a through line for all topics, which included colonization; enslavement and freedom; urbanization, environmental change, and health; middle-class ideology; immigration; working-class neighborhoods and the intersection of class-, race- or ethnic-, and gender-based discrimination; and community formation.

Students handling objects at the New York Archaeological Repository. Photo by Brayden Heath.

Guided visits to archaeological sites and museums were a second important component of instruction. Students visited the New York Archaeological Repository and chose an object from the collection to research. The Center for Archaeology at Columbia University offered students an opportunity to see Indigenous archaeological material excavated from the city. The African Burial Ground National Monument facilitated conversation on how historical archaeology of cultural resources should be communicated to the public, particularly with descendent communities. Students also visited Seneca Village, the site of a community of freed African Americans and Irish immigrants that was displaced to create Central Park.The Merchant’s House Museum modeled a rich interpretation of upper-middle-class living in nineteenth-century New York, helping students visualize how the interpretive process can transform archaeological fragments into a fully furnished room.

According to Linn, it was “rewarding to work with an enthusiastic group of emerging scholars and introduce them to the historical archaeology of this future-oriented city.”