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Historian’s Outhouse Theory Checks Out

by Thomas MacMillan | Apr 25, 2014 12:06 pm

(4) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Arts & Culture, Downtown

Thomas MacMillan Photos It turns out that an amateur local historian was right, the state archaeologist has confirmed: The spot where workers are building a new $50 million apartment complex was once a privy and garbage heap. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cache of buried Colonial treasures.

The archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, visited the construction site, at the corner of College and George streets on Wednesday. With the help of two volunteers and a giant excavator, he probed a pit workers opened up that day, just outside the back door of BAR.

By the end of the day, he had collected a bucketful of artifacts, including shards of glass and pottery, bones from butchered animals, a milk bottle, and an inkwell. (Click the video to see him talk about some of the findings.) All those objects date from the 1900s or mid-1800s, Bellantoni said. He said the area he was digging served as a privy and trash dump.

That’s what Robert Greenberg, an amateur historian with a track record of finding hidden treasure in New Haven, has been saying for weeks. After comparing old maps, Greenberg concluded that the apartment complex is going up at what was once New Haven’s waterfront, the site of the first landing of colonists and of their first structures. Greenberg’s maps show houses along College and George streets, with space behind, where outhouses and trash dumps would have been, he said.

While the outhouse theory seems to be holding up, the site isn’t yet turning up important Colonial relics, as Greenberg has predicted. The artifacts found Wednesday aren’t close to being that old, and they’re mostly fragments.

“They’ve got to go deeper,” Greenberg said, after Bellantoni showed him the day’s haul Wednesday afternoon. He said he’s convinced workers will hit artifacts form the 1600s if they dig farther down.

Rob Greenberg Photo Bellantoni (at left in photo) said that below about three and a half feet, he hit red sand, a sign that the soil below that is untouched by humans. There may be more artifacts buried deeper, in areas where people dug down for things like foundations or outhouses, Bellantoni said.

He’ll be there to examine and collect artifacts if workers dig deeper, Bellantoni said. “If they’re not going to go deeper, I ain’t digging,” he said, laughing. “This is a salvage operation. We’re working within the earth movement that’s going on.”

Bellantoni said he can’t be at the site every day, because, among his other state archaeological duties, he teaches at UConn and is in the middle of final exams.

Greenberg (pictured) has been fighting for access to the site for weeks, to conduct his own archaeological studies. Developer Bob Landino turned him down, citing legal liability. Greenberg has nonetheless been showing up at the site every day, watching the progress from behind the chain-link fence that rings the property.

“They hit a vein now!” he said excitedly on Wednesday afternoon, watching Bellantoni work on the other side of the construction zone. “And that’s nothing. There’s stuff all over this site.”

Everything that’s found—bottles, pipes, clam shells, chamber pots, bones—is important, Greenberg said. “It gives you a snapshot of the lives of the people.”

Greenberg said he’ hopes to see evidence of the first settlers landing sites, and to create a history exhibit with whatever is found. He said he’d like to see local universities’ history and archaeology departments involved in the site.

“This is torture for me,” he said, on the outside, looking in.

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on April 25, 2014  12:41pm

This is a great opportunity to discover whatever the site might disclose, but Landino, the developer, seems not to have much of an interest in local history.

There’s something sad about putting the professor on the other side of the fence. Is this really about liability? How about asking for a waiver then?

Short-sighted actions like this put developers in a bad light.

My recommendation is to go to Yale and get some “emotional intelligence” ASAP.

posted by: ChrisTheContractor on April 25, 2014  8:13pm

The developer has a very tight schedule. The men on the job cost a small fortune per hour. They can not stand around. If they are sent home for the day then how are those workers supposed to make up a smaller paycheck.
I have worked in New Haven for many years. I have boxes of old bottles that I have pulled out of the ground.
Any waiver of liability is not worth the paper that it’s printed on. If he is hurt and wants to sue, the developer will have to pay. Sorry.

posted by: apriori on April 29, 2014  8:08pm

That area behind BAR wasn’t expected to be a treasure trove, so a story focused on that section of the site isn’t adequate for assessing Greenberg’s core claims.

It’s the privy sites, located in other areas of the construction site, that Greenberg believes hold the stuff from the 16th and/or 17th centuries.

These are the facts: this construction site was the location of residential structures during the 1600s and 1700s; those structures had on-site privies; those privies haven’t been disturbed by urban development as of yet (or maybe they have, in the past few days); and pre-colonial and colonial settlers discarded things in privies as a matter of course.

Those are the premises for Greenberg’s conclusions. They’re solid as rock, and they lead directly to Greenberg’s conclusion. Yet that conclusion is being treated like a flimsy theory at best.

Frustrating, to say the least.

posted by: apriori on April 30, 2014  12:19am

Oops. My last comment should read “17th and/or 18th centuries.”

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