Archeologist Thwarted In History-Rescue Quest

Allan Appel PhotoAs jackhammers pounded the ground and a John Deere grapple lifted buckets full of dirt, Rob Greenberg peered through a fence—but wasn’t allowed past it—in search of early New Haven Colonial history.

Greenberg (pictured), New Haven’s leading amateur archeologist, has been trying to get past the fence into the “holy grail” or early downtown historical sites to sift dirt for treasures before the heavy machinery destroys them. The developer who commissioned the machinery, Robert Landino of Centerplan, won’t let him in.

CenterplanThe standoff is taking place at the corner of College and George, arguably the site of the first settlers’ landing in 1638 and the earliest structures of the settlement. Landino’s company is building a $50 million set of five-story buildings there to house 160 luxury studio and one- and two-bedroom rental apartments as well as 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, across from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School.

“I applaud the development,” said Greenberg, the scion of the 100-year-old Acme Moving Company business on Crown and a major collector of New Haveniana.

Allan Appel PhotoGreenberg has followed some good hunches lately. He helped lead the way, for instance, in finding the time capsule unearthed in fall 2012 when a wind storm knocked down the Lincoln Oak on the Green.

His latest hunch concerns the College and George site. He has studied it for years. He confirmed via an overlay of maps that rich deposits of potentially undisturbed stuff thrown in wells and privies over the centuries might be there. He made a presentation about that to Landino.

That was about two months before serious excavation—and a potential major disturbance of those rich deposits.

“When I presented the facts to Landino, I thought he’d say, ‘No problem,’ said Greenberg.

Paul Bass PhotoLandino (pictured) found a problem. He told the Independent that he checked with his lawyers. He found that he couldn’t avoid liability if Greenberg entered the site, started scavenging and salvaging, and got hurt.

“We’d be violating OSHA by having him on the site. Assuming he walks on site, we’d have to be watching him all the time,” Landino said.

Even if Greenberg arranged a more formal dig, and even if he obtained insurance (which Greenberg said he has), Centerplan would still be liable for injuries, Landino’s lawyers advised.

State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni said in a telephone interview that his office likes to review these situations as early as possible, when they are still going through planning.

He hadn’t heard about this poject, he said. “After they start, the only obligation by law for them is to stop is if they hit human remains. If they hit pottery, they don’t have to stop, unless the city has an ordinance. In Connecticut human remains are done at the state level; pottery and artifacts are at the local level.”

If all the old maps and Greenberg are correct, there will be “amazing artifacts” when the crew digs 20 feet down, Bellantoni said. “What will be provided here is a snapshot of the very earliest inhabitants. It’s got to be saved.”

Paydirt Hit

Paul Bass PhotoIn the meantime, Greenberg said, he as spotted pottery shards and oyster shells near locations where the excavators removed gas tanks from below a 1930s service station that had stood on the spot.

Those are like clues in a detective story that Greenberg was, and is, pursuing. If that kind of stuff was already being unearthed ten feet down, what might 20 feet yield? Greenberg felt stymied.

Landino did give Greenberg permission to sift the dirt after it was removed, but only at the dump site, the old tire pond off State Street on the Hamden border.

Greenberg said he fears that that would be too late. Material or local and national historical significance would by then be shattered or destroyed beyond recognition, he argued.

“This is very exciting for me and should be for the city of New Haven. In New York City they have a process” for archeological intervention, Greenberg said. He said New Haven should have one too.

“New Haven is behind the times. Every site dug should have someone there analyzing whether the dirt has historically rich site,” he suggested

From the fence with binoculars he has spotted pottery shards and clam and oyster shells in holes made by the equipment, he said. That’s always the trail to the privies which were the garbage dumps of the colonials—and treasure troves for people like Greenberg.

Allan Appel PhotoStanding by the fence Monday morning, Greenberg pointed to a large mound of concrete recently excavated. Using maps over the centuries that neatly lay over the original Nine Squares, Greenberg had determined that houses along College as well as those along George by and large remained wooden structures, non-industrial sites, through at least the late 19th century.

That means that big equipment was not brought in to gut or basin out the ground beneath until now, as the Centerplan crews out 20 feet down to make a subterranean parking lot.

To Greenberg, that means that the privies and wells at that level could produce intact pipes, toys, bottles, buckles, buttons of the kinds he has found on many other locations in New Haven, where builders gave him information permission to poke around.

Allan Appel PhotoChuck Gagne, a foreman with Earth Technologies on the work site, approached Greenberg as he spoke. As if he had read Greenberg’s mind, he reported: “We found a lot of burned bottles. And dug up a dry well.”

“What I say!” said Greenberg.

Greenberg knows that time is running out and so are options, even if he went to the aldermen about passing an ordinance to guard the city’s rich archeological history. He said his next step is to call State Archeologist Bellantoni to throw around some ideas for getting someone onto the site.


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posted by: cp06 on April 8, 2014  5:03pm

C’mon Landino, we expect better of you! You KNOW that you could halt work for a few hours, have Greenberg and the State Archeologist sign off on not suing and let this happen.

In New Haven, we love our history, you will not be making ANY friends in preventing this from happening. Hope you read this!

Bravo to Greenberg and the Independent for covering this!

posted by: chris159874 on April 8, 2014  5:11pm

This seems to be a real no-brainer to me…  Why wouldn’t the developer want to save the past for the future?  They aren’t making anymore history from that era.

posted by: Zagoren on April 8, 2014  6:34pm

What a shame!  Unfortunately, once the building is built the artifacts that may be there will be buried until this new building is torn down in a hundred years. This is a standard problem when confronting development versus culture and history. This has nothing to do with insurance or OSHA.  It has everything to do with money.  If Mr. Greenberg was allowed to dig and finds something of importance the real estate development would have to be delayed until a full dig could be completed.  The only way that Mr. Greenberg will be allowed on the site is if the city DOB and Mayor step in and mandates a period of time for historical research that would benefit of the city and not delay construction.  A once in a lifetime opportunity. Yes, development is important to the economy but so is preserving our history.  I hope that the City will wake up and support Mr. Greenberg and negotiate a fair solution.

posted by: HewNaven on April 8, 2014  7:29pm

Let ‘em dig!

posted by: HewNaven on April 8, 2014  7:58pm

There’s a relevant case unfolding in Miami:

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 8, 2014  8:29pm

This looks like a job for the ‘Cover of Night’.........

posted by: 32knot on April 9, 2014  7:55am

The developer is hiding behind OSHA!!  I am sure plenty of people associated with the contractor have been escorted around the site without worrying about lawsuits.

Give the guy the basic safety training, the proper PPE (hard hat, safety glasses and safety shoes), and somebody to keep him out of harms way and let him poke a bit. Otherwise, the wrath of the people who are interested will decend and the PR problem gets worse. Don’t hide behind OSHA!!!

posted by: NYCcroc on April 9, 2014  9:54am

Read this.

posted by: Steve Werlin on April 9, 2014  12:50pm

Note: In archaeological parlance, it’s “sherd” (as in a potsherd), not “shard” (as in a shard of glass or metal).

posted by: Shaggybob on April 9, 2014  12:57pm

Say it with me W-A-I-V-E-R.

posted by: PH on April 9, 2014  3:36pm

Those are some overly paranoid lawyers.  Also, you don’t always have to listen to your lawyers. Finally, with a $50 million project underway you could probably afford to take the risk of a slip and fall with a waiver…

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 9, 2014  4:16pm

I think the risk-averse lawyers are the red herring.

I think the developer would rather see it all plowed asunder, rather than risk Rob finding the holy grail of New Haven History.

What would happen if Greenberg made a major find…..

posted by: elmBook on April 10, 2014  11:26am

This is depressingly typical of developer behavior. The fear is that if some major bit of history is actually found it may delay their development schedule and impact the profits of the project. Sad to think that this lame piece of developer cliche apartments is going to obliterate potentially one-of-a-kind pieces of history. Why are people so attracted to this kind of building instead of some real architecture that makes a statement? New Haven had a great tradition of architecture in the redevelopment years: we are like an architectural museum with buildings from a whole array of important modern architects. But the current taste seems to prefer the bland, banal, and safely profitable over anything.

posted by: Bumphus on April 11, 2014  2:35am

Is that 1888 available online? If not, can a copy be purchased?

posted by: Ozzie on April 11, 2014  7:06am

This has nothing to do with lawyers and liability its all about Landino losing time and money. The City should step in and let Mr Greenberg dig and find some of the Cities early history . Go RTJ

posted by: joblot14 on April 11, 2014  7:32pm

The developers are totally missing out on a rare opportunity to allow archaeologists to recover the city’s early history and to share it with the community. But the developers are not wrong for denying Greenberg access to the site. Greenberg is NOT a professional archaeologist - he is a treasure hunter and avocational historian. If Greenberg was a professional archaeologist, he would have known to follow the proper procedure for gaining a permit to dig there. This procedure involves consulting with the State Archaeologist (Bellantoni), who could’ve helped negotiate a plan w/ the developers for a rescue dig. Greenberg would then apply for a permit to lead the dig from the State Archaeologist. Only those with proper training or a degree in archaeology are granted this permit. My bet is this is exactly why Greenberg didn’t go this route and Bellantoni knew nothing of the project.
The fact that Greenberg is not qualified to excavate this site could wind up causing additional destruction to the historical remains,if he was allowed to collect artifacts and identify them. Based on the fact that he hilariously mis-identifies a very common late-19th century ceramic—- a Rockingham tobacco spitoon—- as a MOLASSES-FILLED ROACH TRAP, he’s heading in that direction already!!!! There are many qualified archaeologists in the greater New Haven area at SCSU, Wesleyan, Quinnipiac, and Yale. Let them lead the recovery! They’d probably be fine w/ having Greenberg work under their supervision on the dig.

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 13, 2014  4:58pm

I propose a two-day weekend dig.  Get some bleachers.  Invite the public.  Watch as Mr. Greenberg and his team unearth wonders, and learn about them from the sleuth first hand in real time.

This is a great opportunity to bring everyone together, mr. dictating developer in a celebration of New Haven’s History.  I doubt it will turn out like Al Capone’s Vault.

Now what is so bad about that???