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New York Transit Museum Presents Archeology at the South Ferry Terminal

The exhibition at the New York Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex in Grand Central Terminal, offers a fascinating look into the creative and utilitarian use of clay as a base material and its conversion into items of service and beauty. Visitors will see shards of ceramic roof tiles, cooking pots, dishes and pipes that still retain their luster and beauty after being discarded and buried for so many centuries. Admission to “Where New York Began: Archeology at the South Ferry Terminal will be on public exhibition through July 5, 2010. Admission is free. Open: Mon. – Fri. 8 AM to 8 PM; Sat. & Sun. 10 AM to 6 PM.

Imported ceramic items from the Netherlands and Britain served as decorative items for homes along with vessels to prepare and serve meals in, providing the amenities of their old life in the New World. Clay also served as the base material for glazed roof tiles, exterior bricks, interior wall tiles, earthenware floor tiles, salt glazed stoneware, cooking pots, plates and other household containers. An amazing collection of fragile and beautifully ornate Dutch and British manufactured pipes are also in the exhibition. “This is probably the only time in our lifetime that this area will be dug up and studied,” said Carissa Amash, curator at the New York Transit Museum, which is showcasing the artifacts discovered at South Ferry.

Say’s Roxanne Robertson, director of special projects for the New York Transit Museum, “This is an important exhibit for those with an interest in how clay as a raw material was transformed into beautiful and functioning objects dating back to the 1600s. It is also a visual treat to see the intricate old-world craftsmanship and makers marks that still holds their beauty to this day. This exhibit is in part, a tribute to the staying power of the clay as a viable medium and to the craft of creating household, industrial and artistic ceramic objects.”

Though many of the artifacts were small in size, they are large in what they reveal about the city’s past. Many pieces were excavated from secondary deposits ? redeposited material dumped for landfill ? and can’t be tied to specific people or households. They do tell us something about daily life in the city from colonial times to the 20th century. These fragments illustrate color and textures of the city over the centuries as the city changed and grew. Through these thousands of sherds, the history of New York’s architecture, food, business, and transportation come alive.

Image: Chinese painted porcelain plate with “Canton” motif, Circa 1785-1850
Credit: New York Transit Museum

This plate was mended from 21 separate sherds discovered in a single deposit. Though porcelain vessels exported from China were popular for much of the 18th century, they became more common in New York after the American Revolution, when direct trade between the United States and China began.