STAR students discover what it takes to uncover a part of Brooklyn's history.

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Digging Up the Past

Oct. 1, 2012

Students gather around the cistern at the historic Lott House.

Students gather around the cistern at the historic Lott House.

Give nine teenagers picks, shovels and spades, set them loose on a patch of ground, and there's no telling what they will do. In this case, they're searching for a well at one of Brooklyn's last remaining Dutch homesteads.

The teens are students at Erasmus Hall High School and participants in the Science, Technology and Research (STAR) program, a collaboration between Brooklyn College and the New York City Department of Education. Taught by the college's faculty, who also provide research opportunities, the students earn up to 30 college credits and receive important support and guidance to steer them toward college.

In August they volunteered for an archaeological dig at the Lott House, one of the oldest homesteads left in New York City. Supervising their work is H. Arthur Bankoff, professor of anthropology and archaeology, who also oversees and approves archaeological work for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. A good-natured man with the patience of Job, he heckles everyone to drink water while shouting instructions on how to lay out guide lines around the different excavation sites. It's only 10 a.m., and most everyone is already sweating and gritty. More than a few are wondering out loud why they signed up in the first place. Even their biology teacher, Marcus Watson, watches over the students with a wet hand towel draped over his head. "The students are receiving hands-on experience in science and local history. It's discovery learning at its best," he says.

Watson is finishing his Ph.D. in archaeology by writing his dissertation on the Lott House excavation, which helps him understand both the tediousness of the work the students are doing and the joy they will experience if they find something that will reveal the past.  The work is hard but it's clear that every student is bent on discovering the well and what may be inside.

Watching the students begin to dig in the four trenches they will be working in for the next two weeks, Bankoff says, "What we find in the well will be more important than the well itself. Previous digs at the house have revealed almost 300 years of the Lotts' everyday life. The house was little more than a lean-to when it was built in 1719. By 1792, with the family's wealth and social standing on the rise, a slightly grander addition was constructed. The property, once comprising 200 acres of farmland stretching from Kings Highway to Jamaica Bay, has now been reduced to a single acre in the middle of Marine Park.

 

 

"When I heard about doing this, it sounded like a lot of work," admits Tarik Smith, a junior. "Then I started reading about what archaeologists find, and it sounded like fun."

By the fifth day, the trenches are deep enough for students to rest their back against the sides. After hours of sifting dirt through fine screens, they have excavated toy soldiers, a silver quarter, a clay pipe and a small stone wall that may have been a rock garden. But no well.

Ben Christiansen, one of five Brooklyn College students helping to supervise, watches the teenagers unearth a large flat stone. They're at the point in an archaeological dig when picks are traded for spades and brushes. "The whole experience has made the students in my team realize how long New York City has been around," says Christiansen.

Later that day, the stone begins turning into something more substantial. When sophomore Enrique Spencer first hit the stone, he admits he thought, "Shoot, now I'm going to have to keep digging." But the stone and several others around it were too perfectly placed to be natural; it had to be the well. Everyone stops what they're doing and stares down at the stones capping something round. "I didn't think about work after that. I just felt proud," Spencer says.

A round hole is revealed once the top stones are lifted. Bankoff has his doubts, but Watson holds out hope. By the end of the day, the men are convinced it's not the well but a cistern, a receptacle for water. They measure the depth and find it is not as deep as a well would need to be, and an old clay pipe jutting from one side would have siphoned any water away. None of this seems to matter much to the students.

On the last day the students will spend at the Lott House, Bankoff hunkers in the ditch watching two of his former doctoral students, now archaeological consultants, poking around the hole, exploring what the cistern is made of and trying to see what is at the bottom by taking photos with a long lens. The teenagers ring the pit, listening.

"Well, the capstones are from Manhattan," one of the consultants says.

"So how did they get here?" Bankoff asks. "What was being built at the time? The Brooklyn Bridge?"

"The Atlantic Avenue train tunnel," the other consultant ventures.

Spencer and Smith lean in close. "Maybe it's where they hid slaves," Smith says, referring to the theory that the house was part of the Underground Railroad.

Bankoff looks up at him and smiles. "We couldn't even fit you in there, and you're thin."

"Yeah," Smith admits. "Still."

Bankoff and the consultants continue to scrap around the cistern while the students are instructed by Watson to begin filling in the trenches they had so carefully excavated the last two weeks. The toy soldiers, the coin, the bit of clay pipe and the cistern capstones will be taken back to the college's archeological lab, where the students will spend their final week documenting the finds and learning how to properly store the artifacts. When asked, almost all think the well was somewhere near their individual trenches, perhaps underneath the collapsing garage — the last remaining modern structure on the property. The archeologists have to wait until the city tears down the garage to see if that's true, but in the meantime, some of the students are talking about coming back next year.

"I had to take two buses and two trains to get here every day, and I learned to be responsible to show up and help out with everyone else," says junior Darnell Bent. "Finding what we did made everything we went through worth it. Finding the well next time — that's what I want to do.

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