Brooklyn Archeology - A Brooklyn On Line Interview with Archeologist H. Arthur Bankoff PhD

Arthur Bankoff is a Midwood Resident and the Chairman of the Archeology Department of Brooklyn College CUNY. For over 25 years he has lead the field in urban archeology, digging up Brooklyn's living history from Pre-European contact until the development of the Brooklyn as modern metropolis. He breaths life into this much ignored part of history. So it is my pleasure to introduce Doctor Bankoff.
Ruben: Good morning Arthur. I really appreciate you dropping by this morning and spending time with us!

Arthur: No - not at all. It a pleasure and a Beautiful day.

Ruben: Let me start with a little biographical information first this morning. What is your educational background and what brought you to study this field.

Arthur: I graduated Brooklyn College with a BA in 1965 and started teaching in 1971. I went to Harvard University where I got my Ph.D. in '74 and came back to the comfy confines of Brooklyn shortly afterwards. And today I run the Department at Brooklyn College around the corner.

Ruben: It must be satisfying to work so close to home and to be doing meaningful work.

Arthur: Yes - I have no complaints about it.

Ruben: Let me ask you, being nearly totally ignorant of Brooklyn Archeology, so - what have you dug up!

Arthur; One of the most interesting things we have dug up is the original town of Gravesend. When they built the new public school, I believe it is PS 192, we jumped at the chance to do some digging. It is located near Avenue U and Mcdonald Ave. We found a victory garden from the 17th Century and some Dutch presence.

Ruben: I thought Gravesend was the English settlement in Brooklyn.

Arthur: It was. It was settled by English nonconformist in the 1640's as a settlement by Lady Moody (Devorah) which specialized in smuggling.

Ruben: Smuggling, like in Privateers?

Arthur: Not exactly pirates, but they likely smuggled from the Dutch who dominated the area until the British took over. It's likely that this is why they settled so far from the center of Dutch settlement at the time. And then when the English took over, the Dutch moved into the area and they specialized in smuggling. And such was life in 17th century North America.

Ruben: How do we know exactly where the settlement was?

Arthur: It's in the City Grid. It was laid out as a square similarly as Philadelphia, with two cross streets, not much different then how Roman Jerusalem was built. Each quadrant had 10 houses. The Victory Garden was the exact size of a house plot. We put trenches in and came back with some interesting artifacts from the 18th Century (1700's). The Streets that made the village straddle McDonald Ave. which was called Gravesend Avenue for many years.

Ruben: Right under the elevated F train? I can't think of where this could be.

Arthur: It's right off Avenue U. The streets are called Village Road North, Village Road South ect. Do you have a map?

Ruben: Yes - I have one here I think - oh wait - we can look at it on line. Ah - yes I see. Gravesend Neck Road and McDonald run cross through a square mapped out by Village Road South, Village Road North, Village Road East and Van Sicklen. I would have never noticed that. It really stands out.

Arthur: Sure. There's a cemetery there also. We dug there as well.

Ruben: In the Graves?

Arthur: No, between them. We found some evidence of 18th Century occupation. There is also some park land use. We also found some 1920 license plates which I thought was interesting. You could see the changing land use. We also dug up the Gravesend Town hall in the north east quadrant. We also found some wells.

Ruben: It's interesting that you brought up the parallel with Roman settlements because it always seemed to me that a bunch of bible thumping Europeans with Western heritage would make bad settlers in a new wilderness.

Arthur: That's right. It was always the joke of the story of Thanksgiving. They landed in a bountiful land in the New World with lots of natural resources, and plenty to eat. And then they starved while the Indians were eating well. They starved of their ignorance. European peasants and urban folks had no idea how to survive in the woods. After loosing all these people, and being saved by the Indians, they finally started to learn from them how to use the land. Pigs weren't really to good for a starting Village. They eat a lot and ruined the land. And European crops didn't adapt to well at first.

Ruben: Any other particularly interesting digs?

Arthur: In Marine park, South of Avenue U we dug up a Colonial Mill. We found some good colonial stuff and an Indian pre-European fire pit or clam steamer. it was filled with clam shells about one meter (a little more than 3 foot) clam shells, deer bones and such.

Ruben: Really - over a meter! You know that at one time Jamaica bay, especially Canarsie, was the export center of clams in the world. But over a meter, that is tremendous.

Arthur: In New York archeologist date sites by the size of the clam shells. As time goes on they get smaller and smaller. We also dug up the Erasmus Academy Quad. But that was a disturbed site. Because of fire wall laws they had to move the actual school house which is in the Quad to the center of the new building.

Ruben: Which is now an old building. So they moved the entire building over to preserve it.

Arthur: Yes. We dug there anyway and found some 18th century clay pipes, musket balls, and some coins. They were on display for a long time there. But they felt they needed the room so we have them now.

Ruben: Can I come and photo some of your Brooklyn Collection. This might make a perfect Internet virtual museum.

Arthur: You don't have to, we have them all on slides and I have someone scanning them now. We can turn them over to you.

Ruben: Great - that would make a great site. Now all we need is someone to fund it. So what else?

Arthur: In East New York was the Charles Duryea house. It was in pristine condition. Just perfect in 1986. We had a deal with the city to turn it into a historical landmark. But some people felt that it should be moved and it became a controversy. It was not moved, but then the crack addicts got a hold of it. We did do some work on it though. We got there and set up camp and the work area. Then suddenly local people started to picket at the site and demand that they be allowed to work. So I got together with them and said, "There is no problem here. Anyone can help. Just go to Brooklyn College and enroll in the course and I'll approve you for the class". So they then realized that no one was getting paid for this, and they lost interest. But the community groups from the area really fought hard to develop the site as a historical site. But in the end, the crack addicts got to it.

Ruben: What was the most interesting thing you found there?

Arthur: A cash of prohibition era liquor bottles. (laughter) You know that men drank liquor but the ladys had elixirs - supposedly for medical use.

Ruben: Oh yeah - even until recently Elixir Terpin Hydrate was made at 90 proof as a cough syrup. it really worked to. Better than Robitussin, but the FDA disagreed.

Arthur: You would know as a Pharmacist. The ladies would need to take their medicine for their Rheumatism or whatever.

Ruben: Well today we have Valium. Did you find anything else?

Arthur: Whenever you dig in Brooklyn, the most apparent thing is the grow in urbanization. Through each stage you find better china and silverware, and a wider variety of material goods. Also the tombstones were originally in Dutch until the 1860's and then finally in English.

Ruben: Really, I would think there wasn't much of a Dutch influence at this late stage in the game.

Arthur: The Dutch were very conservative and became prominent. Families like the Van Siclan's and the Roosevelt's.

Ruben: I didn't know Roosevelt was a Dutch name.

Arthur: Oh yes, certainly. And the Van Siclan's are buried in the Gravesend Dutch cemetery from the 1680's.

Ruben: What are some of the oldest houses in the Borough now?

Arthur: There are the two Wyckoff houses. One is a historical monument in Canrasie near Clarendan road, and the other is the Bennet House on Kings Highway and East 22nd Street.

Ruben: That's still occupied, isn't it? I see someone working on that house all the time with rural like tools. He seems to be really into it.

Arthur: The Bennets enjoy that house quite a bit. We are trying to save the Lot house on Ave. R and 36th street. The city has given the go ahead if the community can raise some 300 thousand dollars. It has been in the Lot family for over 300 years.

Ruben: How is the civic association going to raise 300 thousand dollars?

Arthur: Their interested in doing it. We'll have to wait and see.

Ruben: Well Arthur - Thank you very very much for the time. I hope to work soon on getting your stuff documented online. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Arthur: Hey - It's really my pleasure. it's a great place Brooklyn and it has a great history. I'm glad to share it with your readers!

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