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Urban Archaeology and Phaeton

December 31, 2009

The 1936 article from last post about ‘intrepid tunnel hunters’ made me think of two, more recent articles from the Times. The first one, “The Race to Discover the Mystery of the Subterranean Chambers”, from July 14 2007  reports the unearthing of a tunnel in Ossining, NY, similarly enshrouded in mystery. The article reads:

“Now the subterranean structure, believed to date to the mid-19th century, is a mystery just begging to be solved. Is it as pedestrian as a root cellar? Or as storied as a stop on the Underground Railroad? Does it stretch beyond the cluster of at least nine known rooms to connect to tunnels elsewhere?”

Similar to the Atlantic Ave. tunnel, the rumored stronghold for river pirates and spawning ground of labrador-sized rats, attributed it to the Underground Railroad. When contemplating anything underground, in-the-dark, out-of-sight, our imagination reverts to the most fantastic explanation. A follow-up article reveals the mystery of the subterranean chambers: they were “a rare 19th-century pit silo where food for livestock was stored.”

Next, this article, from just a few days ago, about an unidentifiable, but apparently old (relatively speaking), structure unearthed during construction in Times Square.

“Midtown Manhattan has been overhauled so thoroughly in the last two decades that any structure not made of glass and steel looks old. In that realm, the tightly packed pile of stones that appeared at the base of 11 Times Square last week looked positively ancient.

Its sudden unveiling caused passers-by and neighbors to wonder how old it was and what purpose it had served.

Was it a furnace? A fireplace? A coal vault?”

These moments when the underground world is exposed to the surface world fascinate me. At any other time, the underground is a hidden world. Not that it’s not accessible via elevator or stairway, of course, but, from street level, it’s decidedly invisible beneath a layer of concrete. The moment of exposure, the unveiling, is especially poignant in cities, where a hole in the ground reveals raw soil and clay, drawing such a stark contrast with the built environment on the surface, giving the impression of a rip in the fabric.

Such moments remind me of Phaeton, who insists on driving his father Apollo’s sun chariot. Phaeton loses control of the chariot, swerves, flies too close to the earth, dries up entire rivers, creates deserts, sets land on fire, etc.. At one moment, “The earth cracked open, and through the chinks light broke into Tartarus, and frightened the king of shadows and his queen.” Granted, excavating a foundation in Times Square has little to do with scorching suns, but, I’m struck by this image of sunlight spilling into the underground world . Excavation becomes a breaking down of boundaries, subversion of Order, Structure and the cosmos.

Anyway. I love the character of Dr. Geismar, President of  Professional New York Archaeologists, who rushes in to evaluate the situation. I imagined her  When the workers said the plan was to leave the mystery structure in place and simply build over it, “She imagined aloud how thrilling it would be for future historians and archaeologists to stumble upon the stones again in 100 years when the lot is redeveloped.

“It makes perfect sense to leave it,” Dr. Geismar said. “It’s sort of a little secret of New York’s past.”

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