Archaeology at the Lott House

This is the press release by Brooklyn College Archeological Research Center promoting the needed funding for research into one of North America's most important dig sites. It's a rather technical paper with complete detail of the project and the course work at Brooklyn College to support it.
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This is a short description of a program of research planned by the Brooklyn College Department of Anthropology and Archaeology and the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center (BC-ARC) at the Lott House (1940 East 36th Street; Brooklyn, New York). This eighteenth-century farmhouse, a designated New York City Landmark and National Register of Historic Places property, is in the process of being acquired in a joint city/private venture by the Historic House Trust of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Hendrik I. Lott House Association. An agreement between these parties and the current owners (heirs and assigns of the Suydam sisters, the last residents of the property) has given the former rights of access and purchase over a period of two years. The Historic House Trust and Hendrik I. Lott House Association have undertaken to raise the purchase price of $500,000 and to protect and begin plans for renovation and reconstruction of the property. The agreement went into effect on February 1, 1998.

The concerned parties are under a certain amount of time pressure in this project. Emergency repairs (covering windows and installing a security system) were done during the first week in February. The next step calls for beginning repairs to the water and sewer system necessary to make the house livable for a caretaker. Before any disturbance of the ground, a thorough documentary study of the plot history must be done to determine whether archaeological resources will be affected by these activities. If there will be an adverse impact on such resources, it will be necessary to assess their significance and integrity before suggesting a plan to avoid or mitigate the possible damage.

The historic documentary research can be begun in March/April. This will be facilitated by the considerable research already done for the designation report of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the National Register nomination. Although not specifically concerned with the archaeological aspects of the property, these reports provide direction and bibliography for further primary source studies. A complete inventory of the grounds and interior of the structure is also planned to begin as soon as possible. This will include photodocumentation and videotaping. The archaeological survey and testing, at least as relates to the immediate repairs, can be done later this spring (April/May) with a small crew from the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center.

Once these immediate emergency concerns are taken care of, the archaeological research program will be continued by expanded documentary research, in-ground testing and fieldwork. The first phase of this longer-term project will propose a plan which will mitigate the expected subsurface disturbance caused by reconstruction/renovation of the structure and the site. In cooperation with the community and the architects, this phase will be begun this summer by the Brooklyn College Summer Archaeological Field School.

I am sending this preliminary notice of the Lott House Project to members of the Brooklyn College community who may be interested in working on this project. I would like to get together a faculty group to discuss this further, and to enter into a dialog with the community, the Lott House Association, and the Historic House Trust. My expertise is in archaeology, but on campus we have many resources and people from various disciplines which can be brought to bear on this project. There are possibilities for interns, theses, spin-off research, and grants. If you are interested, or know a faculty member who might be, please contact me by e-mail or phone (951-5507) by March 13, so that we can arrange a meeting soon thereafter.


The acquisition of the Lott House gives the city its last chance to protect, renovate, and use (as a community and educational resource) one of the fourteen original homes of colonial Brooklyn. The Lott House is one of the last remaining "Dutch-style" farmhouses in New York City. Hendrick I. Lott and his descendents were the sole owners of the house and grounds since before the construction of the present structure (c. 1720) until the early 1990s. Conditions for archaeological preservation on the site and historical research on the house and family are excellent. Over the centuries, there has been little undocumented modification to the house and grounds immediately surrounding it.

The Lott House has sadly deteriorated while it remained unoccupied over the past few years. Despite its Landmark and Historic Register status, and despite the efforts of the neighbors, neglect and petty vandalism have led to water damage, the removal of original architectural elements, and possibly some structural damage. A program of restoration and relandscaping is obviously called for, with capital expenditure to preserve the site and make it publicly accessible. Archaeological fieldwork must be an integral part of this process. >From the document searches and archaeological testing prior to the inception of restoration, through constant monitoring during the construction phase, archaeologists will be a necessary part of the team. This is not only legally required, but morally imperative. Most sites display evidence of manipulation and renovation to the standing structure(s) as well as changes in the landscape property lines. Unauthorized digging has also occurred on many sites, especially those that could possibly contain Native American remains. Fortuitously, this has not been the case with the Lott House. It is thus an historic resource not only for the community, but for the city as a whole.

Brooklyn College has been a leader in community archaeology for over twenty years. The Summer Archaeological Field School has conducted research excavations in Gravesend, Marine Park, Erasmus Hall High School, the Pieter Claeson Wyckoff House, and the Christian Duryea House in Brooklyn, Saint Andrew's Church on Staten Island, City Hall Park in Manhattan, and the Bartow-Pritchard and Van Courtlandt Houses in the Bronx. These excavations each have served to advance our understanding of the process of urbanization, especially in the outer boroughs, and the transformation from a rural/farm to an urban/neighborhood environment. As archaeologists, as academics, and as community residents, we feel it is our obligation to ensure this irreplaceable site's preservation and curation, and to utilize the house to reach out to the community and heighten its awareness of its historic past. The staff of the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center can help to do this with the highest level of professionalism and at the lowest cost to other city agencies. The Lott House offers a rare opportunity to investigate the past of the family and the community. It holds promise of the possibility to observe the evolution of a community in its passage from rural to urban, from farmland to neighborhood. As a house museum and community education center, it can be a potent force in promoting neighborhood cohesion and an awareness of history and continuity of settlement in a rapidly changing world.

Prolegomena to an archaeology of the Lott House

Prior to Lott's purchase, the Canarsee Indians occupied the area. Several Native American sites have been found within the boundaries of Lott's original holdings, among which those at Marine Park, Ryder's Pond, and the site of Keskachaugue (a Canarsee Indian Long House) are the most noteworthy. The creek that presently ends at Avenue U in Marine Park extended as far north as present day Quentin Road in the eighteenth century, about one mile from the Lott House. Previous work on Native American sites within the region has demonstrated that these sites are usually located near streams and creeks. Brooklyn College research on historic colonial houses (e.g. the Pieter Claeson Wyckoff House and the Christian Duryea House) confirmed that the early settlers, like the Native Americans, preferred to build their houses close to waterways. The possibility thus exists that Native American remains could be uncovered from within the present day Lott House site. The proximity of the Lott House site to known areas of local Native American interest might even provide artifactual evidence for the relations between these important components of Brooklyn's historical past.

Additionally, it is known that the Lotts owned slaves. There have been very few studies of slavery in the north, the role of slaves, or their culture and lifestyle. The interaction of slaves and their owners has never been studied in New York City from an archaeological standpoint. Maps and pictures confirm that a large structure, commonly identified as the slave quarters, was adjacent to the main house. The possibility exists that the remains of these slave quarters still exist just a few meters away from the present property lines. If so, this would offer the first opportunity to explore the material culture of an African American habitation site in colonial New York.

The Lott House, with its undisturbed local landscape, provides a vital historical link to the later aspects of Brooklyn's (and New York City's) history. The approach called "landscape archaeology" tries to explain the particular significance that people have attached to the environment that they create for themselves. A landscape study of the site, in conjunction with earlier work undertaken by Brooklyn College and various Cultural Resource Management projects within Brooklyn, can delineate the cultural and functional evolution of the landscape. This is a vital and novel approach to the understanding of the physical and social development of the local community of Marine Park and the larger community of Brooklyn.

The recovery of materials from wells, privies, cisterns, outbuildings, and barns can present an unparalleled diachronic sample of 17th to 20th century local material culture. Not only useful for exhibit, these remains can be the bases of several types of studies. Comparison of these assemblages with others known from historic contexts in Brooklyn can give us an insight into the material correlates of wealth and status at various times. We should be able to determine the types of artifacts that a family in "rural" Brooklyn was able to obtain from local and distant sources. We may be able to further document a postulated progression through time from locally produced artifacts (from the 17th and 18th centuries) to "store-bought" items of the 19th and 20th centuries, thus broadening our knowledge of the global economy and the development of consumerism.

The poorly-recorded lifestyles of the Dutch in rural Brooklyn are only accessible through archaeology. Historic documentary sources leave a host of questions unanswered. What was the everyday life of a farmer? How is this reflected in the material remains? Can we see a change as urban concerns impinge on the rural farming landscape? Will we be able to ascertain a change in attitudes that was likely to have occurred? What, if any, were the effects on a Dutch family living under British rule? Archaeology is sometimes the only way of recovering the lives of those whom history takes little note. This includes most particularly women, children, and ethnic minorities. It is possible that the artifacts recovered from the Lott House, in conjunction with the personal and historical records, can allow us to delve deeper into the gender roles of women, men and children? Were they the stereotypica l roles that we assume of today? By combining the archaeological and documentary records, a more complete picture of this family's past will come to fruition.


Aside from its location and connection to the community, Brooklyn College has the specialized facilities necessary for conducting a long-term community archaeological project. The laboratories of the Archaeological Research Center provide space for cleaning and cataloguing artifacts, and are large enough to allow school groups, community volunteers, and college classes access for participation in these activities. The Center also contains computer facilities for maintenance of an archaeological and GIS database, and hardware and software to expedite production of reports and mailings. Course credit for work at the site is available through the college. This may be arranged as Continuing Education, undergraduate, or graduate course credit, depending on the nature of the course, the needs of the students, and the extent of commitment. We could also plan to offer courses to teachers in the local school district, using the Lott House project as a springboard for further focussing and developing the local history/archaeology curriculum component currently taught in New York City schools.

On a larger scale, Brooklyn College possesses facilities and capabilities which can make the Lott House project a model for community involvement in local history and archaeology. The college has a large Special Collections Division in the library, which has a strong focus on local history, an Archival Studies Program, and faculty who are experts in local history and urban studies. The college is ideally situated for community outreach and has targeted the field of Community Studies as an important part of its academic planning. Some funding for faculty participation may be available through this or other academic funding programs.


We can foresee the Lott House becoming a focus for community involvement and education for the Marine Park/East Midwood community, and perhaps farther afield. An ongoing academic program of archaeological and historical investigation, connecting the finds at the Lott House with developments in the history of the community and the increasing urbanization of Brooklyn, appears to be best. It seems desirable to engage both the archaeologists and the community in a true research project, with comprehensive discussion of research design and goals on both sides, rather than a haphazard series of ad hoc salvage excavations. This has been done with marked success by the University of Maryland and the City of Annapolis. Such a program would encompass at least some of the following:

    1. a consortium comprised of archaeologists, historians, Historic Houses personnel and community representatives to set research goals and project design;
    2. Community involvement and consultation on every level, from planning to digging to analyzing, and involving various constituencies from elementary school students through retirees;
    3. Institutional participation by Brooklyn College, the Board of Education, the local school board and community planning council, church groups, Boy/Girl Scouts, and local commercial interests;
    4. Funding for the program (exclusive of reconstruction/site rehabilitation) to be obtained from outside sources, perhaps after initial seed money from the city.

In terms of actual archaeological fieldwork, this program needs long-term historic documentary research, systematic testing, excavation, and possibly subsurface remote sensing to locate those features which will provide the necessary data. The archaeologists should be able to identify and isolate not only features but surfaces datable to specific time periods. It implies a landscape and urban archaeological approach, and a frank, open attitude towards discussions with non-archaeologists about issues which lie at the heart of public archaeology. It requires support for full-time, part-time and volunteer personnel, as well as logistical support for excavations and exhibits. It is an ambitious program, but one which could bring real rewards to the community, to the institutions, and to the people involved.