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Interpreting the Past to the Public: the Liberty Island Example

William Griswold tells about his experience conducting tours on Liberty Island.

(photo) Two archeologists excavating on Liberty Island.

Priscilla Brendler and Jesse Ponz excavate on Liberty Island during the 1999 season.

Walking around Liberty Island today the visitor gets little sense as to the appearance of the island in antiquity. A well-manicured, formally designed, landscape greets the visitor as they leave the Circle Line and meander their way toward the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty casts a large and prominent shadow (literally and figuratively) across the island and its lesser-known cultural resources; even the walls of Fort Wood fade into a dramatic backdrop for the statue.

Archeological research over the past few years has helped to fill out the picture of the island before the statue. Within the last millennium, the island has been used as a food collection station, a privately owned island with a house and garden, a quarantine station, a fortification, a signaling station, and only recently, relatively speaking, home to Auguste Bartholdi’s statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. It is appropriate that the island is a World Heritage site since it has been used over the last millennium by Native American, Dutch, British, French, and American people.

Much of this information has been brought to light by historical and archeological research including the production of an Archeological Overview and Assessment, a geophysical investigation of approximately two-thirds of the island, an intensive investigation of a Woodland Period shell midden, a site survey focused on examining anomalies identified by the geophysical investigation, an underwater investigation of areas adjacent to the sea walls, and numerous compliance driven projects. Truly, the 13 or so acres of Liberty Island are some of the best-known, most-studied archeological resources in the Northeast Region.

Map of Liberty Island

Map produced from the 1999 geophysical survey of Liberty Island.

The visiting public was greatly interested in our various projects on the island. At times, it was difficult to get our work done because so many people were asking questions about the various projects. With 2.7+ million people visiting the site each year (2002 visitation), we were bound to get more than a few questions about our work. Young, old, native New Yorkers and visiting foreigners alike were interested to learn about what archeology could teach us about the past. I like to believe that we not only provided answers to many questions about the archeology of the island, but that we fed an interest about archeology in general.

With the reports from these projects finished, the next goal, at least from my perspective, is to communicate our research and our findings to the public. I see this as a great opportunity to teach many of the visitors something about its history and prehistory. A couple of steps have been made toward fulfilling this goal. A general interest booklet on the whole Liberty Island project has been placed on the internet. Interested individuals can download The Ground Beneath Her Feet: The Archeology of Liberty Island by visiting www.nps.gov/phso/archeology and going into the library. Once there, they can download a .pdf file containing the entire booklet. Very soon there will be a link to the booklet from the main Statue of Liberty website found at www.nps.gov/stli. Another step toward dissemination of the archeological information to the public will happen toward the end of 2004 with the publication of Diana diZerega Wall and Anne-Marie Cantwell’s book entitled: Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Sites (Yale University Press 2004). The keenly interested public will then be able to get lots of information on the earlier history of the island from these two sources.

(photo) Excavation on Liberty Island.

Excavation of the prehistoric shell midden on Liberty Island during the 1999 season.

However, it is not only the keenly interested individual that needs education about the earlier history of the island. I would argue that very few individuals would actively seek out information on the island or its historical or archeological resources. Most visitors may not even be aware that the National Park Service has a website for the Statue of Liberty or will browse the bookstores for Wall’s and Cantwell’s upcoming book. Many, if not most, of the visitors (personal observation and not a scientific survey) come to Liberty Island just to see the statue. This, however, does not preclude the trip from being an educational experience. Visitors can learn a lot about the statue and the island during a visit.

While it is doubtful that in a post- 9-11 environment visitation to the island/statue will be what it was in the past, there are numerous places to capitalize on an opportunity to educate the public on the history of the island. Waysides are a very good, and inexpensive way to provide information. Visitors to the island must queue up at several locations including Battery Park in Manhattan, Liberty State Park in New Jersey, and on Liberty Island itself. Small waysides could easily be created and placed in selected spots along these queues. I tend to read any and all available information when I am standing in line, and I don’t think that I am unique in that regard. In many cases interesting information helps make the wait more pleasant.

In many cases the follow-through gets lost in the archeological shuffle. Great discoveries are made, illuminating reports are written, but then the information never gets out to the public. Shows on the Discovery Channel and other cable channels and the success of movies like Indiana Jones and Laura Croft indicate that the public has a voracious appetite for archeology. We must not miss this opportunity on Liberty Island.

by William A. Griswold, Ph.D., Archeology Branch—Northeast Cultural Resources Center