Once you start digging — whether excavating long-populated urban land for a commercial project or tearing down the walls of a house — you never know what you’ll find. It might be a ritual object placed there to ward off evil spirits 300 years ago, or a few decades ago. It might have been put there on purpose or left by accident. Unless it’s a time capsule with a note enclosed, you’ll never know for sure.
Every building carries history within its walls, ceilings, floors and foundations. The very wood, plaster and stone can contain powerful secrets, even talismans, some of which were placed there for future inhabitants to find — a thread linking past and future.
Consider Michelle Morgan Harrison, an interior designer who is renovating her home, a house built in 1816 in New Canaan, Conn. Her general contractor, Patrick Kennedy, recently found a skull buried beneath an old white oak beam. “At first, I thought: It’s human!” said Ms. Harrison, who was relieved to discover that it wasn’t. Then they thought it might be a horse’s skull, one of the objects that Irish builders traditionally placed inside homes.
It turned out to be that of a dog, although half of the skull is missing.
“I’ve seen a bit of everything” while renovating, said Mr. Kennedy, a contractor and carpenter for 20 years. “But the skull was unique, and there’s no way it could have fallen in there the way it was buried. It was placed almost exactly in the center under the doorway, and there were no other bones with it. I immediately thought it was something superstitious.”
“The practice of burying or concealing items in the structure of a house is called immurement,” said Joseph Heathcott, an architectural historian and urbanist who teaches at the New School in New York.
“It is actually an ancient practice that cuts across many cultures and civilizations,” Dr. Heathcott added. The most famous examples are artifacts entombed with Egyptian pharaohs in the pyramids, but he said that ritual objects have often been found in the walls of Roman villas and ordinary houses during archaeological excavations. “The history of Freemasonry traces its origins to the rituals of concealment by masons, sealing up secrets in their buildings,” he said.
Objects were often hidden away as a way to bring good luck to inhabitants. This was the case in Ireland, he said, “where it was common when building a home to bury a horse skull in the floor or under the hearth, a Celtic practice that dates back centuries. Sometimes it would be the entire skull, other times just the front section or the top without the lower jaw.”
In England and Ireland, it was also customary in many regions to bury dead cats in the walls or under floors of houses to ward off malicious spirits, Dr. Heathcott added.
It all sounds like ancient history — until you or your work crew find something.
When Rob DeRocker, a marketing consultant in Tarrytown, N.Y., began gut-renovating his 1843 home, known as the Ice House — it was used to store ice in the 19th century — several objects appeared. He found a clay pipe and a tobacco pouch inside a window frame, a player-piano roll in a ceiling, a child’s alphabet flash card and several hand-painted ceramic tiles. He dreamed of “Antiques Roadshow” riches, but he discovered the items are more historic than valuable. Nonetheless, Mr. DeRocker relishes his home’s material history: “When this house was built, Abraham Lincoln was still a lawyer,” he said.
People who think they’ve found something old and valuable frequently contact the New-York Historical Society, said Margaret K. Hofer, a vice president of the society and director of its museum. “We get calls like that all the time,” she said. Museum staff members typically ask for a photo by email before deciding to look more closely.
“Some definitely think they’re going to strike it rich — they’re usually quite wrong,” she said. Common finds include old newspapers, sometimes used for insulation, and firearms and munitions, like the Revolutionary War cannonball found in a Brooklyn backyard last August. That one actually did prove to be historically valuable, she said, marking a key battle, albeit “a major loss for the American army.”
A couple of years ago, Ms. Hofer opened a time capsule from 1914 created by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association and given at that time to the historical society for safekeeping, to be opened later.
The 1914 capsule, encased in a handsome brass trunk, was in storage at the society until 2000, displayed unopened in its Luce Center from 2000 to 2014, “and then opened with great fanfare in October 2014, when it was resealed,” Ms. Hofer said. “It contained many publications of the day, including newspapers, periodicals and annual reports,” she said.
In 2015, teenage museumgoers created a time capsule of their own, adding e-cigarettes, a cellphone, a Starbucks cup and some concert tickets.
One of the museum’s richest sources of objects has been the Ear Inn, a house built around 1770 and still standing — although it has sunk 10 inches in the past 20 years — at 326 Spring Street in Lower Manhattan. Today, a bar and restaurant occupy its ground floor. The house produced many souvenirs of early New York when its owners, Martin Sheridan and Richard Hayman, dug up the basement.
“There’s a lot of great stuff in there,” Ms. Hofer said, “the objects of everyday life. It’s a snapshot of a time period and a class of people.” The haul included a chamber pot and whiskey jugs.
“We were digging in the basement to put in posts to shore up the house,” Mr. Hayman said. “The building has sunk six feet since it was built.”
A house doesn’t need Revolutionary credentials to be a trove.
“In my 30 years of architectural practice we’ve found many different things under floors and inside of walls, most left there inadvertently,” said Marvin J. Anderson, a Seattle architect. “Newspapers were used for years as insulation, and regularly help us date when an addition was built or an improvement was made.” In a recent renovation of a 1914 Seattle house, he found a layer of 1924 newspapers under the floorboards in a maid’s room.
“While renovating a 1902 house several years ago, we came across a fire-scorched red corset inside a wall,” he said. “It certainly stopped construction for several hours and raised many eyebrows, but we never figured out the story behind it.”
Some homeowners and some work crews choose to leave signatures and items behind as well, Mr. Anderson added. “When we renovate houses we encourage clients and their families to create and leave time capsules inside the house somewhere, something to be discovered when walls and ceilings are opened up in 50 to 100 years.”
Construction crews also routinely sign wall framing, knowing it will be covered up. “Years ago a client told me of the tradition of placing foreign coins under the basement floor slab; that it would bring wisdom from around the world into the home,” Mr. Anderson said. “I’ve never researched the tradition, but we’ve done this on numerous projects, as an opportunity to pause and celebrate a moment or milestone during construction.”
When Mr. Kennedy began working on Ms. Harrison’s 1816 house, a carpenter’s signature from 1921 was found on an attic window frame. Also discovered: a time capsule from the 1990s that included a note from the 9-year-old girl then living there.
Kim Gordon, a designer in Los Angeles who specializes in renovating 1920s-era homes, collects items she finds in the process and creates a small package she places in a wall when the project is done, sometimes with the owner’s knowledge, sometimes not. Inside a wall in a house from 1905, the oldest she’s yet renovated, she found a small sterling-silver medallion of the Virgin Mary, on a bit of chain. “It was very detailed, a beautiful, beautiful piece,” she said. After completing the renovation, she placed it into a small fabric pouch, added some crushed seashells, pebbles and a clay figure, and tucked it back inside a wall.
She collects small objects at flea markets “that speak to me” and keeps them for use in future packages during renovations. “It’s an anchor in the space,” she said. “I’ve given the house an intention.”
And, of course, commercial projects that require major excavation routinely unearth all kinds of things. But the 19th-century ship discovered in May 2016 in Boston, and the ancient elephant bones found in November of that year in Los Angeles during excavation work on the Wilshire/La Brea Station for the Purple Line Extension subway, were of jaw-dropping significance. The subway extension, a Skanska-Traylor-Shea project, produced teeth, tusks and a partial skull of at least two of the extinct mammals.
In Boston, another Skanska team at work on a 17-story office tower had been on site for more than eight months, and was six to eight weeks into the excavation phase when it revealed a ship, sunk between 1850 and 1880, that still contained barrels of lime and items including knives, forks and plates. It was about 20 feet down and approximately 500 yards from the current shore by the Institute of Contemporary Art.
It’s in “the heart of Boston and the heart of a major development” said Shawn Hurley, the chief executive and president of Skanska USA commercial development. “We didn’t know what it was at first, but the employee who saw it was smart enough to stop construction.”
It was a sunny day. Skanska’s offices overlook the site and excitement grew as staff members realized, “We’ve got the real deal!” he recalled.
Suddenly encountering a piece of history can be a shock.
“I felt kind of amazed. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mr. Hurley, who then immediately faced a host of questions: “What do we need to do here? What are the next steps?”
The importance of their accidental find was confirmed, he said, as city and state archaeologists agreed it was the most significant find of their careers. “We probably had a team of seven or eight archaeologists on-site for a week. They were ecstatic.”
The New York Times