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What Lies Beneath: Sara Mascia

New York Daughter unearths history below modern construction sites

When the site for the new Staten Island Courthouse was selected on a hilltop overlooking New York Harbor, challenges were expected—par for the course anytime a large municipal building is constructed. But no one could have predicted the monumental challenge posed by the 19th-century burial ground uncovered at the northern end of the site. No one, that is, except Sara Mascia, Ph.D.

Dr. Mascia—a member of Hudson River Patriots DAR Chapter, Southern Westchester County, N.Y.—serves as vice president and principal investigator for Historical Perspectives, a Westport, Conn.-based cultural resources firm. New York City hired her company to conduct research on the history of the site, as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act. Her research determined that the site was previously home to the New York Marine Hospital, which operated from 1799 until it burned down in 1858.

Any ship headed for New York, including ones carrying immigrants, stopped at Staten Island first for medical inspection. The sick stayed on the island until their health improved, or they died. 

The likelihood of a burial ground on the site was extremely high, but, as Dr. Mascia said, “our report was a big surprise to the city.”

But where exactly was the burial ground? Archival research combined with field tests, which Dr. Mascia calls “archaeological reconnaissance,” placed the cemetery at the northern end of the property—a few feet under a paved parking lot. Then came the painstaking work of locating and moving the remains so that construction could begin. In all, they found 38 full skeletal remains and hundreds more partial remains in the area.

In 2014, as construction workers put the finishing touches on the new courthouse—nearly 15 years after Dr. Mascia’s company’s initial report to the construction team—the remains were re-interred in the adjacent Memorial Green. The memorial area, complete with a commemorative plaque, was dedicated to the unknown immigrants who died in quarantine. 

“They died on the shores they were trying to get to and were buried unceremoniously in the backyard of the hospital,” she said. “Then they were under a parking lot for 100 years. It was nice to finally put the human remains we found to rest.”

Cemeteries are a frequent find in her work as a historical archaeologist. So are 18th-century cisterns and outhouses, “which can be mini-time capsules, if found intact,” she explained.

Sometimes the discoveries aren’t quite as exciting. On a recent project, Dr. Mascia thought they had uncovered an intact cistern, but further excavation showed that a sewer pipe, probably laid in the early 20th century before the National Historic Preservation Act took effect, had already destroyed it, leaving only a portion of its exterior.

What hasn’t already been destroyed by construction can be hard to access, due to demolition debris and landfilling. “In areas where there hasn’t been a lot of infill, archaeological finds could be two to three feet deep. But in places where 18th-century buildings were built on top of the debris of 17th-century structures, those finds can be closer to 12 or 15 feet deep.”

When Dr. Mascia unearths artifacts from the past, the initial excitement is followed quickly by a practical question: “Because of the preservation laws, we’re collecting so much material that we’re running out of repositories,” she said. “Unless the artifact is exceptional, where are we going to put it?”

It’s a question Dr. Mascia also grapples with as curator for the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Historical Society. Three days a week, she oversees a team of volunteers as they conduct research and preservation projects related to the rich history of the region.

Helping to curate a historical society wasn’t something Dr. Mascia ever saw herself doing, but looking back she realizes the seeds were sown in her as a young child. “My mother was an avid historian and would spend countless hours at the historical society researching this or that, and I would sit below the table where she worked,” she recalled. “It’s the same table where I work today.”