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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Kitzke

Excavating Grief

Revisiting 9/11 through archaeology.

By Kelsey Kitzke

9/11 stories have a similar rhythm: They begin in the sky—how blue it was, how cloudless, how perfect—and end on the ground, where the towers that once touched the spotless heavens crumbled to ground zero, covered in dust and ruin. Quick to return to the sky, we’ve built a new tower, memorial lights that pierce the night, and an on-site museum to commemorate the tragedy. We’ve spent less time on the ground.

The ground, however, is where archaeologists spend all their time. Nan Rothschild, an archaeologist at Columbia who specializes in New York City archaeology among other things, recalled teaching an introductory class the Wednesday after the attacks: “We were supposed to be talking about something—Australopithecus or Neanderthal or something—and it seemed so irrelevant.” Instead, archaeologists—best known in the public imagination for digging up the remains of prehistoric peoples and recovering pottery from ancient civilizations—turned their attention to the blazing present. It was assumed that much of Lower Manhattan would be covered in debris—both human and material remains—presenting an opportunity for immediate archaeological involvement. “The instinct was to help,” said Rothschild, and for archaeologists, help meant contributing their abilities to connect objects, bones, and other physical remnants to lives that were once lived. While others lined up to give blood, the archaeologists of New York City wanted to dig.

Illustration by Samia Menon

The problem was that after the dust settled, there wasn’t much else. The destruction of two 1700-foot towers left mostly dust. “That made it kind of surreal,” said Rothschild, “the idea that the explosion had had such an impact that there weren’t even physical remains.” In the aftermath of 9/11, many archaeologists hoping to contribute in the aftermath faced a loss of purpose: Why dig when nothing remains to be discovered? The lives we might have mourned through intimate encounters with physical remnants of their final moments were lost to us, too. As Rothschild said, “You can’t really connect emotionally to dust.”

What little waste material archaeologists did collect from lower Manhattan was eventually transported to Staten Island’s controversial Fresh Kills Landfill. Disposal to the landfill ended in 2002, signaling the end of 9/11 waste recovery efforts. Yet several years later, in 2006, ConEd workers found human bone fragments in a manhole originally determined to be outside the impact radius of the attacks. Their discovery prompted a whole new search for lost remains, especially below ground, where they might have been paved over in the process of rebuilding Lower Manhattan. Soon enough, the city mobilized the archaeologists, who had been sidelined five years prior.

“This was sort of the first opportunity ... [to] actually get involved and try and put our skills to some sort of use,” one archaeologist, who elected to remain anonymous due to a confidentiality agreement workers signed at the time, recalled fifteen years later. Recovery operations were set up in Lower Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn warehouses. Archaeologists wore Tyvek suits, ear protection, goggles, and masks designed to protect them from asbestos and other toxic chemicals. Warehouses were outfitted to accommodate negative air pressure, among other safety precautions. Workers lined up buckets of waste material to be sorted using mesh screens. It became “a very industrial sort of process,” according to the archaeologist I spoke to: The heavy personal equipment made it difficult for workers to talk to each other, and the warehouse setup felt far away from the natural setting of standard archaeological work.

But even as archaeologists lacked their usual connection to a natural working environment, they were performing work with a much more personal and immediate impact: recovering bone fragments from those who died in the attacks. With many bodies never found, DNA collected from bone presented one of the few ways to identify victims—and possibly give a sense of closure to those who had lost loved ones. Sometimes rings, necklaces, and other jewelry with inscriptions identified their owners. Lost wedding rings animated lifetimes of grief in the otherwise dingy and inhuman storeroom. Between shifts, the archaeologists would talk about what it must be like to receive a call that a bone fragment of a loved one you lost several years ago had been found. “It sort of re-stirs up, obviously, the terrible way these people died.”

Among the odder things recovered included waste from much earlier times in history: 150-year-old cow bone fragments and a Napoleonic coin from the early 1800s. More mundane artifacts of destruction included the shattered remnants of a large office: Keyboard keys, desk chairs, and paper. Most striking, however, was a recovered report on “lessons learned” from the last time the World Trade Center had been bombed, in 1993. “It was still all in one piece and had handwritten notes.”


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