Alumna Alyssa Loorya Digs New York City
The founder and president of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants turned her academic interest in public archaeology into a career in cultural resource management.
Alumna Alyssa Loorya (Ph.D. ’18, Anthropology) came to The Graduate Center to specialize in archaeology and, like many in her field, work in academia. Along the way, she found that she could excavate and share New York City history in another, equally exciting fashion.
Today, she is the founder and president of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, a cultural resource management company in New York City that researches, excavates, and analyzes sites to assess their historical or archaeological impact. Since opening in 2001, the company has worked on hundreds of projects.
“Any project that utilizes municipal funds —city, state, or federal — is required to go through a process where they have to at least consider if there will be any impact to the historic or cultural fabric,” Loorya says, “And that includes archaeology.”
The company’s work also encompasses projects that do not receive public funds, but are in known historic districts or may add to the historic or cultural record.
Loorya’s work in cultural resource management keeps her digging. When we first called, her office told us she was in the field. She also stays connected to education. She has developed local history programs for schoolchildren, and she is sought-after for her stories highlighting the importance of archaeological research in New York City.
Her popular TED Talk on City Hall Park uncovered layers of city history. On NPR, she told the story of the 300-year-old Hendrick I. Lott House in Brooklyn, and she shared a recipe that she discovered there on Food52.
She spoke to The Graduate Center about the serendipitous start of her company, her latest finds, and her advice for aspiring archaeologists.
The Graduate Center: Did you start studying archaeology with this sort of work in mind?
Loorya: Absolutely not. I sort of just fell into it. It happened by accident. My initial intent was a more academic route. I've always been very interested in public archaeology and bringing archaeology to the public and making it accessible.
Archaeology is a very different way of teaching history, another tool, another method that goes beyond documents. Documents are crafted by a specific person or an organization or an entity and there is a rationale or motive behind creating those documents. Archaeology very much deals with what is unintentionally documented, what was accidentally left behind, the items that were discarded, and it is not subject solely to the organizations or people who have the ability to ensure that their documents are kept and are writing the history. But archaeology is very equitable, it's open to all, to those of little note. It doesn’t discriminate, and can tell us the story of women, men, children, enslaved, the poor, the rich, all groups.
GC: How did you start Chrysalis?
Loorya: Purely by accident. About 20 years ago, I was in graduate school and I was told that one of the city agencies, the Parks Department, was looking for proposals because they needed to do some archaeological work at Gravesend Cemetery. It was sort of a downtime and I thought that would be a really fun project to excavate. I put together a proposal to do this work. I didn't expect to get it, but I did. And that was my first project. And then, you know, someone else called who heard I do this. And it was slow. It was just occasional things here or there. But soon, occasional became a lot more regular. And it got so busy that I needed to hire regularly, not just on occasion. So, I took time off and I devoted that to Chrysalis before finishing my dissertation.
GC: What are you working on now?
Loorya: We’re working a cemetery site in Elmhurst, Queens. It's been relatively undeveloped and empty for several years, but it was formerly the property and the burial grounds for a congregation that had been founded by former slaves in the 1820s. It was one of those many things that is lost over time in New York City. People in the neighborhood had heard that this is where that burial ground had been. But the property had been sold off in 1930. There were very different approaches to development with regard to land, and it was partially developed in the mid 20th century. But it was rediscovered when they were doing some construction a little less than a decade ago. But now they're further developing the property.
GC: Has your work impacted construction projects. What happens when you find significant artifacts? Are they simply taken from the site and the construction allowed to continue? Have construction projects been stopped or altered because of your finds?
Loorya: When we find a significant artifact deposit we document and remove the artifacts. Then construction proceeds as planned. If what has been found is more substantial and can't be removed, e.g., a stone water well, there will be an attempt to modify construction so as not to impact the feature. If construction can't be readily modified, the feature is documented and then deconstructed and construction can move forward. Our goal is to work with the construction projects to ensure they can move forward while we recover and document the archaeological remains.
GC: Are there specific things you've learned about New York City's history that can give us greater insight about today?
Loorya: The biggest thing that I've taken away was actually from my dissertation project about City Hall Park. The more things change, the more they stay the same. City Hall Park was the location of the city's first poor house. It was essentially the place where the indigent were sent. And it didn't really address the ills of mental health or the fact that, perhaps a married woman whose husband passed away couldn't find a means to feed her children. When you were poor back in the 18th century, you were essentially sentenced to the almshouse. Why is someone being condemned or placed in this harsh situation because they cannot afford to pay their rent or clothe or feed their children? A lot of it is the same conversation we're still having about the poor. We still have the same issues. Some of the details have changed. But the overarching issues of how to deal with this, they remain the same. If you look at the conversation about what's been going on with the men's homeless shelter on the Upper West Side, they’re the same conversations about the almshouse. Nobody wanted the almshouse in their neighborhood.
GC: What advice do you have for students who might be interested in this kind of work?
Loorya: Explore as many opportunities as possible and get as many different experiences as possible. When you're in grad school, it's so easy to get lost in the reading and the writing of the papers. But don't forget to get out there and get into the field because that's the fun part.
Academic jobs are increasingly hard to get and a lot of people are looking for other avenues. Cultural resource management archaeology is vastly different from academic archaeology. The best way to learn how to do it is to go out there and be a field tech and work for a firm and see what CRM really is. One skillset you absolutely do not learn in grad school is how to deal with construction workers. There are times we're on construction sites, you don't learn that in grad school, that type of negotiation, or let alone running a business.
I'm very fortunate that I have done this type of archaeology. I've been able to work on some of the largest sites in New York City — Washington Square Park, South Street Seaport, and City Hall Park — sites that could never have been excavated as an academic project simply because New York City is not going to let you rip up the city streets to do archaeology, unless they're doing construction work.
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