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Archeology at the Dirtiest Beach in New York


The issues of water and coastal pollution cause serious concern among ecologists today because the high anthropogenic activity and the expansion of industrial influence inevitably entail contamination. In some places, landfills and temporary waste are disposed of timely, but there are areas where garbage and sewage accumulate over the years, creating an unfavorable environmental background and an unsuitable habitat for living organisms. In relation to New York, despite the efforts of the local authorities to protect nature and the participation of various volunteer movements, the city also has places with such dumps.

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Moreover, one of them could be a popular vacation site if it were not for perennial accumulations of garbage. This is rightfully the dirtiest beach in the city, which was called Dead Horse Bay Beach for its dubious history. Findings in this place prove that it is unacceptable for recreation, despite its good location and proximity to the city. Archaeological work carried out on the territory of Dead Horse Bay Beach may help determine the cultural, social, and economic features of the past eras and draw conclusions regarding possible ways to excavate garbage artifacts.

Dead Horse Bay Beach History

The history of New York’s dirtiest beach is long, which, in many respects, has influenced its popularity not only in the vicinity of the city but also beyond. According to Farland (2007, 804), in view of the fact that horses were the main draft force in the 19th century, in New York, as a large transport hub, these animals were in large numbers. For many decades, this site was gradually filled with garbage, and, on its surface, one can find bottles dating from the 1950s, car debris, and the bones of preserved horses remain. Until the middle of the last century, the landfill had been closed, and local residents did not have free access to it.

However, over the years, soil erosion, precipitation, and other natural phenomena led to the fact that past debris appeared on the surface. The beach has become an unusual sight, but it cannot be called “a place of leisure and recreation” like other historical sites (Phillippi and Matthews 2017, 360). Visitors are not repelled by its unpleasant smell and unaesthetic appearance. However, from an ecological point of view, this place is dangerous and harmful.

Archaeological excavations in this place prove that the corpses of horses were brought here often in the 19th century. At that time, the beach was far from the main settlements, and it was convenient for farmers to use it as a cemetery since, as Farland (2007, 804) states, in most agricultural territories, people kept many horses. The place itself was mentioned in the 1600s, and since then, people began to use it as a landfill, although a few centuries ago, different wastes were transported to this site. Today, Dead Horse Bay Beach is close to New York because the metropolis has grown significantly and expanded its borders compared with several centuries earlier.

Nevertheless, the garbage that has been accumulating in the landfill for centuries began to appear under the ground surface, which turned the territory into an exclusion zone. Accumulations of litter do not allow spending time on the beach to rest, and the soil saturated with poisons of decomposition is unsuitable for sowing. As a result, the place is not used for its intended purpose, but its detrimental effect on the environment is the reason to take measures to clear it.

Substantial Background for Archaeological Excavations

One of the characteristic features of Dead Horse Bay Beach is the extremely high content of glass waste – bottles, cans, and other household items. Although they do not carry a chemical threat, such as heavy metals, their impact on the soil is negative. Firstly, the glass decomposition period reaches several hundred years or even more. When taking into account the fact that bottles appeared relatively recently, they will fill the beach for a long time if measures are not taken. Secondly, the inability of the microfauna to survive entails the absence of any life in this territory.

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As Phillippi and Matthews (2017, 364) state, the transport connection of New York with other trading outlets was organized not only through the railway but also horses that were buried in the immediate vicinity of the settlement. Public attempts to excavate have taken place, but there have been no serious findings. However, work on the search for valuables and, consequently, the cleaning of the territory could be beneficial to the beach and its ecology. The proceeds from the sorting of garbage could go to the refinement of the site, but in case of inaction, no significant artifacts of the past will be discovered.

The situation with the remains of horses buried in this place brings additional challenges. For instance, according to Anthony (2015, 89), “the discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan in 1991″ made it possible to study the site history in detail and obtain relevant data regarding North American death rituals in general. However, when discussing the place that was a horse cemetery, one cannot assume for sure that such a beach can tell much regarding the specifics of ancient people’s life and evolution.

As Ritchie (2014, 18) states, carbon analysis from some New York graves confirms that ancient people buried pets, including horses, “between approximately 10,000 and 9,000 B.C.” However, test results from Bottle Beach prove that the peak of burial activity was in the 19th century when mass trade was advanced, and horses were used as draft power. Subsequently, people themselves polluted the beach, and tons of glass and other garbage do not allow full access to the secrets of the site.

Despite the fact that glass is not an unusual type of garbage in its characteristics, its predominant amount on Dead Horse Bay Beach is a non-standard situation. Due to a high traffic load, the number of horses buried caused harmful decomposition products to enter the soil, and many people were engaged in burying numerous animals (McShane and Tarr, 2007, 159). It will take much time to clean the entire territory since the bottle deposits are also in the soil but not just on the surface.

Attracting public attention to this issue with a view to calling for help from volunteers may be an appropriate step to recycle glass waste and clear the area to make it fit for living organisms. However, at the moment, such attempts are not made, and the territory is still called Bottle Beach.

Another reason why archaeological excavations can be valuable to the history of the city is due to topographic changes. Since Dead Horse Bay Beach is an under-explored place, it is highly likely that topographic structures contain unique findings. As Phillippi and Matthews (2017, 362) argue, if one finds a certain principle of the distribution of garbage, for instance, along the coastline or in some pits and hollows, this may indicate a different composition of the soil. The history of the beach in question confirms that earlier, it was part of an island, but over time, its borders changed significantly.

Until today, no cartographic evidence of the geographical features of this area has been preserved, but in the case of a detailed study, discoveries could be made. According to Trask (2018, 503), at the end of the 19th century, in the waters of New York, “the engineering, design, and construction of the seawall, piers, and wharves” were planned. These activities could help find relevant and preserved sources confirming the nature of the soil and the general structural features of the beach in question. All these discoveries, in turn, might be interpreted and utilized by archaeologists with benefits. Therefore, this place is a non-standard beach with a rich history and can be considered the territory with potentially numerous valuables.

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Possible Terms of Archaeological Excavations

In order to conduct effective archaeological excavations on Dead Horse Bay Beach, preliminary, cleaning work is required. The territory is cluttered to such an extent that it is not known exactly what types of waste may be found. In addition to bottles that make up the bulk of the garbage, biological materials are also present. Farland (2007, 801) notes that it is essential to study the organic structure of the soil to argue about its possible influence on people’s health. In addition to the primitive green vegetation that can be found here, for instance, algae, the presence of other plants may indicate the degree of contamination of the territory and its potential danger.

Although, as McShane and Tarr (2007, 122) state, in 1877, the authorities allowed burning horse corpses, and many of their remains were buried on the beach territory. As a result, soil toxicity indicators may be critical, and a preliminary analysis is mandatory. In general, laboratory studies can help significantly in the detection of potentially valuable minerals or relics. Therefore, upon completion of the surface cleaning step, special tests should be conducted.

Another important step that should be followed when planning archaeological excavations at Dead Horse Bay Beach is the assessment of a natural impact on the site. According to Trask (2018, 506), in New York, the century before last, climate changes and the high concentration of horses buried on the beach have become key criteria for environmental problems. The author notes that archaeological sites may contain traces of past climate impacts on a specific area, and the task of researchers is to assess how critical these effects were (Trask 2018, 506).

In relation to Dead Horse Bay Beach, the conditions that the beach survived, in particular, its separation from the island and exploitation as a dump and cemetery for horses, are significant criteria to consider. Farland (2007, 803) quotes the words of the poet Whitman who argued that “the soil was teeming with disease,” which, in turn, may cause severe outcomes and even bring epidemics. Therefore, a comprehensive evaluation should include not only the analysis of the soil surface and its pollution degree but also the role of natural conditions in the formation of the landscape.

Finally, as a significant condition for successful excavations on the territory of Dead Horse Bay Beach, the involvement of various stakeholders may be performed. Anthony (2015, 89) points out the experience of archaeological activities in New York and states that burial grounds conducted found attracted significant public attention and proved people’s interest in this topic. Like in New York many years ago, when “volunteer firefighters” were involved, people communities may be created to help researchers to perform the work that does not require special training (McShane and Tarr 2007, 38).

Garbage collection from Bottle Beach will allow archaeologists to conduct all the necessary measurements and excavations as quickly and conveniently as possible and will have a positive impact on the environment. As Farland (2007, 812) notes, in the 19th century, in New York, there was enough clean water, but over time, anthropogenic activity affected the local ecology, and archaeological excavations confirm a high level of garbage discharge during this period. Therefore, to create favorable conditions for excavations at Bottle Beach, engaging people to help can be a competent measure when working on such a complex and totally polluted territory.

Potential Limitations and Constraints

When considering the topographic features of Dead Horse Bay Beach and its increased level of pollution, excavation difficulties may occur regardless of these factors. Possible difficulties with archaeological interpretation may occur because, despite the study of the area, the materials for analysis can be ambiguous. Biodegradable waste is mixed with the natural base of the beach, and since the site in question has always been considered a landfill, numerous waste deposits create barriers to quality work. At the same time, although McShane and Tarr (2007, 180) state that “manure is biodegradable,” poisonous remains can be dangerous.

The practical implementation of excavations is unlikely in the current environment. Even attracting public assistance may be ineffective since only professional archaeologists can carry out the necessary procedures and find valuables ​​without spoiling them. Accordingly, in order to create conditions for normal operation, it is essential to spend much time to prepare the site and, as Anthony (2015, 94) argues, review the economic features of this work. Therefore, such serious activity can repel potential explorers of coastal areas and create difficulties in exploring these places, including Dead Horse Bay Beach.

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Another possible obstacle that may occur during excavations on the beach in question is the disapproval of the authorities. Although Dead Horse Bay Beach is far from the main concentration of the population of New York, the officials can prohibit any archaeological activity in this place. As an argument, they may explain such a decision by a ban on working with hazardous waste and a potential threat to people. Since the beach was originally a horse cemetery, many toxic substances are still present in the soil, and from a sanitary point of view, any intervention is dangerous. According to McShane and Tarr (2007, 100), “the urban horse had a liberating influence,” and the number of dead carcasses could be in the hundreds.

As Farland (2007, 804) states, in relation to this practice, it is essential to take into account not only archaeological but also transport features of the city to draw the correct conclusions about the specifics of burials. As a result, compiling a detailed work program, along with preparing all the necessary justifications and analysis results, is crucial to obtain permission to excavate in potentially dangerous territory.

The Benefits of Archaeological Findings

Archaeological excavations at Dead Horse Bay Beach can be valuable not only from a historical perspective but also for other areas. For instance, Anthony (2015, 90) notes the importance of discoveries from a socio-ethical perspective since, based on the author’s arguments, in the 19th century, under New York streets, a cemetery was discovered, which testifies to thorough analyses. The waste accumulating under the layers of garbage reflects the lifestyle that people followed several centuries ago. Until now, no significant excavations have been carried out within the territory of the beach. In addition, according to Anthony (2015, 91), “prior to our over-reliance on fossil fuels, human beings relied on animals.”

Thus, archaeologists have a unique opportunity to restore knowledge gaps about such factors as the degree of local citizens’ wealth, their interests, as well as characteristic habits. Despite their location, the findings of numerous beaches are not always associated with marine items and are more often those that belonged to people. Therefore, through accurate analyses and excavations, unique data on the culture of life can be obtained through a detailed assessment of antiquities in the layers of garbage.

In addition to social bonuses, professional excavations at Dead Horse Bay Beach can help the city economically. Historical findings on beaches are a rich area in terms of culture, and in case of a competent approach to research work, valuable artifacts ​​may be found. This is an incentive for both archaeologists and cultural workers. Phillippi and Matthews (2017, 366) mention museum installations as relevant cultural and educational directions and gives examples of cases when findings in garbage dumps became objects of art. The city budget can benefit significantly if archaeological work is planned in accordance with the aforementioned terms and principles.

To study the beach in question, the issues of the transportation of the 19th century should be studied in order to obtain an objective evidence base. In case of the absence of objective reasons for abandoning excavations, specialists can structure all the findings and highlight those that are of the greatest value. Therefore, from an economic perspective, archaeological activities at Dead Horse Bay Beach are also relevant and essential to raise public interest and attract as many tourists as possible.


Properly organized archaeological activities at Dead Horse Bay Beach can contribute to studying the artifacts of the past eras and researching the social, economic, and cultural aspects of people’s lives. Despite the fact that this site is heavily polluted, relevant analyses may be carried out to determine the possible ways of working in this area. The long history of the beach is the rationale for archaeological excavations, and unique topographic features serve as a compelling reason proving the relevance of such activities. Certain conditions are to be observed, in particular, the bacteriological assessment of the area, processing, and the professional extraction of artifacts.

Although potential constraints may arise due to the lack of understanding with the authorities or an ambiguous interpretation of findings, the importance of research is high. Researchers can help to better understand the cultural and social features of people’s lives several centuries ago and, at the same time, replenish the city’s budget due to the influx of tourists. Therefore, archaeological activities at Bottle Beach are due to a number of significant factors and may be considered an important step in studying New York history.

Works Cited

Anthony, Carl C. “The African Burial Ground: Roots of Ecological Destruction and Social Exploitation.” World Futures 71, no. 3-4 (2015): 86-95.

Farland, Maria. “Decomposing City: Walt Whitman’s New York and the Science of Life and Death.” ELH 74, no. 4 (2007): 799-827.

McShane, Clay, and Joel Tarr. The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2007.

Phillippi, Bradley D., and Christopher N. Matthews. “A Counter-Archaeology of Labor and Leisure in Setauket, New York.” World Archaeology 49, no. 3 (2017): 357-371.

Ritchie, William A. The Archaeology of New York State. New York: The Natural History Press, 2014.

Trask, Jeffrey. “Construction the Frame of New York: Commerce, Beauty and the Battle over Thirteenth Avenue.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 17, no. 3 (2018): 501-523.

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