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New York's Resident Archaeologist Finds the Big Apple Can Be a Fun Place to Dig

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Like most archaeologists, Sherene Baugher-Perlin, 35, has to contend with the ravages of time, relic seekers and the finer points of digging valuable old artifacts out of tons of dirt. But she also has to contend with such special problems as traffic jams, vandals, a huge bureaucracy and some of the most avaricious, aggressive real estate developers on earth.

Baugher-Perlin is New York City’s full-time municipal archaeologist, one of the few in the U.S. And since she was hired into the new job in 1980 by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, she has spent a lot of time trying to convince people that her job should exist. “People thought everything they’d find under the streets here would be broken and couldn’t tell much about the past,” she says. “Our heritage is just as rich as anywhere else.”

So far, among other treasures, she has monitored the excavation near Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market of a 260-year-old derelict ship deliberately sunk as landfill by 18th-century builders. With a current staff of 10 (three of them unpaid students and the rest on grants), she has also supervised digs that produced artifacts from Indian settlements on Staten Island, Colonial children’s toys and the remains of a 300-year-old deer meat dinner.

A city law passed in 1979 says that any builder seeking a zoning change must first submit a research report on the buildings that once stood on the site; the report costs an average of $4,000. If Baugher-Perlin then deems the area historically important, the developer hires a team of outside archaeologists to excavate before construction begins. (The artifacts belong to the developers, although they usually donate them to schools and museums.) Baugher-Perlin, who grew up on Staten Island and got her doctorate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, makes $20,500 a year as New York’s archaeologist.

The wife of a production supervisor for a computer firm, Baugher-Perlin has been known to forget to pick up her paycheck at times. But she maintains her enthusiasm for her work, despite the fact that there are some finds she’ll never get to unearth—such as the early-17th-century Dutch fur-trading ship Tijger. It was first discovered during subway construction in 1916, before the city’s archaeological consciousness was raised, but nobody ever mounted enough enthusiasm to retrieve it—and digging it up now would require knocking down one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.