Digging Deep Into Brooklyn’s Past

When I was a child, I was convinced for awhile that I would one day grow up to become an archaeologist. That is of course until I came to the cruel realization that archaeological work tends to involve a lot less of this, and a whole lot more of this. Unlike me, Terry Lymon was deterred neither by the tedium of some archaeological work, nor by a lack of professional training and education in the field, and his papers are one of my favorite collections that we’ve uncovered over the course of the hidden collections project.

Little is known about Terry Lymon, a New Jersey native, Brooklyn resident, and self-taught amateur archaeologist who supported his hobby by working odd jobs. In the summer of 1965, Mr. Lymon and several assistants (including the Director of the Long Island Historical Society at that time, Dwight B. Demeritt) undertook an archaeological excavation on the parcel of land bounded by Fulton, Middagh, and Henry Streets, which had recently been razed for the construction of Cadman Plaza North. The Terry Lymon papers (ARC.057) document this project, and provide a detailed glimpse into the history of this little corner of Brooklyn Heights.

Below is a map hand-drawn by Mr. Lymon that shows the block where the excavation took place. The areas marked in red indicate the specific sites where Mr. Lymon and his team did their work.

Map of the Cadman Plaza North excavation, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

The collection also includes 46 black-and-white photographs of Mr. Lymon’s team at work. It’s not known if Terry Lymon is one of the people depicted in any of these pictures.

Photograph of an unidentified group at dig site #18, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Photograph of an unidentified person at dig site #18, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Photograph of an unidentified man at dig site #18, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

During the dig, Mr. Lymon and his team uncovered all sorts of artifacts and remnants of human occupation, including traces of building foundations, dry wells and cisterns, and personal possessions of past residents dating back to the early 19th century. In addition to the photographs and map above, the collection includes a number of hand-drawn diagrams of the dig sites themselves, as well as the artifacts that the team unearthed.

These first two diagrams show cross-sections of a couple of the dig sites, indicating the types and approximate dates of the objects and structures discovered at each one, and the depth underground at which they were located.

Cross-section of an unidentified dig site at the Cadman Plaza North excavation, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Cross-section of lot #1, site #6 at the Cadman Plaza North excavation, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Mr. Lymon also made true to size illustrations of all of the small objects that were uncovered during the excavation. This one shows a half-penny coin, several smoking pipes, pieces of whale bone, a brass bell, two marbles, and a skeleton key, among other things.

Artifacts from lot #1, site #6 at the Cadman Plaza North excavation, 1965. Terry Lymon papers, ARC.057. Brooklyn Historical Society.

As an archivist, looking through Terry Lymon’s papers can be rather humbling. Whereas I’m lucky enough to actually get paid to steep myself in Brooklyn’s history all day, Mr. Lymon was able to do so only during those precious hours when he wasn’t working to make ends meet. The passion for archaeology that was his only motivating factor is clearly evident in the hard work and attention to detail that he put into this excavation project.

I’ve often wondered what ever became of Terry Lymon, and whether he led any other archaeological digs in Brooklyn, but the research I’ve done has yielded only scant bits of information. In the fall of 1965, the Long Island Historical Society hosted a lecture by Mr. Lymon and his team on the Cadman Plaza North excavation, as well as an exhibition of some of the artifacts they discovered. Then in 1966, Curator John S. Kopper of the Henry Whitfield State Museum in Connecticut drew up a formal proposal to build upon Mr. Lymon’s work with a more large scale, professionally-led excavation of the site. Whether this project ever came to fruition is unknown, and beyond this, it would seem that Terry Lymon simply disappeared into the historical ether. If anyone out there has any information about Terry Lymon, or if the man himself happens to be reading this, we’d love to hear from you.

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