In 1982, archaeological consultant Joan Hyams Geismar was hired to run the excavation at 175 Water Street, the site of a parking lot that was being developed to make way for a 32-story office building. Geismar often conducts historical research before a construction project begins to learn whether there might be important archaeological artifacts buried in the ground.
The research indicated there might be remnants of mid-19th century buildings at Water Street, but in fact the site proved to have much more. Using a backhoe, her team tested the depth of the landfill and uncovered the remains of wharves and piers as well as the midsection of a 100-foot merchant ship. Eventually unearthed by nautical archaeologists, the ship was later identified as the Princess Carolina, a vessel built in 1717.
“I love the act of discovery, and I love history,” Geismar says. “Every site is exciting to me because every site is unique. Where it takes me intellectually is always different.”
An English major at Barnard, Geismar went to graduate school to study art history before realizing she was more interested in the stories behind the images. Her focus on urban archaeology took shape while she was working on her doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Columbia, where archaeology is part of the anthropology program. Not wanting to leave her husband and children to travel for research, she pursued a career focusing on the New York City area.
Geismar works with a diverse range of clients, from private developers to municipal agencies in New York and New Jersey. When the New York City Parks Department planned to reconstruct Washington Square Park and build a reservoir for the fountain, officials asked Geismar to research the site. She found burial grounds dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries as well as the location of the keeper’s house, which led the city to revise its plans and build a shallow, wide reservoir instead of a deep one. In 1999, Geismar was designated a Centennial Historian of the City of New York by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani.