Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Urban archaeology digs life in colonial Boston

Remember," says archaeological historian Nancy Seasholes as she stands in front of Boston's Faneuil Hall, pointing toward City Hall. "Think land on this side." Then she turns around and gestures in the opposite direction, to Quincy Market, "Think docks and water on this side."

Boston city archaeologist Ellen Berkland (GRS'89) and Mary Beaudry, a CAS associate archaeology professor (both at right), prepare the class for a tour of the Paul Revere House in the North End. The house was built in 1680; Revere owned it from 1770 to 1800. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Boston city archaeologist Ellen Berkland (GRS'89) and Mary Beaudry, a CAS associate archaeology professor (both at right), prepare the class for a tour of the Paul Revere House in the North End. The house was built in 1680; Revere owned it from 1770 to 1800. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Quincy Market under water? As students in the CAS summer course Archaeology of Colonial Boston follow guest lecturer Seasholes along the ancient shoreline of the city - now covered with downtown's streets and buildings - they learn how little the area resembles the original terrain.

"When Boston was founded in 1630, it was a small peninsula with 470 acres of land," says Seasholes (GRS'94). "The downtown area was a virtual island connected by a narrow neck that is now Washington Street." The land area of central Boston has tripled over the past 372 years because of massive filling projects that created such neighborhoods as the Back Bay and much of East Boston.

"Think ocean to your left," says Seasholes as the class crosses State Street and heads down Kilby Street. There used to be a small harbor inlet at the intersection of Kilby and Water Streets, she tells students. Bostonians crossed over the water here by a drawbridge, hence the name of the street. The origin of Oliver Street is the long-buried Oliver's dock, pieces of which Seasholes found years ago in a dig on State Street. To be sure, remnants of colonial Boston are scattered around the city for those who look hard enough: the class has also visited such buildings as the King's Chapel (1754) and the Old South Meeting House (1729). Still, with car horns blaring and hot asphalt underfoot, it's nearly impossible to imagine wharves and water a block away from what is now Post Office Square.

Indeed, in the age of cell phones, computers, and the Internet, it's hard to comprehend what daily life in Boston was like during colonial times, even in a city known for its history - with some of its 17th and 18th century buildings still standing. But that's the goal of the course taught by Mary Beaudry: unearthing the city's past and bringing it to life to BU undergraduates. And the associate archaeology professor is uniquely qualified to expound upon Boston's buried history because she has dug up, literally, so much of it. She has been involved in some of the city's most important archaeology excavations, including digs at the Paul Revere House in the North End, the Bostonian Hotel, and the Central Artery/Tunnel Project.

The Paul Revere House
Only one of Beaudry's six students is an archaeology major, a visiting student from McGill University. The other five soon discover that the discipline is not about finding treasure or uncovering ancient curses. Far from an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft-style adventure, an archaeological excavation is often fairly mundane. After all, it is the study of people's everyday lives. A dig can mean spending many long, boring days in a hole and uncovering nothing.

But the field can also be exciting, and Beaudry recalls jumping at the chance to dig six pits outside the Paul Revere House in 1983 with BU colleague Ricardo Elia, an associate professor of archaeology. "I remember say-
ing, 'This place is throbbing with archaeological potential,' " says Beaudry. "It was built in 1680. It's the oldest house in Boston, and we found a privy in the courtyard." Only an archaeologist could get so revved up about a backyard outhouse pit/garbage dump. Rooting through 300-year-old refuse might not be everyone's idea of a good time, but to Beaudry trash is treasure. Digging in a colonial privy is a surefire way to come up with artifacts, and the BU excavation team found 12,587 of them, including ceramics, metal, glass, wood, and food remains - which allow experts to reconstruct colonial diets.

Scott Miller (CAS'02) and Beaudry look for artifacts on a sifting screen on Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Scott Miller (CAS'02) and Beaudry look for artifacts on a sifting screen on Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. Photo by Vernon Doucette

After a tour of the house, Beaudry brings her students to a garden where she dug a pit 19 years ago. She notices a lump in the dirt. She dusts off the object, looks at it carefully, and smiles. "Wow, isn't that something?" she says. "It's a piece of 18th-century wine glass, just like some of the artifacts we found in '83. It must have come right to the top when the gardener was turning over the soil." The students are amazed to see a piece of colonial Boston dug up right before their eyes, but this type of find is common in highly populated areas, explains guest lecturer Ellen Berkland (GRS'89).

"When you do urban archaeology, artifacts can be found 10 centimeters below the surface," she says. As Boston's city archaeologist, however, she also knows the drawbacks of such research in a city setting: archaeological remains are under constant threat of destruction because of the pace of development. So when potential archaeological sites downtown were identified where construction workers were planning to dig the massive Central Artery project, Berkland went to work.

The Big Archaeology Dig

From 1992 to 1995, she and other archaeologists investigated 12 sites along the Big Dig's 7.5-mile corridor. Four of them were eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places: a former mill pond along Blackstone Street, Paddy's Alley, the Cross Street back lot site in the North End, and Spectacle Island, where Big Dig workers hauled excavated soil to create a park. In fact, stone tools and harpoons made of bone found in a shell heap on the island revealed that Native Americans had gathered there as early as a.d. 500.

The students follow Beaudry and Berkland several blocks over to take the wine glass piece to the Boston City Archaeology Laboratory on Cross Street, where excavated items are gradually and carefully being washed and catalogued by BU archaeology students and other volunteers. "We found tin-glazed cups and bowls made in Holland," says Berkland, who passes around several tobacco pipe stems and bowls. "We also have leather shoes and the remains of a mug bearing the seal of Queen Anne, which dates a portion of the Paddy's Alley site to the early 1700s."

The Big Dig artifacts offer snapshots of colonial lives and livelihoods. Archaeologists also found the remains of houses owned by men who shared the same profession during the middle 1700s, but had very different lifestyles. John Carnes, who lived near the Paddy's Alley site, and William Maycock, whose home was next to the Mill Pond site, were both metalworkers. Carnes worked primarily in tin, while Maycock smelted brass in stone crucibles. Carnes was a hardworking man, and he obviously had some money. He was proud of the fact that he put his son through Harvard selling pewter tableware. He was also apparently wealthy - and thirsty - enough to order English wine bottles with his full name embossed on the seals, several of which were uncovered and are on display at the State Archives/Commonwealth Museum at UMass-Boston, where some 200,000 Big Dig artifacts are stored. Maycock was also fairly wealthy, but may have been a teetotaler. The site of his house was devoid of any wine bottle glass, even though he lived on the lot with tenants. His will attests to the importance he placed on a sober and moral life: he stipulated that his two sons inherit no property until they changed their wild lifestyles. Since his entire estate later went to his son-in-law, can we infer that Maycock's sons failed to reform? Archaeology is full of assumptions.

"This is a great course," says Kent Randall (SMG'03). "I had a vague idea of colonial life because, of course, I read about it in history classes growing up. But when I see the artifacts firsthand, it makes the period much more real to me."

Rainsford Island
A field trip the students make on another day is to Rainsford Island, one of 38 Boston Harbor islands. "These are the ruins of a quarantine hospital, which was originally built in 1832," says Berkland as she stands atop a crumbling stone foundation. "There have been several buildings on this island - the first was built in 1737. There was also a poorhouse, a veterans' home, a home for female paupers, and a reformatory for delinquent boys. By 1935 the buildings became vacated, and they were all destroyed by fire in subsequent years."

Down a pathway, the students are in for a treat. Because the island is usually off limits to the public, not many people are privileged to view the "graffiti rock." After a short hike to a stone bluff on the east side of the island, students read carvings dating back to 1647. "JVC Smith appointed physician of this island 1826," one reads.

A colonial-era chamber pot at the Boston City Archaeology Laboratory on Cross Street in the North End. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

A colonial-era chamber pot at the Boston City Archaeology Laboratory on Cross Street in the North End. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The hike continues to an excavation pit being dug by Stephan Claesson (GRS'92), who is helping Berkland determine the history of the island's use. He lets Scott Miller (CAS'02) try his hand at looking for artifacts by sifting some dirt through a screen. "I'm an economics major, but I'm also a history buff," says Miller. "What's good about this course is that we don't just sit inside a class and listen to lectures, which is what economics majors do a lot. It's fun to get out here and do something like this."

This is the second summer that Beaudry has taught the course. Like Berkland, who teaches an archaeology elective in the Boston Public Schools, she likes to expose as many people as she can to the science. "I'm able to enlist a lot of help from former students and colleagues, and I think the present students appreciate that expertise," she says. "Plus, I know that they enjoy the field trips, not only because they are able to get out of the classroom on a hot summer day, but also they get to visit sites and handle the artifacts that are discussed in the lectures. A glimpse into the everyday lives of long-forgotten colonists can tell you a lot about the era."

Berkland agrees, recalling a Irish halfpenny dated 1783 that was discovered at the Mill Pond site - a significant find because there were no halfpennies made in 1783. The coin must be counterfeit, which raises the possibility of a colonial plan to sabotage the British economy. Or it may simply reflect the industriousness of a few early counterfeiters. "It was an exciting find," says Berkland, "but I try to stress to students that archaeology is not about digging for coins or gold treasure - it's about the information you get from the artifacts."

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