Sunday, February 13, 2011

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."

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 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.

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.

source from :

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article.... it brought back fond memories of walking the streets of Boston many years ago-about fifty years ago to be exact!--when as a high school student and later on while working summer jobs when sgtudying at Boston College I'd walk the streets with Bonner's map from the early 1700's in hand, and dream of what it night have looked like then. I appreciate the article, and the work you do to make us aware of the cultural roots that are ours! (Posted by Rev. Phil Thibodeau, born in Quincy and now living in Halifax, Canada)

reggie said...

I am trying to find out about what kind of pottery shards you may have found in the privy. I am a potter and doing an exhibit at UCONN in CT. Did you find any yellow or buff clay pottery shards?