Under the hardtop
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
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
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.
The Big 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."
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.
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."