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Unearthing the African-American history of a Beacon Hill home

Contractors renovating a shed on Beacon Hill this summer uncovered a brick outline below the floor. The owner of the property called in local archaeologists, who proceeded to sift treasures out of what turned out to be an early American toilet.
The finds enable archaeologists to piece together what life might have been like in the 19th-century free African-American household that once lived in owner Michael Terranova’s house. This is the first domestic deposit of a free African-American family of the time to be discovered in Boston, and it will provide valuable insight into the daily lives of the free African-American community, which was active in the abolitionist movement.

“It’s a new chapter in the archaeology of Boston,” says Mary Beaudry, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of archaeology. “It’s very exciting to get a look at a free African-American household.”

When Terranova noticed an exposed line of brickwork beneath his shed’s floor, he consulted the staff at the Museum of Afro-American History’s African Meeting House, a 19th-century free African-American church and community center whose Beacon Hill site is affiliated with the National Park Service. They directed him to Beaudry, who contacted Boston city archaeologist Ellen Berkland (GRS’99).

Beaudry immediately identified the find as an old privy. After digging down to the original “nightsoil” of the privy — the soil layer used as toilet — Beaudry, Berkland, and a group of volunteers sifted through the soil, revealing, among other things, shoes, doll fragments, hat pins, medicine bottles, children’s marbles, and a sarsaparilla bottle. The finds will be analyzed at the city’s archaeology lab.

“We did the dig very quickly, while the contractors were on vacation, and were able to show that archaeologists could make a significant find on Beacon Hill without greatly disrupting life at the house,” says Beaudry. Homeowners are not required by law to notify archaeologists if they uncover a find, and Beaudry hopes their work at the Terranova house will encourage others to come forward. “To have a look at another domestic deposit from Beacon Hill would be wonderful,” she says.