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Boston's Archaeology Lab Unearths Buried Narratives

“If history is just the documents, we’ve lost a lot,” Joe Bagley says. 

He stands in front of rows and rows of cardboard boxes of historical artifacts, organized and labeled. Interspersed between the shelves of boxes are collections of timbers from a late-nineteenth-century shipwreck, an old gravestone, and trays of bagged items waiting to be processed and stored. 

Bagley is Boston’s chief archaeologist and, along with his team, he is responsible for uncovering artifacts, cataloging them and maintaining the Boston City’s Archaeology Laboratory in West Roxbury. The nondescript lab, tucked away in an industrial park behind Home Depot, contains an estimated 1-2 million items unearthed in Boston. Each cardboard box holds about 1,000-2000 pieces, all in individual bags with grid locations, depth found, strata layers, and index numbers. Bagley points to a collection of artifacts dug up in Charlestown.

“I call it Boston’s Pompeii,” He says. 

The items were found in the former site of the Three Cranes Tavern, left behind and burned in an inferno when the residents evacuated ahead of the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. The remnants of the tavern are now pieced together to fill in blanks and build the context of Boston’s history. 

In another room, Sarah Keklak, the lab manager, works with a volunteer scrubbing artifacts recently unearthed in the North End. The dig site, the backyard of a 1716 house on Unity Street, was offered by the homeowners ahead of a planned construction project. 

Last fall and winter, the city’s Archaeology program found two privies, or outhouses, preserved beneath the topsoil. To most people, an old outhouse would be less than exciting, but to these archaeologists, it is a gold mine of history. Keklak works to clean and process these artifacts with help from a team of passionate volunteers. The help is much-needed; she estimates that they found tens of thousands of artifacts in the North End site alone. 

“We could probably build a whole animal,” says Keklak, holding pieces of bone found in the 18th-century privy. 

It appears to be a rib bone from a cow, and Keklak and Bagley explain the significance. For humans, diet indicates wealth (as well as the available meat at the time) and this evidence begins to build the story of the early occupants of the North End house. 

Next to the bones are old tobacco pipes, chips of dishes and glass bottles, and other remnants of the past. Bagley holds up a bag of seeds from raspberries, elderberries, grapes, and other fruits. The seeds were found within 300-year-old excrement. What was once the byproduct of a colonist’s meal is now here in the lab, adding dimension to Boston’s recorded history.

What is most intriguing to the archaeology department is the presence of slaves found at the North End dig. It has been difficult to piece together information about these slaves, as there is a shortage of documentation on their personal lives. These little pieces of history, carefully sifted from the earth, start to reveal their stories.

The city’s four professional archaeologists work alongside an army of volunteers to uncover these lost voices, hidden below ground in Boston’s neighborhoods. Bagley emphasizes the team’s dedication to uncovering the city’s lesser-known stories. 

“We are deliberately going after underrepresented histories,” Bagley says. 

While Boston is renowned for its strong abolitionist movement, its foundations were built around the slave trade like the rest of the nation. Boston’s recorded history is full of the stories of early abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, but the integral role of the slave trade in Boston remains unclear and underreported. The City Archaeology program digs for perspectives like these that were left off the record, and they are sometimes found in unexpected ways. 

“When you dig a site, you expect certain voices to come through, and sometimes you’re completely surprised,” Bagley says. 

He gestures to a small white seashell, or cowrie shell, found at a dig at the Boston Latin School. The team expected to uncover a predominantly white male presence in their findings, but instead, they found more context. The shells, of West African origin, are indicators of the presence of slaves. This is an exciting discovery for Bagley and his team. These narratives, sourced in the ground, help to build a common and more complete understanding of Boston’s history.

“We are working to uncover our unvarnished and unedited past,” Bagley says.

While there are documents and written histories of the Boston Latin School’s early schoolmaster Nathaniel Williams and his family, the city’s archaeology team has pulled more context out of the earth. 

“We take the good with the bad and come to terms with the hard history,” Bagley says.

Were the cowrie shells an identity marker for the slaves that worked here, or were they a hidden keepsake to remind them of their roots? The unearthed shells create questions that will hopefully lead historians and researchers down the path to a better understanding.

While historians and others ponder significance, the cowrie shells are busy being processed by the department’s digital archaeologist, Nadia Kline. One of these shells sits on a turn-table rotating in front of a camera. The camera captures images from all angles and builds a three-dimensional map that can be used to create a digital replica, or even 3D-printed into an actual object that can be handled without jeopardizing the condition of the original. Kline uses a computer to demonstrate the complexity of this process, known as photogrammetry. Her work allows students and other curious individuals to handle historical artifacts. 

In an adjacent room, Lauryn Poe, the team’s project archaeologist, works with Kline and a group of volunteers to catalog the department’s vast collections. This accounts for a large portion of the work done at the Archaeology department—the exhaustive process of entering artifacts into a database where historians and researchers can access them.

Thousands of artifacts from previous digs, collected as far back as the early 1980s, still await proper documentation. Poe analyzes each piece of broken pottery, each bone, each piece of stone and metal, and identifies them based on a large collection of physical examples and a library of research books. The details that separate the origins of an artifact by centuries are often minute, and this process requires enormous attention to detail. Their meticulous work requires diligence and a commitment to accuracy.

Bagley, Keklak, Kline, Poe, and their tenacious volunteers work tirelessly to uncover and document these artifacts, with little end in sight. The team is passionate about history and their dedication is evident when walking through the West Roxbury lab. They are immersed in a vast collection of unearthed artifacts and have taken on the herculean task of weaving these items into the historical fabric of Boston. 

Bagley and Keklak work on the current sites, processing items as they come in and formulating them into reports available to the public, while Kline and Poe identify and catalog the backlog of items from previous excavations. There is no shortage of work, and it is unpredictable what the next dig will entail, but the team remains focused on the ultimate goal of building the city’s history.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to fill in the gaps,” Bagley says. 

The gaps Bagley speaks of are often the voices lost from the record. The narratives that failed to make it to the written documents of our past are not gone forever. Bagley and his team continue to seek—and find—these long-buried voices hidden in the soil below, ensuring that all who left their mark on the city of Boston are part of its heritage. 

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