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Right Now | Eras Beneath the Asphalt

Shards in the City

November-December 2001

Urban archaeologists peel back the concrete skins of modern cities in search of the material remains of the past. The task challenges researchers like no other kind of fieldwork. Subway tunnels, utility lines, and sewers weaving through the earth rub out delicate layers of history and toss the chronological relationships of artifacts into confusion. Construction projects bite into ancient hearths and homes, throwing up massive roadblocks for those who would peer into the past. Sometimes archaeologists must scramble like scientific SWAT teams: charging in ahead of blundering bulldozers, scooping up artifacts before they disappear.

But in Boston, archaeologists have combined digital mapping technology with traditional research methods to probe carefully into the city's past and uncover a wealth of information about the area's early inhabitants and the its ever-changing terrain--even as the city shudders under the largest and most complex highway project in U.S. history. "We're filling in some rather big pieces of the puzzle," says Fred Yalouris '71, director of architecture and urban design for the Central Artery Tunnel Project, also known as the "Big Dig." Yalouris, who holds a doctorate in archaeology, also oversees the archaeological component of the massive project.

For urban archaeologists, the Big Dig granted a wish: to dig deeper and wider than ever before. The $14.5-billion project is moving a huge portion of Boston's clogged highway system underground, carving 16 million cubic yards of dirt out of holes 120 feet deep--and slicing through 7,000 years of buried history. "People have compared it to the Panama Canal," Yalouris says. "It may be similar, but it's happening right in the middle of one of the oldest cities in the U.S."

Archaeologists began studying the construction area nearly 30 years ago. They searched old documents so they could pinpoint historic places and events, and they compared old maps of the city, using spatial and analytical computer programs to reconcile centuries of inconsistent map scales. Digital overlay mapping and Geographic Information Systems tools then helped them chart Boston from pre-contact Native American history through the young city's growth as it crept along the sea, its borders bristling with wharves and docks, its hunger for new land fed with fill from the countryside.

"It is really a model for how to do fieldwork in urban areas across the country and across the world," says Brona Simon, state archaeologist with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, describing the technodocumentary research process. But Simon admits that was just the tip of the iceberg--archaeologists still had to get their hands dirty.

Using artifacts pulled from a seventeenth-century privy, they followed the lives of several individuals, including Katherine Nanny Naylor, a wealthy single mother, survivor of an abusive second husband, and a divorcée--an uncommon status in the strict Puritan culture of the period. Ribbons of Naylor's life story appeared in the court records of her divorce. Tying that frayed trail to the privy fragments added detail to her story.

Archaeologists sketched a picture of material comfort, even pleasant recreation, for Naylor and her six children, using remains of silk, leather shoes, glassware, fancy eating utensils, and the oldest lawn-bowling ball in North America. But beside these artifacts lay reminders of emotional wreckage: shards of ceramic pottery--the same types that Naylor's second husband hurled at her in fits of rage. Breaking a number of social taboos, she secured a divorce and her husband was banished from Boston.

Other excavations located the site of the Great House, raised in 1629 in anticipation of the arrival of John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor. The house was turned into a tavern around 1635 and later named the Three Cranes. A stew of artifacts from the tavern's privies hinted at a popular business where guests reached across heavy tables in the dim light to share food from large wooden "trenchers" (platters) or gulped local brews from stoneware tankards. Others twanged out tunes on mouth harps and smoked clay pipes. Patrons dropped coins, buckles, and musket balls into privies during their stays. Patriots may also have gathered there, secretly plotting against the Crown before the tavern was destroyed during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

Yalouris and Simon agree that their labor is more than "salvage archaeology"--frantically waving trowels to stave off steamrollers. Other cities also cover stacks of potential archaeological sites, and similar research has hauled up history in York, England, and mapped Mayan metropolises in Central America. Once the archaeological roundup concludes in Boston, there will be much to share about urban undergrounds. "The research value of this collection is enormous," Simon says. "People say the architecture of the [Big Dig] project is cutting edge. Well, the archaeology is on the cutting edge, too."? ~Neil Shea

 

big dig archaeology website: www.bigdig.com/thtml/archaeol.htm