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Joe Bagley has been Boston's City Archaeologist for over a decade. He shares some of the historic science that his department uncovers all around Beantown.
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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we dig for answers to the wicked-awesomest questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And when you walk around downtown Boston, there are centuries of history under your feet. Occasionally, that history gets unearthed during construction projects. And our visitors ask us if scientists are ever involved in investigating these finds. My guest today is Joe Bagley, Boston's City Archaeologist, who also runs the City Archaeology Lab in West Roxbury. Joe, thanks for joining me.
JOE: Happy to be here.
ERIC: So why don't we start with some background on the Boston Archaeology program.
JOE: Our job is to find new sites that could tell us more about the diverse history of Boston, but also to take care of all of the stuff that we've already dug up and make sure that it's accessible to the public. So we're kind of looking forward and backwards at all times. But mostly just wanting to make sure that the stories that we uncover are available as much as we can make them to researchers, the general public, to students, everybody that may be interested in them. We treat the artifacts kind of like books in a library: we collect them, we identify them, we preserve them, but ultimately, it's everybody else that's going to help unlock what's in them.
ERIC: Now, a lot of cities around the world could benefit from this. But Boston, from an archaeological view, is pretty fascinating. So what kind of sites are there around Boston? How many of them? And how far back do they go? Can you give us kind of an overview of the digs that you have going on?
JOE: Yeah, so Boston's history goes back over 10,000 years. So we've got a really important Native American presence from the Massachusett people that are here. We're really fortunate that places like the Harbor Islands are relatively intact from a landscape point of view, which means we actually have really good native archaeological site preservation here in Boston, and not just there. Places like Boston Common, some of our bigger parks really have quite a few ancient sites going back thousands of years. Unfortunately, most of those are at risk due to climate change. So that's been a big issue that we've been facing. But Boston's history obviously is focused, around the world, for the kind of the Puritan period in the 1600s, but also the Revolutionary War era. Archaeologically, I'm most interested in filling in many of the gaps that are present in written documentation. So, who are the people that don't get written about, both by historians, but also by people at the time that documents are being written? Who's been kept out? Who's been erased? So we've been really focusing as a department and as a team on underrepresented histories, women, children, minorities, enslaved individuals, native people, folks that are kind of excluded from the written documentation, where archaeology can really bring something new to the table. We're not just trying to basically add artifacts or illustrations to history that we already know, we really think archaeology can bring new information and new viewpoints to kind of the bigger history narratives that we've been talking about here in Boston for centuries.
ERIC: And I've been to the Archeology Lab and been lucky enough to help categorize and sift through some of the things that come from digs. And it's a lot of the traditional things you might think of when you go and have an archeological dig in a city. It's pottery shards and things. But there's also the really unique stuff. Can you talk about some of the bigger things that have been uncovered in Boston?
JOE: Sure. I mean, one of the biggest things that we uncovered was a shipwreck in our Seaport neighborhood, which used to be entirely underwater, especially at high tide. We have, gosh, we have so many things. We have tenements from the families that were here as immigrants in the 18th century, we have whole sites that got burned down as part of the Battle of Bunker Hill. I call them our Boston Pompeii sites, where essentially, the buildings were burned down during the battle and left and never touched for centuries, and archaeologists came along and found more or less an intact site. We love our privies, our outhouses. And we always look for them, because they're the places where people threw all their garbage and kind of left the unedited version of their past in the ground. So we really get kind of the unvarnished past in all of its smelly glory. But that's what we love, to find these things that are unique, to find things that we haven't seen before. But everything's a little piece of the story, even if it's something we've seen a thousand times. God knows we have a lot of broken window glass, broken identical dishes across multiple sites, but sometimes that very same artifact can have a totally different story depending on where it's found. So it's really important to not just get the thing but to get the story that's associated with it. And each of those stories are unique depending on where we're looking.
ERIC: So there's a lot of digs going on and you've got the Archaeology Lab where everything is housed physically. But another one of your projects is digital archaeology. So can you talk about getting that database online so that anyone can access it and learn about it from anywhere?
JOE: One of our big priorities has been trying to make sure that our collections are accessible. Before you had to physically come to our archive, our laboratory in Boston to see the collections, to physically access them. In many ways, that's still how we operate. But we really have been trying to prioritize creating digital versions of our data so that it can go online. The majority of the collections that we've we've housed, the vast majority of them were dug in the 70s in the 80s, and had absolutely no digital component. We're talking hundreds of thousnads of artifacts that were already excavated. So we've been really fortunate in getting some pretty significant grants to go back to our collections and re-catalog them from scratch. Earlier catalogs in the 70s and 80s weren't very detailed. So we're creating new catalogs, all of which are done on a spreadsheet. So you can get an actual list of every item that we found with a detailed description. But we're also now combining that with a digital photograph of literally every artifact that we have and putting that up site by site on an Omeka database, which is online. So our website now has links to all of our different sites. And then when you go to the individual sites, you can get the history of the site, but also click the catalog and see every picture and then search the inventory online. So you can actually see what we've got. And so basically, whether you're just wanting to know what we found, or if you have a very specific research question, you can now go to our raw data. 100% of it is online, you can see the artifacts online. And if you need to come to our lab, you can come to with a very specific list of things to see, instead of just saying I want to see 18th century buttons. And then we spent, you know, weeks trying to figure out what that would look like. You can actually see all of our 18th century buttons online. And then if you want to see one or ten in person, you can come organize that. But it's all about accessibility. And it really became a big issue during COVID, where nobody could come to our lab. And so all the data that we were creating during COVID is now online. Plus there was stuff already there. And we've really realized how important this kind of work can really be to access overall when people can't get around.
ERIC: So we've mentioned a couple times the Big Dig, and maybe some of our younger listeners don't even know what that is. So can you give kind of an overview what the project was, and what it meant archaeologically?
JOE: Sure, it was one of the largest construction projects in American history. I think it still is one of the largest construction projects, it started way back in the 70s. But essentially, there was, in the 40s, in the 50s, large highways created that went right through the middle of the Charlestown neighborhood, downtown Boston, and more or less cut off parts of the neighborhood from each other. The North End physically was cut off from downtown Boston by a raised highway that you had to go underneath. So in the 70s, they had the idea of putting that highway into a tunnel underground, and then taking down the highway and turning that highway path into what's now the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is one of the best parks in the city. And so during the 70s in the early 80s, a team of archaeologists, dozens of archaeologists, were working on this to figure out where along that route could be archaeological sites in the way of that tunnel. And it had massive archaeological digs, hundreds of thousands of artifacts were found. They are the core of my collections, mostly from Charlestown, but also downtown. And then they also did quite a bit of archaeology out in the Harbor Islands at Spectacle Island, because all the dirt that came out of the tunnels had to go somewhere. And they put it on top of Spectacle Island. And there was quite a few sites there, including a fairly large Native Massachusett site that ended up being covered by the by the dirt. So a lot of archaeology. Many, many archaeologists cut their teeth on Boston archaeology. And then we've had a kind of lull since then. But it really was kind of one of the more important archaeological surveys in the country's history. Remember, too, that archaeology as a profession is not that old. We're really talking about the 1960s, when it really became something that someone could grow up and do as a job, and not just as like a rich pastime thing. So we're talking 10 years, 15 years after really the invention of professional archaeology, that this huge project came along. And so not only was it a major thing for archaeology in Boston, it was really an important piece of the development of archaeology as a profession in the country as well.
ERIC: Yeah, I can remember coming to the lab and going into just one of the rooms that had some of these artifacts. And it was it was like that scene at the end of Indiana Jones where there's just boxes, and shelves of boxes, and then you look down and more lights turn on and the shelves go as far as you can see. Thinking about digging that tunnel through the length of Boston for miles, and all the sites that had to have come up from that. It's mind boggling.
JOE: Yeah. And the stuff that we weren't able to get. I mean, some of the more important sites that I really wish we could have gotten, things like Zipporah Potter, who was a free black woman who was born free from an enslaved person in the 17th century. She was one of the first black landowners in the city of Boston. Her site was right in the way of the tunnel. The archaeologists looked for it in the 70s. And unfortunately, the development that had happened had lost it. But this is one of the one of the many stories that we tried to get with archaeology, but we weren't able to find, but we still found a 17th century Puritan woman's site, a pewtersmith, a tavern site, pieces of a boat, multiple native sites, there's really a lot of stories that came out of it.
ERIC: And so you're still kind of working through that log, even today. It's not like, you know, you went through it, and you found all those artifacts and told some stories, and then moved on to the next thing. All those artifacts, you're still kind of analyzing now, right?
JOE: Yeah, I mean, it never stops. I mean, when you're doing an archaeology project, you tend to come in with research questions. And your goal is to answer those questions. And with the scale of the Big Dig, the products are so enormous, and they took decades in some cases to finish, sometimes of work never got to a complete analysis phase, it really got to the point where we're answering the questions. And then we get the artifacts to a stage where somebody else can ask more questions down the road. It's the science-y parts of archaeology where we want to be able to come back to the same sites and ask new research questions, even though we've dug them up. But what that also means is that things were done to the standards of the time when they were dug. And so the detail levels of the cataloging was just not what we would do today in the 70s and 80s. And so we have some of our largest sites, like the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, it's easily 200,000+ artifacts, and we don't have a detailed catalogue of it. I can't tell you exactly what we found in that site, even though it's, like, the core of my collection. And it could easily take three years to re-catalog it if that's all we did. So it's one of those collections that has been in our collections now for over 40 years. One of the more important sites in the city, but its size is making it a real challenge to go back to and systematically go back through. But we're hoping to make that a priority at some point in the near future.
ERIC: And do you have any of those projects that are going on now, any sites from the Big Dig that are kind of in an active project phase?
JOE: So we're in the middle of an Institute for Museum and Library Sciences Grant, an IMLS Grant, a big competitive federal grant that we were really lucky to get for what we're calling the Boston 400 Digital Project. So we're going through a site called the James Garrett site, which was found very close to where the USS Constitution is today, essentially, across the street, right on the original shoreline of Charlestown. It was one of the sites dug as part of the Big Dig, I think this one was 1983. Basically, the archaeologists found a foundation of a house with collapsed walls on either side, easily tens of thousands of artifacts. They were able to do a basic analysis that proved its age. And that's it. So we're going back through now to digitize it. It's one of the more important sites, I think, in New England. Turns out the the artifacts are very tightly dated to between 1635 and 1655. And then the site collapsed. So we have what appears to be probably the largest collection of that first couple of decades of Boston's history. Collections, museum, doesn't matter, anything: this may be the largest collection of stuff from the 1600s in existence in Boston. And we're systematically going through it and writing down every single artifact and photographing all of it. If you follow us on social media, we post sometimes daily updates from that site of the really interesting artifacts that we're finding. It's a really important site for the diversity of the artifacts in it. We have native artifacts, quite a few of them actually. Stone tools, pottery. In the 17th century trade was through the roof, even more than 18th and 19th century. So we have one of the largest assemblages of Portuguese ceramics, we have ceramics from Mexico, from all over Europe. Lots of stuff coming in, tons of stuff from the Caribbean, from trade that was happening all around the Atlantic. And it's just a really important set of artifacts that we're getting to the point where we can say what we have, but we're not doing a lot of the storytelling for what they mean. And so we're hoping as soon as we get these collections done, we're getting them done well before the 400th celebration, so other archaeologists and historians will have access to them next year, when we complete the project, and that will allow new questions to be asked about the first couple of years of Boston's history through this collection that's been sitting in my lab since 1985.
ERIC: You also have a book about Boston archaeology that people can pick up and read, right?
JOE: We have two books, one on the History of Boston Through 50 Artifacts, telling the diverse history of Boston through stuff that we found, and also one on the oldest buildings in Boston and where to find them.
ERIC: Is there anywhere besides the City Archaeology Lab that people can visit to learn more?
JOE: Yeah, we're actually in the process of designing a new, fairly large exhibit in Faneuil Hall on Boston's role in slavery that we're going to be installing sometime next year. We're in the design phase right now, in the community discussion phase. But that's going to be a real key part of our outreach for the future where we're going to talk about the many people that were involved in slavery in Boston and how it impacts people today.
ERIC: Joe, thanks so much for telling us about the City Archaeology Lab. We'll look forward to seeing what you uncover next.
ERIC: For more on the work done at Boston City Archeology Lab, visit boston.gov/archaeology. To learn about how we know the age of fossils or artifacts that we dig up, check out our Sparks of Science video How Old Are Rocks, Really? Until next time, keep asking questions.
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