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Boston: city with a great future in its past

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 1982


Urban archaeology is breaking new ground in old Boston.

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It's digging up the past, peeling back 300 years of American history to those early Colonial days when shoes were whittled to size but lefts and rights had never yet been dreamed of.

New ground is being broken in a different way, too - busting up hardpan stereotypes that cast archaeologists and developers in the role of natural enemies - developers viewing archaeologists as impediments to construction; archaeologists seeing developers as destroyers of the nation's cultural heritage.

There's a team here - a public agency, a private developer, and a city university - debunking that image. It is proving that, despite their different objectives, archaeologists and developers can each benefit by intelligent cooperation on a voluntary basis. The developer has actually done a little digging on his own. He has dug down into his corporate pocket and brought up a

A popular conception of archaeology is that it has been carried out mainly on dusty sites of ancient civilizations. But for the past 15 or 20 years, the trend in Europe has been to bore into the historical roots of bustling modern cities. In London, archaeologists have unearthed what they are almost sure are the remnants of the original London Bridge built 2,000 years ago by the Roman conquerers. In York, diggers have uncovered fragments of what was once the Viking capital of the British Isles.

In this backward race against time, Europe is definitely in the lead. It has only been in the last few years that American archaeologists have wakened up to discover that city sites, once thought to be too disturbed by heavy construction to be of any archaeological value, can yield exciting relics of America's pioneer past. On New York's Lower East Side, for example, they have located the remains of the original Dutch City Hall.

In Boston the scenario began in January 1981 with construction of the new Bostonian Hotel across the street from the now famous Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

James W. Bradley, a Boston native who received his training as a historical archaeologist at Syracuse University, returned to the Hub two years ago to become survey director for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, in the office of the secretary of state.

He was surprised to learn how little archaeology had been done here, how little awareness there was of archaeological remains in the old downtown district, and how rapidly new high-rise buildings are eating up prime archaeological sites. So he kept an eye on excavations.

Mr. Bradley did a little lunch-hour archaeology. When other office workers were eating, he was sidewalk-superintending the hotel site on North Street. It is at the very heart of Boston's earliest settlement on the Shawmut Peninsula, a fist of land that was thrust out into the harbor from a narrow tide-washed neck.

What he saw in the claws of a steam shovel excited him: whole shoes, parts of shoes, white clay pipe stems, bottles, ceramic shards, fragments of wood and leather. Recognizing their age, he perceived that this site, next to the city's original harbor called Town Cove, had excellent potential for disclosing for the first time details of how people lived and worked here in the 1600s, and how this part of the city developed.

''Boston,'' says Bradley, ''potentially has probably the most interesting archaeology of any city in the East. It's older than most of the other cities. It was the largest and most important city in British North America up until just before the Revolution. Therefore, the kinds of things that were going on here left a material record which is going to be very, very rich and varied.''