Boston: city with a great future in its past

Urban archaeology is breaking new ground in old Boston.

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.''

A handful of other sites in the city, including the Boston Common Underground Garage, had churned up a jumble of artifacts during construction. But because no systematic archaeology had been carried out to record the exact context in which the objects were found, there was no way to interpret their meaning.Here, he realized, was the first chance in Boston to record artifacts just as they had been deposited beginning 300 years ago.

As early maps implied, excavation for the hotel was on filled land. Bostonians had a penchant for pushing their cramped borders seaward, lopping off hilltops to make new land for their growing population. Since the 1640s, when this section of tidewater marsh began to be filled in, settlers dumped their trash as well as debris from numerous ''great fires'' here until the soggy soil became solid ground in the 1790s. Layer upon layer of these telltale tidbits lay silently undisturbed until now.

What began as a shoestring operation by Bradley quickly became a formal arrangement. He solicited the cooperation of Arthur Winn, the developer and president of the Winn Development Company, to allow him to study the site and extract artifacts while construction of the foundations was under way. ''The developer had no reason to do this except that he thought it was a good idea,'' Bradley says. ''The point I tried to make was that 'this is not charity, this is business, good business for you to engage in. . . . We're providing services and information. And we're asking you to pay for that in the same way you would deal with any other subcontractor.' ''

But of much greater importance to archaeology here and all over America, Bradley feels, is the precedent this project sets for voluntary cooperation between public and private sectors. In his opinion, this is where archaeology may be and should be heading.

''It's the responsibility of our office,'' he explains, ''to identify historic and archaeological sites of importance in the commonwealth (of Massachusetts), evaluate their significance, and propose plans for their protection.'' Where federal money is involved, his role under the 1969 National Environmental Protection Act is to review the impact such a project would have on cultural resources.

''If it's a private project where no federal money is involved,'' he explains , ''we really don't have any role. And a lot of development that's going on in this state, and particularly in Boston right now, is entirely privately funded. This was the case with the Bostonian Hotel. . . .

''I think that is a different line than archaeology has taken in the past,'' Mr. Bradley says, ''and one we need to follow through on again.'

''We feel very much a part of the city,'' says Arthur Winn. ''So for us it was a unique opportunity to finance a project that would tie the site and the hotel into the history of the city of Boston.''

An agreement was signed by Mr. Winn and Secretary of State Michael Joseph Connolly laying down rules for work on the site. The developer would put up $5, 000 to pay for the archaeological work to catalog, assess, and preserve whatever artifacts were found. In return, he would receive a report summarizing information extracted from the materials. In addition, Bradley's office would assist him in putting together a display of some of the treasures for the lobby of his hotel.

''In these days, when federal funds for archaeology are diminishing,'' says Winn, ''it is really up to the private sector to step up to the plate and do its part. We were happy that Jim brought us this opportunity. We are pleased to be a part of it.''

Bradley signed a separate agreement with Dr. Mary C. Beaudry, assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology affiliated with Boston University's Archaeological Studies Program. She has a laboratory and other facilities which the Massachusetts Historical Commission does not have

''So again,'' Bradley says, ''it was a logical cooperative arrangement. We had lots of information and opportunities. She had a lot of very well trained students who have helped us on the site and are now working on the collection in the lab.''

The arrangement is advantageous for BU, too. ''We're getting a chance to benefit from looking at the artifacts as a study collection,'' Dr. Beaudry says. ''Some students are doing documentary research. Others have had an opportunity to see first hand what excavations in the city are really like.

''But the major thing we've been able to help out with . . . is just to help spark interest in archaeology in this city. This dig is going to add a considerable amount to our understanding of this area. . . .''

Archaeologists like to have sites to themselves so they can lay out grids and take plenty of time to plot the location of everything that comes out of the ground. Even on an urban site they would prefer to have access to the property before construction begins. ''But, given current economic restraints,'' Winn says, ''it is more practical to have a cooperative effort between the developer and his contractors and people like Jim, so that when excavation - which must proceed anyway - is going on, it can uncover the earth so that the discoveries can be made.''

Work was planned and coordinated to minimize disruption to the construction schedule. ''While we were not entirely satisfied with the arrangement,'' Bradley says, ''it did offer us an opportunity to have access to a site that otherwise would have been unavailable.'' The archaeologists just had to work faster than their usual meticulous pace and had to be satisfied with samples rather than with everything that might be there. At strategic points in excavating the foundation, the digging was halted long enough for artifacts and soil samples to be recovered quickly and their location recorded in the layer-cake-like stratigraphy.

Many developers may be reluctant to cooperate with archaeologists. But ''if any of them should ask me,'' Winn says, ''I would not hesitate to recommend their involvement in such a project. It was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience for us.''

What does the state gain? ''We've been able to salvage a great deal out of a situation where potentially we could have gotten nothing,'' Bradley says. ''Having access to this site helps us predict where other important sites are likely to be.''

The site of the Bostonian Hotel dig is next to Boston's famous Haymarket Square, a hurly-burly of meat markets and fruit and vegetable pushcarts along Blackstone Street.

What makes the Blackstone Block historically outstanding is that it is the best of the remaining fragments of -Boston's original 17th-century street pattern. Passing centuries that have wrought such radical changes in the topography of this Colonial city have left unaltered the five tiny lanes that cut into and meander through the interior space of this irregularly shaped rectangle. These little alleys were old when the American Revolution began.

From the first, the block has been a center of commercial activity. None of its earliest wooden buildings remain. But still standing are two structures dating back to the 1700s, when first floors housed workshops, businesses, or taverns and upper floors served as dwellings.

What is now the Union Oyster House restaurant was, during prerevolutionary days, the home of Isaiah Thomas, whose broadside, ''The Massachusetts Spy,'' fanned the fires of insurrection throughout the colonies.

The Ebenezer Hancock House was built by Ebenezer's famous brother, John. Ebenezer, paymaster of the Eastern Continental Army, used his home at 10 Marshall Street to store 2 million silver crowns lent to the revolutionary government by Louis XVI of France in 1778.Today the house is occupied by a Boston law firm.

Set in the wall of the building next door is a relic missed by most sightseers: the Boston Stone. Thomas Child, who set up a painting business in the block in 1692, set this millstone in what was then the geographical center of town. Adopted as the zero milestone of Boston, it is the point from which all distances are measured.

At the bottom of the Bradley dig profile is the blue clay that underlies so much of Boston. From the layer above this came broken pieces of early delftware and other ceramics, building materials, shoes, leather scraps, wood, and animal remains. Surprisingly, it is the wetness of this former tidal salt marsh that has preserved the leather and wood in unusually good condition.

Above this layer of compacted debris and organic brown clay filled with hidden trinkets, like prizes in a child's birthday cake, was a layer of ash surmounted by another layer of charcoal and charred timber. Here was the evidence of the eight ''great fires'' that swept the peninsula between 1653 and 1711. What better place to dump the blackened debris than in the nearest landfill?

From the artifact samples extracted, Bradley and his crew conclude that butchery, shoemaking, woodworking, and pottery were some of the commercial activities that thrived in this vicinity.

Last November, after the hotel roof went on, archaeologists had one more brief crack at peering backward into time when a large hole behind the building was excavated to accommodate a holding tank. Early maps and documents show that in the 1600s there were many wharves here that extended out into Town Cove. In the single day the team had in which to work that dig, sure enough, it found the first physical confirmation: a jumble of wharf timbers, some of them still in place.

The ceramic wares from the Bradley dig are the same types that have been dug up in Pemaquid, Maine, at Plymouth on Cape Cod, and at Jamestown, Va. But among the pieces is a portion of one small tin-glazed earthenware porringer with a handle so distinctive that this form has not been seen anywhere else. An open ring for the index finger supports a flat handle that is held on top by the thumb.

Another interesting ''new'' form to emerge from the Boston dig is a portion of a two-handled combed slipware drinking vessel that is large enough to have been passed around by a group of people. Its yellow background with brown and white decoration is similar to some other shards of the same type dating from the 1690s. Neill DePaoli, a historical archaeologist with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, who worked on the site with Mr. Bradley, says a polychrome delft punch bowl base found at the Boston dig closely resembles a more complete bowl of the 1740s found in Philadelphia.

''By looking at the real remains from the past,'' says Jonathan Fairbanks, curator of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, ''we discover that these New Englanders were involved in a worldwide commerce. They had crafted objects from a broad mercantile network - English, Dutch, Portuguese stuff. That is part of the fascination of such discoveries.''

The blue and purple lines of their tin-glazed Portuguese Lisbonware, notes Wendy Cooper, assistant curator of that department, ''are in imitation of the white high-fired porcelain that was imported from China.''

The very fact that such materials have survived 300 years of Boston history suggests to Mr. Bradley that there are probably many other survivals waiting to be discovered that may be even more important than this site.

''This dig,'' he says, ''dramatizes the fact that the past has a future in Boston.''

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