Thursday, March 24, 2016

5 Cool Artifacts Unearth Boston's Rich Past

Volunteers for the City Archaeology Program excavating a site in Boston.

As the city archaeologist of Boston, Joseph Bagley's job includes managing more than one million artifacts excavated from dozens of sites throughout the city and conducting digs, often with volunteers, on small projects on city-owned land. Between what resides in the archives and what still remains unrecovered, he would tell you there's no shortage of fascinating discoveries deep in the soil of Boston history.

So when Bagley decided to write a book about some of his favorite finds, the hard part was narrowing it down to the few dozen that could adequately represent this place over the ages, from as early as the first human inhabitants thousands of years ago. Painstakingly, he did just that, and the result is A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, complete with photos and essays on each artifact, due out in April from UPNE. Here Bagley selects five of those 50 objects that begin to tell Boston's fascinating story:

Neville Point
7500–5500 BP | Boston Common

Found on Boston Common during a 1986 archaeological survey before installation of lighting throughout the park, this 5,500–7,500-year-old native spear point base is the oldest artifact found in downtown Boston. It was made from stone harvested from outcrops found only in the Blue Hills area south of Boston. While the oldest man-made object found in downtown Boston (so far), the earliest evidence for people in the area around Boston goes back 12,000 years. This stone tool is older than the Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge.

Cat Skeleton
1714–1750 | Three Cranes Tavern, Charlestown
This intact cat skeleton was found buried in a bowl under the entrance of the Three Cranes Tavern in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. It dates to around the turn of the 18th century when witchcraft hysteria was peaking in and around Boston, and appears to be similar to other caches of cats in thresholds and hearths as a means to deter vermin and witchcraft from the home.

Circa 1750 | Faneuil Hall, Downtown
This whizzer toy, which would produce a buzzing sound when spun on a loop of string through the two central holes, was hammered from a lead musket ball. Thomas Apthorp was the son of Charles Apthorp, a major merchant and slave dealer in Boston who had a shop near Town Dock near present-day Faneuil Hall, where this artifact was excavated. The Apthorps were the wealthiest family in Boston in the early to mid 18th century. After Charles' death Thomas became the pay master for the British troops, who were at the time encamped on Boston Common. As a Tory, Thomas fled the city with the British on Evacuation Day in 1776.

Shell-Edge Pearlware
1819–1830 | African Meeting House, Beacon Hill

While this type of ceramic is one of the most common artifacts one will ever find on an archaeological site in Boston, this plate in particular was part of a large matching set of dishes that were encountered during excavations behind the 1806 African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The oldest standing Black church in America, the church also had apartments in the basement where Domingo Williams lived. As a free black man, Domingo ran his own business and became a popular very popular event caterer and organizer for Boston's white upper class. Despite his freedom he and others in the Black community faced broad discrimination in Boston. Based on the number of similar dishes, archaeologists believe this plate is part of Domingo's catering set, which was used throughout the City for parties, but also for community events at the African Meeting House back yard.

Red Sox Pin
1912 | Dillaway-Thomas House, Roxbury

This 1912 pin was issued to members of the Boston Red Sox fan club the year Fenway Park opened. Parts have broken off in the past, but it consists of a baseball face with eyes and a mouth, crossed-bat arms, and a chest made from an umpire's pads. The pin was found in the yard of the Dillaway-Thomas house in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph Bagley is available for purchase now.

Follow the City of Boston Archaeology Program's ongoing projects on Facebook.

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