Chinatown may be one of the last places many would consider to be of archaeological value in the greater Boston area. It’s a neighborhood that’s only come into its own as an enclave for thousands of Asian families since the 1950s, owing as much to greater economic opportunities as to changes in national immigration policy. But that’s precisely the opposite of what Joseph Bagley, Boston’s official city archaeologist, hopes to prove with his excavation into the neighborhood.
“This is one of the parts of Boston that was actually created in 1840,” Bagley told WBUR earlier this week. ”On this site over the 19th century, we have wave after wave of immigrants coming in and for the city, some rather unique communities that lived in and call that area home.”
The excavation—which began this Monday—is scheduled to take place over the next eight weeks as part of Boston’s Archaeology Program, which was recently awarded a grant of $350,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities as one of 233 national initiatives. The funding will help support the city's Digital Archaeology Project, designed to process, restore and catalog over 200,000 cultural artifacts relating to the city’s history over the past 200 years.
"This is an important piece of Boston's history," said Mayor Marty in a statement. "We expect to unearth the untold stories of Chinese and Syrian families who settled in Boston during the first half of the 20th century."
The site of the excavation, a vacant lot located at 6 Hudson St near the Chinatown gates, was initially a tidal flat which was filled over by land in the 1840s. In 1923, restaurateur Ruby Foo opened one of the east coast’s first Chinese eateries on the site, which remained nationally renowned until its closing in 1989. For the greater part of the nineteenth century, the immediate neighborhood was populated by successive waves of Irish, Syrian and Chinese families—the latter of which culminated in the infamous Chinatown immigration raid of 1903 in which police seized the opportunity of a funeral for a murder victim to arrest over 234 immigrant workers.
“One of the challenges in Boston is that we have a lot of written history, but, for example, our tax records only record adult men,” says Bagley, who is working with Chinese Historical Society of New England on the project. “My goal is to find the other people that were in the house because you know there are other people besides adult men: the women and children."
“As far as specific artifacts, I'd love to find artifacts related to the food that people [were] eating in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially [those] Syrian and Chinese communities because that's two communities in the history of Boston that have been really underrepresented by history.”
The site of the excavation is expected to be ongoing at least until the early fall and is open for public observation.
Image via Wikimedia / John Stephen Dwyer