The phrase “archaeological excavation” typically conjures up a romantic notion of Indiana Jones, or King Tut’s tomb, or the cave paintings of Lascaux. History’s as much a game of hide and seek as it is a question of interpretation after the fact.
When Joe Bagley of Boston’s City Archaeology Program (which has existed continuously since 1983) began digging at a vacant lot near the Chinatown gates in July, it was with the express purpose of shedding light on the successive waves of immigrants populating the neighborhood since the 1840s. Not merely Chinese families, but previous enclaves of Syrian, Irish and Jewish families who settled in the district for much of the nineteenth century. Instead, what Bagley found were rubber dinosaur toys, cheap linoleum flooring and—mystery of mysteries—a cassette of New Edition’s 1984 debut album.
"Boston is a city of immigrants. This is an important piece of Boston's history," said Mayor Marty Walsh in a statement announcing the dig earlier in July.
The program announced on Tuesday it would be concluding the excavation, the first to be conducted in Chinatown and initially scheduled to run through August, after the most significant findings appear to have been porcelain teacup shards ostensibly dating back to the paleolithic era commonly referred to as 1982.
Part of the problem with the excavation’s findings may be the result of the very same phenomenon the project sought to understand—urban development. Earlier this month, the program tweeted the uncovery of a relatively recent basement dug in the backyard of the Hudson St site; a structure which could have compromised any subsequent findings. Coupled with the fact that Chinatown was constructed as a landfill on a tidal flat, the integrity of any findings may not always be failproof.
Just because this dig may be a wash, that doesn't mean the archaeology program isn’t without merit, however. A 2016 excavation of Malcolm X’s childhood home revealed not only family heirlooms, but Native American stone tool pieces dating back to pre-Colonial times. A dig at the Old North Church uncovered dozens of artifacts from Irish and Italian families settling nearby in the nineteenth century. And a 2015 survey of Paul Revere’s home revealed… an outhouse. But no one said history was always appetizing.
Bagley, who was awarded the John L. Cotter Award from the Society for Historical Archaeology for his achievements, has never been less than vocal about the need for urban archaeology. “The only complaint we tend to get from the public is that we aren’t doing enough,” he said in a 2018 interview. And perhaps he’s right. While commercial development projects draw billions of dollars in funding to create what is either going to be the shopping mall of the future or an overgrown planned community, Boston’s historical roots remain virtually ignored—save for the (dwindling) flocks of tourists boarding an Old Town Trolley train to listen to a pre-rehearsed spiel digesting facts previously gleaned in elementary school. But Boston and its history is so much more than the common sights on the Freedom Trail. Boston has to do better, and, if Boston continues its commitment to urban archaeology, hopefully it will continue to be better.
Image via Wikimedia / Ingfbruno