City of Boston City Archaeologist Joseph Bagley unveiled a trove of artifacts recovered from a dig at the Washington Garden at the Old North Church this week. The artifacts revealed a snapshot of English, Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrant life in the mid to late 1800s, including ceramic pottery, children’s toys, and a clay tobacco pipe with an Irish shamrock design.
The artifacts were discovered in what Bagley describes as one of the best privies unearthed in Boston. (A privy is toilet or waste disposal area often rich in historic artifacts.) Other artifacts that were found include wooden clothes pins, animal bone, religious figurines, medicine bottles, and more.
According to Bagley, the archaeology helps tells the story of everyday Bostonians who are often lost to history. “The main takeaway here is that history is more than just what’s been written down,” said Bagley. “Lots of personal stories just get lost to time. Archaeology is one of the best ways to reveal those stories, and bring them back from the past. The people who lived in this house did not have the economic means to really be part of the group who were recorded in Boston’s history.”
Neighborhood residents and City of Boston staff pitched in to help make the dig a success by volunteering on site. Volunteers and visitors were welcomed to the site when it was announced in June and when the survey picked up against in late August.
“I’m excited to see the rich history of this historic neighborhood come to life through these artifacts,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “We’ve explored privies in the North End before, but not one that captures a complete snapshot of the immigrant story. This is an exciting discovery that offers a real-life glimpse into our past.”
The dig was a collaboration between the City of Boston and the Old North Church Foundation, which reached out to the City’s Archaeology Program ahead of a new project for the Washington Garden. The Old North Foundation and the Beacon Hill Garden Club will reconfigure the garden into an outdoor classroom featuring 18th century plantings and a large glass-and-water feature etched with Longfellow’s poem: “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Future work on the Longfellow Garden is supported by the Old North Church Foundation, the Beacon Hill Garden Club and the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund of the City of Boston.
“I am grateful to Mayor Walsh for the work of Joe Bagley on the campus of Old North Church. Joe’s research gives us a much better sense of the rich history of our neighborhood and is invaluable as the Old North Foundation prepares to restore the campus in time for Old North’s 300th birthday in 2023,” said Rev. Stephen T. Ayres of the Old North Church. “We can’t wait until Joe returns this winter to conduct a new dig in the tombs beneath the church.”
Bagley and his team conducted an archaeological survey in 2013 behind the 1715 Clough House at 21 Unity Street, also owned by Old North Church. On this previous Old North Church survey, they found more than 40,000 artifacts dating back 300 years.
For more images and updates, follow the City’s Archaeology Program on Facebook.