What We Learned from the Archaeological Excavation at Old City Hall

Artifacts aplenty, more projects are on the horizon for city archaeologist Joe Bagley.

Photo by Toan Trinh

Photo by Toan Trinh

A few weeks ago, we told you about city archaeologist Joe Bagley and his quest to unearth an untold chapter of Boston Latin School’s storied history. Bagley and his team of volunteers and interns spent most of June excavating a small site on the grounds of Old City Hall.

Now that the dig is over, we reached out to Bagley via email to learn what the project revealed and to find out what’s next for the City Archaeology Lab this summer.

Was the dig a success?

Absolutely! We were able to identify the foundation of the 1645/1701 Schoolmaster’s house, as well as a collapsed brick chimney, a cellar hole, and associated artifacts.

Can you give a brief overview of what you and your team unearthed?

We found three sides of the Schoolmaster’s house, which were located in the right (eastern) half of the now-open space of the courtyard and extends toward the east 40 feet. Essentially it took up most of the right half of the courtyard.

On the western portion, we were able to identify the foundation of an 1810 barrister’s hall built by John Lowell. Just outside the barrister’s hall, we found some original soils of Boston dating back to the 17th century complete with 17th century artifacts, including a Dutch ointment jar. We were then able to excavate through the soils into the glacial subsoil covering nearly 10,000 years of Boston’s history. We did not find any Native American artifacts in this deposit, though.

When we first spoke, you were eager to find the privy, or the old-school outhouse. Any luck on that front?

Sadly, we did not find a privy, and disturbances to the rear of the courtyard and the presence of a large statue may make finding it impossible in the future. But we may be able to do more testing on the foundations of the buildings we found in the future.

Did you guys get nailed with any of the early summer storms that rolled through?

We only had to call off the dig once for threat of thunderstorms, which never materialized. But when it rained, we got very, very wet. We did hit a few layers dense with mortar or clay that became a toothpaste-like consistency in the rain. Needless to say, that was not fun when it came to getting the dirt through our screens or seeing the artifacts in the mud. It slowed us down, but it did not stop us.

As the city’s archaeologist, what’s the most interesting takeaway from the project?

The most interesting takeaway was a combination of the relative intactness of the foundations for the buildings we encountered and the reaction of the public to us finding them. We expected enthusiasm, but people were much more excited about what we were doing than I expected.

Did you get any funny questions or comments from tourists passing by as part of Freedom Trail tours?

By the end of the dig, we were mentioning how relieved we would be to not have to answer, “Did you find anything interesting?” about 100 times a day. Most of the jokes we heard involved Jimmy Hoffa, lost contact lenses, gold, and Whitey Bulger. To me, the funniest thing was how surprised everyone seemed when we said “yes” to “Did you find anything interesting?” It’s a large hole in downtown Boston—of course we found something interesting!

What happens next with the artifacts you’ve dug up and the site itself?

Everything is at the City Archaeology Lab in West Roxbury waiting for us to finish with our other digs. Once we are done, we will all head back to the lab to process the collections.

Between now and next spring, we will wash, sort, and catalog the artifacts. Then I will be writing a very detailed report summarizing the dig, our findings, and the new history we revealed on the property.

What else is the City Archaeology Lab getting into this summer?

Next Monday we will be starting a survey of the Industrial School for Girls in Dorchester (232 Centre St.), where we will be looking for artifacts, and hopefully a privy, left behind by the girls who went to the school between when it opened in 1859 and when they got indoor bathrooms around 1880.

The girls were brought from troubled homes and trained in traditional Victorian women’s tasks. They were all between six and 15 years old, and many were rebellious. I’m hoping to find a combination of high-end Victorian goods brought in to train the girls on (tea sets, sewing items, etc.) coupled with objects of rebellion kept hidden from their overseers (alcohol, tobacco pipes, etc.).

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.