By Seth Daniel
A few years ago when Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley was preparing to move the City’s voluminous collection of Colonial artifacts from the North End to a new office in West Roxbury – he got a good look at the boxes and boxes of artifacts from Charlestown.
It was an eye-opener.
“It really hit me then how much we had from Charlestown and how much work there was to do,” said Bagley, who is preparing to come speak at the Charlestown Historical Society on May 10 in the Bunker Hill Museum at 7 p.m. “I have about 1,000 boxes of artifacts from Charlestown. It’s easy a half-million to a million artifacts that we have.”
The Historical Society said they are glad to welcome Bagley, who will promote his book (to benefit the Archaeology Department) during the visit.
“Boston’s Big Dig revealed thousands of artifacts which has added to our understanding and appreciation of the city’s archaeological history,” said David Hennessey of the CHS. “Joseph M. Bagley, uncovers a fascinating hodgepodge of history—from ancient fishing grounds, to pottery, and the site of Three Cranes Tavern built in 1629 and much of what happened there —that will surprise and delight even longtime residents. From cannonballs to drinking cups and ancient spears to chinaware, this talk offers a unique and accessible introduction to Charlestown’s history and physical culture while revealing the ways objects can offer a tantalizing entrée into our past.”
Though many may not be completely aware of the importance of Charlestown’s history, Bagley said the City has done a remarkable job of preserving and collecting the historic material that the Town contained locked deep within its soil – most of it unearthed in the 1980s during the beginnings of the Big Dig.
“I think Charlestown is one of the top five archeological sites in America,” Bagley said. “I don’t think the general public realizes that. I don’t think archaeologists realize that. Our archaeology finds were probably too early because people weren’t paying attention to that back then. People are just now realizing how much was done in Charlestown.”
Bagley is only the fourth archaeologist in the history of the city. The position opened in the early 1980s when the Big Dig was commencing and it became evident that the construction was going to unearth some rare historical treasures. At the urging of the state, the City hired on an official archaeologist.
Nothing was more valuable for the sake of study than at City Square. Bagley said that after Charlestown burned on June 7, 1775, most of the City Square area – including the 3 Cranes Tavern – were marvelously preserved.
“When they dug that out, they basically found an entire burnt village from June 7, 1775 in the area,” he said. “If anyone has a question about what was going on in Boston from 1630 to 1775, you can pretty much find it in the archaeology that we got from City Square. Whether it’s slavery, ethnicity, daily activities, food and lifestyles, we have it all.”
Another great find, he said, was in the Navy Yard, where they found about 50 boxes of artifacts from the 1600s.
“That dig gave us the largest 17th Century collection in New England and its never been studied in depth to determine what we have,” he said. “We have all these collections that came from digs in the 1980s. Even though most of what we have has been out of the ground for 30 years, we’re still finding out what we go.”
Therein lies a major problem for Bagley.
Though he and his department are sitting on a wealth of Colonial history, they have never been able to closely look at what they actually have. Thousands upon thousands of artifacts have sat in boxes waiting for someone to study them, but to date, few have.
“So much is out of the ground and hasn’t been studied,” he said. “We know the digs were successful, but we don’t know just how successful yet. We have people researching in the lab that are looking at things dug out 30 years ago.”
And that brings full circle the story of why Bagley is going citywide.
The book he is promoting is called ’50 Artifacts,’ and was published in April. All of the proceeds will go towards funding more study of the artifacts in the possession of the City’s Archaeology Department.
Bagley said 10 of the 50 artifacts came from Charlestown.
“I probably get more calls from Charlestown about finds than anywhere else,” he said. “People in Charlestown get it. It’s nice to have something in Charlestown because I don’t have to explain why it’s important. They know already, and we can go from there.”