Unearthing Boston?s Past

Pieces of Boston’s colonial history are now being uncovered right in the heart of downtown. On Sept. 7, the National Park Service and the City of Boston opened an archaeological excavation site next to historical Faneuil Hall, digging up artifacts from as long ago as the 17th century.

The dig is making way for the new visitors center expansion that will include enhanced exhibits and information for National Park and Freedom Trail visitors, as well as new restrooms, vendor stalls and handicap access, according to Sean Hennessey, a National Park Service spokesman.

Hennessey said the National Park Service wants to give visitors a great welcoming experience so they can better learn about Boston’s vibrant past, he said.

Since Faneuil Hall is part of the Boston National Historical Park, the National Historic Preservation Act requires that the excavation be completed before an expansion of the visitors center can be constructed, he said.

“I think it’s a great law because we can uncover untold stories,” he said.

“[Diggers are] continually uncovering artifacts that contribute to an evolving understanding of history,” he said.


Hennessey said that the excavation requires “digging, sifting, sorting and documenting in a very, very careful way.”

The digging process in the 15-by-15 foot test pit involves both mechanical and manual digging, he said.

“You excavate to dig up the top layers literally with a shovel,” he said. “The deeper you go, you start to hit a water table, and then the hole fills with water that you need to pump out.”

The dig is expected to conclude within the next few weeks, but the archaeologists, contractors and University of Massachusetts-Boston graduate students working on the project have already uncovered at least 2,000 objects, he said.

Items found so far include clay stems from smoking tobacco pipes, chicken bones in a trash pit, bits of pottery and wig curlers, he said. Excavators send all artifacts to the Boston Archaeology Lab for further study and preservation, he said.

In addition to searching for historical objects, archaeologists and students are also analyzing the soil in the contexts of entomology and palynology, according to City Archaeologist Ellen Berkland. Excavators will take geochemical and botanical samples to acquire information about how the site changed overtime, she said.

“It’s different in an urban area because you’re dealing with multiple layers of fill and types of soil,” she said. “You have to maintain complete control of a site in order to recreate it.”


Faneuil Hall’s colonial history is rich with revolutionary events that make up the story of the founding of the U.S., according to Hennessey.

The Hall was built on top of a landfill that covers what used to be the old Town Dock, which served as Boston’s port, center of commerce and city meeting place in the 17th and 18th centuries, he said.

The original Faneuil Hall was built in 1742, and was expanded in 1806 by renowned Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, who also designed the statehouse, according to the City of Boston website. It is one of 16 sites on the famed Freedom Trail.

Some of the country’s most celebrated orators found their platform at Faneuil Hall, including Samuel Adams, who organized efforts to protect colonial rights in what would later become the Revolutionary War, the website said.

Today, the first floor still serves as a marketplace, as it has for hundreds of years, and the second floor meeting room is still used for debates, the website said.

Although archaeologists are not looking for any specific artifact and don’t expect to find anything especially groundbreaking in the current dig, they hope that the items they do find will provide clues for a fuller picture of what life was really like in colonial Boston, Hennessey said.

In a similar excavation during the restoration of Revolutionary War stronghold Dorchester Heights in the mid-1990s, archaeologists uncovered significant evidence of an old fort from the 1770s, he said.

Because the Town Dock area, and later Faneuil Hall, has been a central meeting place since the very birth of Boston, archaeologists hope that a dig in this location could prove to be particularly fruitful, he said.

Hennessey said researchers are also hoping that the dig might shed some light on some of the lesser known, more shameful parts of Boston’s history that escape wider public attention, such as Boston’s burgeoning slave trade in the early 1700s.

Colonists held slave auctions right next to where Faneuil Hall was built, he said.

Ironically, Peter Faneuil, the wealthy merchant and benefactor of Faneuil Hall, was involved in the slave trade, he said. The “Cradle of Liberty,” as the Hall is often called due to the revolutionary activities that took place there, was actually built from funds derived from the slave trade, he said.


Hennessey said it is important for people to understand the relevance of the Faneuil Hall excavation.

“I hope [the dig] increases awareness of the important science of archaeology,” he said. “It allows us to preserve and interpret what lies beneath our feet, and to understand who we are and where we came from.”

“This is a story that needs to be told, and archaeology can make a vital contribution,” he said. “It humanizes Boston’s history.”

College of Communication sophomore Mike Barry said he agrees with archaeologists that the dig has great cultural significance.

“Part of why Boston is so great is its history, it’s unique among American cities,” he said.

College of General Studies sophomore Kimberly Hammett said she believes the dig is especially relevant to BU students because of the close proximity of Faneuil Hall.

After hearing about the excavation, many BU students said they were intrigued by the historical possibilities right outside their door.

“It’s really interesting,” said Katherine Keegan, a College of Arts and Sciences sophomore.

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