[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
Quick Menu Features
* Sitemap * Home
common ground

The Future of Public Archeology
Winter 1999

Online Archive

*  Mining the Big Dig: Tapping the Education Potential of Boston's Central Artery Project

(photo) New Mexico's Fort Union National Monument on the head of a microchip.

"A shocking number of exhibit-goers were surprised at the extent of the Native American presence. "

Anna-Eliza H. Lewis and Brona G. Simon

by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis and Brona G. Simon

In scale it falls somewhere between the Panama Canal and the Chunnel. Boston's Big Dig (formally known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) is the largest and most complex highway project in the nation's history. The plan includes replacing the aging, elevated portion of Interstate 93, which winds through downtown Boston, with an eight- to ten-lane tunnel. This is being done without demolishing the existing interstate, which is choked daily with ten- to twelve-hour traffic jams. If this weren't daunting enough, the project includes a second tunnel named for baseball legend Ted Williams, which will run under Boston Harbor to Logan International Airport. A new bridge will be built across the mouth of the Charles River Funded by the Federal Highway Administration and the Massachusetts Highway Department, the work began in the late 70's. The project has cored, dredged, graded, and dug through one of America's oldest cities. The archeological windfall, as one may imagine, has been tremendous.

When the collections from the Big Dig were turned over to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for curation, the big question was, "Now what?" How do we take hundreds of thousands of artifacts and a couple of linear feet of very technical reports and translate them for the public? It's hardly the first time an archeologist has asked this question, but it is one that continues to challenge us. Fortunately, in the case of the Big Dig, we had the backing of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts William Francis Galvin, who supported establishing the commission's Archaeological Curation Center. Although the center's primary goal is caring for the state's collections, a close second is creative public education. The Big Dig provided a rare opportunity to bring an archeological project full circle, expanding MHC's public education program in the process.

We tested the waters with two small exhibits, one a small artifact display for Massachusetts Archaeology Week 1998, the other a set of traveling panels for less secure venues. Conceived as an attractive way to bring Big Dig archeology to places ill-equipped to display artifacts, the heavily illustrated panels are transported to libraries in neighborhoods where the work is taking place.

We then began work on a full-scale exhibit: Archaeology of the Central Artery Project: Highway to the Past. Developed with appropriations from the state, the show opened in September of last year and will remain until July 2001 at the Commonwealth Museum in the State Archives Building in Boston. The exhibit was written, designed, and produced by MHC archeologists. The Gillette Company, headquartered in Boston, has supported the project.

Choosing the exhibit's themes was our first and most challenging task. As with any construction-driven project, we didn't choose the sites to be excavated. We faced the problem of finding common themes for sites that ranged from a Woodland period (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 1,600) shell midden, to the home of a 17th-century widow, to a tavern that burned in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, to a 19th-century glass factory. Since the highway was the only unifying theme among these sites, we chose to organize the exhibit as a kind of historical tour of the neighborhoods through which the artery passes, highlighting common topics along the way. It will come as no surprise that our predominately female staff decided to spotlight the lives of women in each neighborhood. We also chose to focus on past diets, the history of technology, and general archeological techniques.

The exhibit's organizing principle provided visitors a variety of ways to digest the large amount of information. In each neighborhood we selected a few of the most important sites and then used artifacts and pictures to tell interesting stories. This has proved successful in part because visitors are not getting caught up in the minutiae of archeological detail, but are being swept up by the tales being told. In fact, visitors frequently comment that this is what they like best about the exhibits. The wealth of stories was our greatest asset since the budget did not allow for high-tech multimedia productions or videos, which many modern audiences expect. The focus is on the artifacts, with enlarged field photos and reproduced historical records complementing the presentation.

A Tour of the Neighborhoods

Massachusetts Bay. We expanded the neighborhood concept to include Boston Harbor to accommodate several small Native American sites in Charlestown and a good-sized shell midden on Spectacle Island. This afforded the opportunity to study Indian life just before and during initial contact with Europeans. The midden and the floral and faunal remains it contained provided an excellent vehicle for explaining how Native Americans used coastal resources. From the different sites and artifacts, visitors can easily picture daily life and seasonal movements among the Massachusetts people. A section on Native American women illustrates the many tasks a woman might accomplish in the course of a day. We've also used ethnographic accounts such as William Wood's report published in 1634.

The Big Dig occasioned the first major geotechnical study of the harbor that chronicles how the waning of the glacial era caused a rise in sea level, and how this, in turn, has changed the landscape over thousands of years. Visitors are always fascinated to learn that at one time many of Boston's Harbor Islands were only a half-day walk away from what is now downtown Boston.

Charlestown. Charlestown, north of Boston between the Mystic and Charles Rivers, had many stories to tell. In the 17th century, it was the seat of the Squaw Sachem, a woman who was chosen leader of her tribe. Later, it was the first official seat of royal government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Central Artery's terminus fell roughly on the site of Governor John Winthrop's "great house." Although archeologists found little evidence of Winthrop's brief occupancy, they did uncover nearly 150 years of history at the Three Cranes Tavern, which occupied the site later. Mary Long kept the operation going, expanding her family's holdings of prime downtown real estate. The tavern closed in 1775 when the British burned Charlestown to the ground. In the same neighborhood a generation later, Grace Parker became the owner of the first pottery to produce stoneware in New England. Her husband died just after he had put everything in place to start the operation. Grace was the one who actually got the business off the ground. In the Big Dig exhibit, visitors learn about these two widows who kept their families together by maintaining the successful businesses of their late husbands.

The North End. In the North End section of the exhibit visitors meet Katherine Nanny Naylor, whose story is perhaps the most poignant. The site consists of the privy from her house. It contained a significant amount of information that confirmed the documentary history of the widow of a successful 17th century merchant. The artifacts include a collection of complete leather shoes, fragments of imported silks and lace, remarkable ceramics and glassware, and considerable botanical remains. It is evidence of a wealthy household, one with a connection to the growing global economy.

Parisitologists, however, documented evidence of roundworm and whipworm. Indications of insect-infested foodstuffs further suggested the Naylors suffered from poor sanitary conditions. Also, court records show a history of abuse by Katherine Nanny Naylor's second husband, frighteningly familiar to many modern audiences. The story does have a happy ending: She successfully sued him for divorce. On a frivolous note, in the privy was a lawn bowling ball that is currently considered the oldest in North America. Even this artifact has a story: In 17th century Boston, it was illegal to bowl in public places.

South Boston. Most recently, archeologists excavated the remains of a glass factory in South Boston, which turned out to be the first in North America to make flint glass, known today as lead crystal. This is an exciting site for glass scholars who have been scrambling to expand their knowledge of the craft in New England. The discovery revealed the transformation of glass making during the Industrial Revolution. The exhibit has been greatly enhanced by generous loans from the Sandwich Glass Museum. The complete museum pieces go a long way in helping visitors understand what all those tiny fragments represent. However, a few of our guests have been amazed at the beautiful whole examples they think we've found as well.

The Exhibit as Classroom

When we learned how expensive it is to add multimedia or video to an exhibit, we sought creative ways to add interactive content without breaking the bank. The first is a handout for kids called "Time Detectives," a self-guided tour with a variety of activities. Just before exiting the exhibit there is a kids' corner with a "What Is It?" board where they answer multiple choice questions to identify artifacts. There is also an "Archaeo-logic" wall where kids can draw an archeological profile, see how their bedrooms might look to an archeologist 100 years from now, and even interpret a few artifacts. We also printed a four-foot image of an 18th-century washbasin, mounted it on hard backing, and cut it on a jigsaw to create a pot to ‘mend.'

One sign of the exhibit's success is the growing number of class trips among grades three to ten. Since October, nearly 3,000 students have visited. They begin with a quick introduction to archeology and what it has to do with the Big Dig. Since most school buses get stuck in construction-related traffic on the way, we have a perfect segue. Younger students get an activity kit with scavenger hunts, word searches, short art projects, and artifact projects that they complete as they walk through. Older students participate in our "Experts" program. Small groups are assigned to different sites in the exhibit and, with guidance from staff archeologists, conduct small research projects that help them become experts. Then they give their classmates a guided tour. The program can be scaled according to skills, and the archeologists are flexible about how the students interpret the site. One group, for example, chose to interpret theirs in the form of a poem.

One reason the trips are working so well is that before arriving, all teachers get a copy of Boston's Archaeological Past, a guide for grades five to eight. An archeologist calls each teacher ahead of time to discuss the trip's goals and assess the students' abilities. This way, archeologists can accommodate varying reading levels, attention spans, command of English, and other needs. Also, MHC staff can learn something about teachers' perceptions of archeology. This ensures that everyone is prepared. Not all choose to use the curriculum in their class, but many do. In creating it we were careful to meet the interdisciplinary goals of the state's new curriculum frameworks for social studies. Although archeology is not a required subject, teachers can use it to satisfy a number of core learning standards. Every activity begins with a list of how it accomplishes this. Our program was perfectly timed because teachers are reassessing their curricula to comply with new standards and statewide assessment tests.

At the opening of Highway to the Past, Secretary Galvin reminded guests that "these excavations give us a unique window into colonial life in Boston and tell the stories of the lives of many interesting people and events." It may not be a new message to archeologists, but it is one that resonates. A shocking number of exhibit-goers were surprised at the extent of the Native American presence, that there is any archeology to be done of Boston's past, and that it was a required part of the Big Dig. All are pleasantly surprised, and leave knowing a little bit more.

For more information, contact Brona Simon or Ann-Eliza Lewis, Massachusetts Historical Commission, Massachusetts Archives Building, 220 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125, (617) 727-8470, e-mail Brona.Simon@sec.state.ma.us or Ann-Eliza.Lewis@sec.state.ma.us

MJB/EJL