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Under Rumbling Traffic, Archaeologists Unearth 17th Century Boston

November 11, 1988

BOSTON (AP) _ In a $9.25-a-day parking lot under an elevated downtown highway, urban archaeologist Ricardo Elia is searching for 17th-century Boston.

Elia and a team of Boston University archaeologists are using trowels and brooms to probe repositories of urban detritus before construction workers using dynamite reclaim the land forever to move the Central Artery underground.

″You just couldn’t conceive of someone getting a research grant to rip up a parking lot under the artery and see what’s there,″ Elia, who heads a 10- person BU archaeology team staying several steps ahead of construction, said as traffic rumbled overhead Thursday.

After about a month of digging, the archaeologists have unearthed the soggy timbers of a wharf that a John Eustis bought in 1709 on property abutting what was then Boston’s waterfront.

The $846,000 federal- and state-funded project to search for Colonial Boston is part of a gradual movement to recognize the significance of what lies buried under America’s cities.

While maps, deeds, bills of sale and other historical documents have been preserved, the physical remains of early America are scarce, archaeologists said.

Urban or historical archaeology is only as old as the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966. Since then, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Alexandria, Va., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., all have let archaeologists examine land before development.

″What we are getting nationwide are little snapshots on what happened in the past in the centers of cities,″ said Ron Anzalone, staff archaeologist for the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington.

″We learn an awful lot about how Boston developed, about how everyday life occurred, that you just can’t get from tax records,″ he said. ″In many communities there would be no other way to know about the early history and how it relates to the development of the United States.″

The university team has moved from Eustis’ land a quarter mile to the other shore of old Boston, digging under the asphalt on the site of a 19th century mattress company warehouse and below that the 17th century estate of John Codman.

″So much of Boston has been dug up that you’ve lost much of the archaeological history already,″ Elia said. ″The 17th and 18th centuries are just not very visible today.″

Boston prides itself on history, yet very little remains of Colonial Boston. In fact, the Paul Revere House in the North End is the only 17th- century house standing, and it has been heavily restored.

One reason is that 1630 Boston was much smaller than 1988 Boston, much of which consists of landfill upon which the city gradually expanded. Another is that many of the city’s old buildings burned down.

Elia said the planned excavation of 10 sites along the Boston highway could indicate how houses were designed and built, what people ate and how commerce occurred.

Preliminary digging about one foot deep into a 40-by-20-feet L-shaped site on the Blackstone Allright parking lot has revealed a stone foundation of the three-story mattress warehouse. An elixir bottle half-filled with a yellow liquid turned up Thursday.

The deeper archaeologists go, the more artifacts they will find on the site, which housed stables, outhouses and a variety of buildings.

So far, they have found shards of Wedgewood pots, a wide-bore stem pipe, a layer of manure from a stable and other urban artifacts.

The archaeologists used computer generated overlays of a 1630 outline of the Shawmut peninsula, modern maps and utility charts to determine potential excavation sites along the multibillion-dollar Central Artery project, scheduled to be completed in 1998.

Three of the 10 sites have been excavated and the others should be completed by mid-December. Archaeologists will spend the winter analyzing timber samples and other artifacts before deciding whether a more thorough digging is needed.

Whatever they find, much more will remain hidden.

″You’re digging in a city that has continued to build upon itself since the beginning,″ said graduate student David Landon, a staff archaeologist of the project.

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