Preserving an historic site like the Eustis Street Fire House may be as much about what you cannot see as what you can, particularly when that building was, in 1859, inserted into one of the earliest burying grounds in the country. Special care has been taken to survey, analyze and document both the building and the site on which it sits.
Last Saturday, an enthusiastic group of volunteers turned up at the 1630 Eliot Burying Ground behind the Eustis Street Fire House in Roxbury to begin sifting through a significant pile of dirt. It was a gloriously warm and sunny spring day – a sharp contrast to the brutally cold week in December when a team of UMass archaeologists first generated the pile. The UMass team was there to create a detailed survey of land behind the building, where HBI will reconstruct an addition to the building as part of its 2010 rehabilitation of Boston’s oldest remaining fire house. Back in December, all of the soil that was excavated was stockpiled in a corner of the burying ground where it would wait until the warmer weather, so it could be sifted and examined for important small materials that might be significant to the history of the site. With spring’s arrival, City of Boston Archaeologist Ellen Berkland rounded up archaeology students and history enthusiasts to scour the dirt pile in search of artifacts.
An “artifact,” a rather lofty sounding term, is defined by archaeologists as “any material that was made, modified, utilized or transported by past human behavior.” In truth, the items that the archaeologists plucked from the dirt pile, then bagged and brought to the City archaeology lab, might appear to the average person as nothing more than trash (if they were noticed at all). But with the expert eye of Ellen Berkland, these tidbits can piece together stories of the everyday lives of those who lived and worked in this corner of Roxbury hundreds of years ago, not to mention some evidence of those who lived along our coast long before Europeans arrived.(Europeans settled this site in 1630, but Native Americans lived here for many years before. We will revisit this topic in future blog posts- check back often!)
For a fascinating example of what artifacts can reveal, read about what Big Dig archaeologists learned about the life of colonial Bostonian Katherine Nanny Naylor – all from examining the contents of her privy!
Many thanks to Ellen Berkland and her volunteers for donating their sunny Saturday to helping HBI complete this important work.