HANSON – Have you heard the story about the Puritan who threw a bowling ball away in the privy?
It may seem like the set-up line for a joke, but early American outhouses are providing archaeologists with a trove of information about our cultural history. Besides unusual finds such as the 17th century bowling ball, archaeologists have found information about the shoes people wore, the toys children played with and other details lost to the changing urban landscape.
Archaeologist Joseph Bagley discussed this, and other sources of historic artifacts at the Hanson Public Library Thursday, Oct. 16 as he spoke and offered a slide presentation about his book, “A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts.” Bagley has been the archaeologist for the city of Boston since 2011 and has also worked on several excavations of native American sites from Maine to Georgia.
Copies of the book, for which he has signed over his copyright and proceeds to the Boston Landmarks Commission, were on sale at the event where he signed copies.
“Don’t think whole plates,” Bagley said in describing the type of artifact most often unearthed. “Think rusty nails, broken windows, broken dishes, animal bones – that kind of stuff.”
So it becomes clear where much of the pieces are found.
“The one thing every historical archaeologist dreams to find is … a privy,” he said. “We love them for a couple of reasons.”
They were essential sanitary requirements for urban areas before indoor plumbing and yards were smaller, so large preservation areas are not required. The excavations of the Big Dig unearthed “a ton of archaeology.” They are also deep, which allows a lot to happen at ground surface, without disburbing what may have been tossed in there – besides the obvious use – including, kitchen waste, toys, deceased pets, and much more.
The community archaeology program on which he serves depends heavily on volunteers to do its field work, as he is the only full-time staff member.
“We got rid of the barriers to our digs,” he said. “We wanted archaeology to be approachable and accessible … so people could just walk off the street, walk up to us digging, ask us what we’re doing and get involved with us.”
The most recent project on which he has worked has been a dig at the Malcolm X landmark-designated property in Roxbury, seeking information about him and his family, unearthing thousands of artifacts to learn more about the civil rights leader before he changed his name from Malcolm Little. Deeper that in the yard, they also discovered thousands more pieces dating back to the 1600-1700s.
“[That] was a bit of an annoyance because all of my research said nothing happened on this site until 1860 when that house got built,” Bagley said. “That wasn’t true, so we had to go back … and we found out we were close enough to an historic mansion of Elijah Seaver.”
He started his talk about the book with a slide of a spear point dating back to 5,500 and 7,500 years ago.
Bagley said his pet-peeve is histories of Boston that begin in 1630.
“If you made a timeline of Boston history, 1630 is in the last three feet of a 100-foot timeline,” he said. The people of the area go back at least 12,000 years.
Saugus, Ipswich and Canton have seen more findings than Boston from these early periods because of the changes made to the landscape over the last four centuries.
Bowling for Puritans
Then he came to the Puritan bowling ball.
When it was first found, it was assumed to be a newell post, but the hole gave it away. Owned by Katherine Nanny Naylor, a wealthy woman whose father the Rev. John Wheelwright and his sister Ann Hutchinson had been banned from Boston for heresy.
Katherine married a wealthy man who left her as administrator to her children’s inheritance. She also obtained the first divorce – from her second husband – on grounds of her husband’s cruelty and adultery.
“Her wealth gave her acertain privileges that other people wouldn’t have in Puritan Boston,” Bagley said. “Bowling was illegal. … The way that we’re interpreting it is that Katherine, because of her wealth and social status in the community, was able to do things that other people were not able to do.”
A toy belonging to Tory merchant Charles Apthorpe’s son Thomas – and bore the child’s name – was another valuable find. Thomas Apthorpe, later became a paymaster for British troops, fled Boston to England after Evacuation Day, March 17, 1776.
He also spoke of how dish shards and bits of Hebrew Bible pages found on the site of the African-American Meetinghouse, shed insight into how African-Americans and, later, immigrant populations assumed their place in the history of Boston during the 19th century.
Bits and pieces that may first seem insignificant can, therefore, be very valuable indeed, requiring a great deal of back-up research, Bagley said.
The scale of work
“The dig itself is the smallest component of an archaeological survey,” Bagley said. A recent 11-day dig required him to prepare for it beginning in July and he will spend the rest of the winter on his report.
That bowling ball in the privy may also lead to another book for Bagley — he is currently looking into writing about the life and times of Katherine Nanny Naylor.