`Big Dig' artifacts could be homeless when grant ends

Bits of Boston history unearthed, but money for conservation lacking

May 04, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The biggest public-works project in the country's history produced a treasure trove of artifacts from Boston's past. But now that the Big Dig is nearly dug, more than 1 million pieces of pottery, millstones, clothing, and cutlery that have been unearthed, cleaned and cataloged face an uncertain future.

Stored in 1,246 boxes in Boston neighborhoods, a North End basement and at the state archives in Dorchester, these broken remnants of the city's history are largely obscured from public view and have no dedicated funding for continuous conservation. What state archaeologist Brona Simon calls the most important collection of historical artifacts ever unearthed in Boston is headed toward crisis.

Once a $300,000 federal grant dries up in two years, she said, "we'll be seriously challenged to find ways to continue the conservation and curation we need to do."

`Deep pockets' needed

Added Ellen Berkland, city archaeologist, "I need someone with real big pockets."

Those who aren't archaeologists might look at much of what has been uncovered and see, well, debris. The significance of conservation for pieces and splinters of centuries-old artifacts is often lost on members of the public whose historical attention is usually focused on more easily understood icons such as Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House, and the "living history" sites of Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village.

But archaeologists say this debris tells the tale of everyday life in old Boston. These thousands of fragile items that must be carefully preserved, or else will deteriorate, are a Rosetta Stone for historians.

"The archaeology for the Big Dig was probably the largest archaeological project ever conducted in Massachusetts," Simon said. "But the actual discoveries - the sites and their contents - were even more significant because, for the most part, they predated the Revolutionary War.

"The farther back you go in time, the fewer written documents exist to describe what life was like. We really got an intimate look at the lives of many colonists and Native Americans."

Among the most important finds was a Colonial privy on the North End property of Katherine Nanny Naylor, a wealthy Bostonian who died in 1716 at age 86. Sealed by clay, the remains of her outhouse contained degradable items such as lace, food, and insects.

Preserved in water

The geology of Boston has proved to be both a boon and a bane for Big Dig archaeologists. The underground water at many construction sites helped preserve organic items such as metal, wood and fabric that generally are destroyed by acidity in soil, Simon said.

Now that these artifacts have been brought to the surface, they must be protected if they are to survive.

"The significance of these discoveries is enormous," Simon said. "These are objects that tend not to have survived through the centuries, unlike heirlooms or antiques. These are artifacts that are not on the (PBS program) Antiques Road Show."

The $300,000 grant, to be received after the new fiscal year begins July 1, will help pay for the next round of conservation for Big Dig artifacts. Until now, the federal requirements for the construction project mandated that significant archaeological finds be excavated.

But after the latest conservation funding is spent, the prospect of additional revenue is ambiguous at best, Simon said.

"Curation of important archaeological collections is our profession's biggest challenge right now because funding sources are not dedicated for that long-term commitment," Simon said.

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