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  • Archaeologists Find Winthrop's "Great House" in Charlestown Excavations

    William H. Schoeffler

    Published Date : April 1986
     Time came to a standstill in Charlestown on June 17, 1775.  While battle raged on nearby Bunker Hill, the British Army set fire to the town itself.  Flames swept through the heart of Charlestown and destroyed the Three Crane Tavern.  Much of the town was later rebuilt and then changed time and again, but the tavern site became City Square and has remained an open space in the city landscape ever since.  This was no ordinary site, for the tavern had originally been Governor John Winthrop’s “Great House” in 1630 and briefly served as the seat of government in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    Archaeologists recently completed a four month “dig” at the site and are now busy analyzing their discoveries.  For more than 200 years, a great store of 17th and 18th century artifacts remained undisturbed by the ravages of time and development.  Sealed beneath a thin layer of black ash that could be dated exactly, debris at the site provides excellent clues to the way people lived in colonial Charlestown, now a section of Boston. The archaeologists found definite striations in the [64] ground which allowed them to date each layer of objects, and they expect to learn how those lifestyles changed over time.

    City Square is just the second of eleven Charlestown sites of historical interest slated for excavation by the Public Archaeology Lab, Inc., of Providence, R.I., under contract to the Massachusetts Department of Public Works.  The work is an outgrowth of plans to depress Boston’s Central Artery expressway and should be completed before highway construction commences.

    Working conditions at the site last fall were difficult at best.  Noise from the swirl of 20th century urban traffic was the most pressing annoyance.  Overhead, two major expressways merge together and the roar of heavy trucks and commuter traffic was constant.  City Square itself has become little more than a busy traffic circle just across the bridge from downtown Boston.  Three feet below street level, the diggers may have been mired in the 18th century, but they were never far removed from modern distractions. Saturday night mishaps even deposited two stray autos into the site, and the pigeons were no help either.

    The City Square team has been headed by Senior Archaeologist Joan Gallagher, Principal Investigator at the site.  Much of the work has been guided by the bible of all Charlestown researchers, T.B. Wyman’s The Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown (1879), but it has also entailed searching old deeds and maps for exact property descriptions and placements of man-made features.  The groundwork paid off handsomely. Once the dig began, fenceposts lined up and stone foundations could be identified with relative precision. Locating these landmarks made it easier to find the major target, the “Great House” itself.

    At the City Square site, most of the artifacts dated from the period when the building served as a tavern, but that was not surprising.  Winthrop remained at the Great House only four months before moving to Boston, and it was soon converted into the tavern.  The most interesting discoveries came from nine trash pits and five separate privies that could be dated in almost exactly twenty-year periods that spanned an entire century.  Everything in the privies was preserved in the damp clay.  “It was a perfect anaeorbic muck,” Gallagher explained.  And the surviving items are remarkable.  Among those discovered were feathers, leather goods, peach pits, wooden plates and even a complete sewing kit with needles and thimble intact.

    Some fascinating questions arise, too.  Specialists have already been able to tell that some of the English China plates were seconds.  “They probably just shipped them to the colonists, thinking they’d buy anything,” speculates Anne Turner, the lab supervisor.  “It would be interesting to find out whether they charged full price.”  So much for colonial mercantilism.  Still, the variety of finery belies the common image of struggling rubes in the countryside.  Charlestown was clearly a cosmopolitan center, as evidenced by fine imported porcelain, Dutch tin-glazed bowls, a German chamberpot crafted in the Westerwald for British export (an identical example was found in Williamsburg), and French champagne bottles, some with the corks still in place.  There was even an exquisite French or Venetian wine goblet in among the ubiquitous broken clay smoking pipes and locally crafted bowls found in great abundance at the site. The tavern obviously served the: high and the mighty as well as regular locals.

    Each specimen sample would be bagged and labeled, giving the exact location where it was found.  Then it was taken to the lab.  During the winter months work continues inside, where every [65] bag is emptied, and the contents are meticulously sifted, washed, dried, catalogued, preserved in an acrylic stabilizer, and then prepared for detailed inspection.  The chips and shards are pieced together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, until identifiable items become evident, recreating a plate here, a bottle there. The collection is astounding and growing daily, and the information is being stored on computer.  Complete reports of the findings will be prepared and deposited with the DPW and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

    Excavation work resumes in April at the town dock and a dry dock dating from 1677.  Future excavations will investigate the extent of local pottery production at several waterfront shops.  The public is invited to visit these sites under the supervision of Site Interpreter Barbara Thibault and share in the discoveries of the archaeologists. Call her in advance at (617) 332-3290 to make arrangements.

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