The Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) is the office of the State Archaeologist and the state’s archaeological curation facility which maintains and cares for state-owned archaeological collections. The MHC’s Archaeological Exhibit Online features images of artifacts, illustrations, and site summaries of some of the most significant archaeological excavations conducted in Massachusetts.

Archaeology: An Adventure in Anthropology, History, and Science

Archaeology. The word brings to mind all sorts of romantic images, but in fact archaeology is a very modern scientific discipline. Archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology. Anthropologists study human culture. Archaeologists do too, but they focus on people who lived in the past. Archaeologists study the artifacts and materials people leave behind. Because archaeologists study things rather than written history, they can study the whole range of human activity from the first members of our species, to the first civilizations, right on up to the modern period.

Archaeologists are not interested in simply finding interesting or pretty objects. Instead they excavate sites to answer difficult questions about the intangible aspects of human life. Archaeologists want to understand how people lived in the past. How did people provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families? What types of religions were practiced? How was a society organized? Why did people settle in a particular place? What was the political situation? These questions can’t be answered just by looking at an artifact. In fact, excavation is only a small part of archaeology and is sometimes not even necessary to study an archaeological site. And since excavating a site destroys it forever, archaeologists are obliged to collect every bit of data they possibly can so that future scholars and students can benefit from the excavations.

Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Central Artery Project

It may seem surprising that archaeology was a component of the Central Artery Project. In fact, all federally funded construction projects must consider the effects they may have on historic properties and archaeological sites in compliance with federal laws and regulations. The Central Artery passes through several historic Boston neighborhoods and in a few places significant archaeological sites were discovered during archaeological investigations that were conducted well in advance of highway construction. That is how the Central Artery turned out to be a “highway to the past” as well as to the future.

In order to preserve the remains of these neighborhoods for future generations to study and enjoy, archaeologists excavated several significant sites. As archaeologists removed the layers of soil, they revealed more than 7,000 years of Boston’s prehistory and history. The sites document the daily routine to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the family, as well as the effort to find a little time for rest and recreation. Whether the excavations evoke images of Native Americans spending a fall afternoon on Spectacle Island, a tavern keeper in Charlestown, a single woman making a living at home while raising her children, or a Puritan learning to bowl, each story provides a fascinating glimpse into the past. Through archaeology these unwritten stories come to life.

The Central Artery project included replacing the elevated Southeast Expressway (I-93) with a wider underground tunnel (the O’Neill Tunnel) and constructing a third tunnel (the Ted Williams Tunnel) under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport. The Central Artery is one of the most modern highway systems in the world, but in the archaeological sense it is a “Highway to the Past.”

The archaeological sites excavated prior to the construction of the Central Artery project that are featured at this website include: the Massachusetts Bay Sites in and around Boston Harbor, the Cross Street Backlot Site in Boston’s North End, the Three Cranes Tavern Site in Charlestown, the Paddy’s Alley Site in Boston’s North End, the Parker-Harris Pottery Site in Charlestown, and the Mill Pond Site in Boston’s North End.