Archaeology of the Central Artery Project: Highway to the Past

Big Dig Book cover imageHighway to the Past:
The Archaeology of Boston's Big Dig (PDF)


A publication that captures the history and character of a number of archaeological sites that were excavated by archaeologists before construction started on Boston's Big Dig. Printed copies are available upon request by contacting MHC.


Boston's Big Dig is the largest federally funded highway construction project in the United States. The project includes replacing the existing Central Artery Viaduct (I-93) with a wider underground tunnel and constructing a third tunnel across Boston Harbor to Logan Airport. When completed, the Central Artery will be one of the most modern highway systems in the world, but in the archaeological sense it is a "Highway to the Past." Under the umbrella of the 'Big Dig' we also include the Central Artery North Area which is the area around City Square in Charlestown. This project was undertaken before the downtown portions of the Big Dig began.

It may seem surprising that archaeology is a component of the Big Dig. In fact, all federally sponsored construction projects must consider the effects they may have on archaeological sites. The Central Artery passes through several Boston neighborhoods and in a few places significant archaeological sites were in its path. 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 in Charlestown, the North End, South Boston and on Spectacle Island document the daily struggle 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 Puritan learning to bowl, or a glass blower toiling in front of a hot furnace, each story provides a fascinating glimpse into the past. Through archaeology these unwritten stories come to life.

The artifacts from the Big Dig are not currently on display. An on-line exhibit on the archaeology of the Big Dig will be available in the future. A brief summary of some of the finds, based on an exhibit that was at the Commonwealth Museum from 1999 through 2007, can be viewed here:

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