Massachusetts Bay


Native Americans have lived in the area we now know as Boston for approximately 12,000 years. They came to this region from the west or south at a time when the environment looked very different than it does today. Icy glaciers that still covered much of Canada were slowly receding northward, leaving a landscape that resembled a treeless arctic tundra. The lives of the Native Americans were closely tied to the environment, and survival required an extensive knowledge of the land and what it could provide. Over the course of these 12,000 years, a slow but steady warming of the environment attracted new species of plants and animals to the Northeast. As a result generations of Native Americans witnessed a dramatic change in the climate, environment, and the shape of the land.

Native Americans maintained an intimate knowledge of the upland, riverine, or estuarine environments that they inhabited. The tidal bays and estuaries, where fresh water from rivers and streams mixed with ocean water, created a habitat rich in animal and plant life. Fish came here to spawn, and shellfish established themselves on muddy flats. Native Americans developed an efficient lifestyle based on harvesting these natural resources as early as the Archaic Period (around 8,000 to 7,000 years ago). Native people exploited the bounty of each season and developed a complex assortment of tools to suit all needs.

The majority of Native American sites identified by archaeologists are near bodies of water where an abundance of food and other resources were present. The shores of the Charles River and its estuaries and the islands that dot Boston’s harbor were home to the ancestors of the modern Massachusett people. The Central Artery Project provided archaeologists with several opportunities to learn more about the Native Americans who lived along the New England coast long before Europeans even knew of the existence of the New World.

Massachusetts’ Changing Coast

Archaeologists excavate the shell midden on Spectacle Island.

Construction of the Ted Williams Tunnel meant finding a suitable location to deposit the 3.6 million cubic yards of clay and dirt that was excavated for the tunnel. Engineers for the Central Artery project chose Spectacle Island. Archaeologists surveyed the island before the fill was deposited and discovered a Native American shell midden. To understand the site, however, it is important to understand how Boston’s Harbor Islands and the Massachusetts coastline came to exist in their current forms.

The landscape around us is always changing. Over the past 350 years, Bostonians have flattened hills and filled wetlands, but events on a much larger scale are also at work. The familiar coast of Massachusetts was slowly carved over 10,000 years by rising ocean waters. Throughout the course of the Earth’s history the average temperature has fluctuated dramatically. During cold periods, tremendous amounts of ocean water froze into glaciers, large sheets of ice that once covered as much as a third of the Earth’s land. With much of the Earth’s water tied up in glaciers, the oceans were smaller and shorelines much farther away than they are today. At the peak of the last ice age (about 18,000 years ago) the future Cape Cod contained no oceanfront property, and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were part of the mainland.

As the most recent ice age came to an end, the ice sheets covering New England began to melt and recede. The melting ice returned water to the oceans causing a slow but steady rise in sea level that continued until about 2,000 years ago. The rising ocean slowly submerged lower elevations while higher elevations remained as small islands of dry land. This map illustrates the shaping of Massachusetts’ shoreline over the last 10,000 years. It is difficult to imagine that until about 5,000 years ago, all of Boston Harbor was dry land, and its islands were grass and forest-covered hills.

The earliest archaeological evidence of Native American life in this region is about 10,000 to 12,000 years old. The gradual changes in climate and sea level that shaped the coast would have been barely noticeable to individuals or single generations of Native Americans. But understanding the environment is critical to understanding how people adapted during different periods of history. Archaeologists divide the evidence of occupation into several periods. During the period when we find the earliest archaeological evidence of Native life, the coast was more than 11 miles east of where it is today, and what were once low hills are now the islands of Boston Harbor.

Massachusetts Bay

The islands in Massachusetts Bay, and the areas we now call Charlestown and Boston have been home to Native Americans for thousands of years. At different times of the year, families and even whole villages would move to various parts of the harbor area to gather and hunt different foods and supplies and to meet with family and friends. The Archaeology of the Central Artery Project provided glimpses into the daily lives of New England’s original settlers.

There are a number of tools, toys, and jewelry from the area surrounding Massachusetts Bay. They show the variety of activities in the daily life of Native Americans as they moved through their seasonal rounds. There are woodworking tools, many of which may have been used to build dugout canoes. The Native Americans used projectile points (spear and arrow heads) in hunting wild game (deer, game birds, and harbor seal, for example). They fished with nets and lines, as shown with the net weights and plummets.

The Native Americans of the Massachusetts Bay had trading networks that stretched beyond New England. Not only was some of the stone used to make projectile points traded from the Hudson River in New York, the copper used for some of the beads may have come from as far away as the Great Lakes region.

Projectile Points

Side-notched point. Stone, Chipped. Hull, MA Projectile points. Stone, Chipped. Charlestown, MA. From left to right: Small stemmed, Squibnocket triangle, Meadowood, Stemmed

“Projectile point” is a general name given to all spear and arrow heads. Native Americans made projectile points in different styles through the years, and archaeologists have named many of these different styles. “Squibnocket” points, for example, are among the points that were made from 3,000–5,000 years ago, while “Meadowood” points date to 2,000–3,000 years ago.

Woodworking Tools

Celt (wood working tool). Stone, Ground. Hull, MA Adze (wood working tool). Stone, Ground. Hull, MA Gouge. Stone, Ground. Hull, MA Drills. Stone, Chipped. Hull, MA.

These woodworking tools form part of the toolkit needed to make dugout canoes. Native Americans made drills by carefully chipping away the stone to create a pointed, sharp-edged tool. The adze, celt, and gouge were all made by grinding and polishing the stone into the desired shape.


Beads. Bone (fish vertebrae fragments), Perforated. Grape Island. Beads. Colored glass on reproduction trade card, Europe. Beads Copper,Rolled. Charlestown, MA Bead. Copper, Hammered and wrapped. Calf Island. Beads. Bone (fish vertebrae), Drilled. Calf Island Bead. Bone (bird), Cut and ground. Calf Island.

In addition to jewelry, Native Americans used beads to decorate clothing. Notice the variety of materials and shapes that Native American beads take. The card of European glass beads is a modern reproduction of the kinds of beads used in trading in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Worked fragment. Bone (bird), Cut. Calf Island. Tool, ornament, or toy? Bone (deer astragalus), Cut. Calf Island. Tool or gaming piece?  Stone, Perforated and ground. Calf Island.

Sometimes archaeologists just aren’t sure how an artifact was used by its makers. These three items do not have obvious functions, although their materials and shapes lead the archaeologists to make these educated guesses.

Fishing Equipment

Net weight. Stone. Ground surface and groove. Calf Island. Plummets (fishing line weight). Stone, Ground. Hull and George Island.

Fish were an important part of the Native American diet. Plummets were fishing-line sinkers and the net weights hung from fishing nets.

Other Chipped Tools

End scraper. Stone, Chipped. Long Island. Biface fragments. Stone, Chipped. Hull, MA

Native Americans chipped stone to create many tools, not just projectile points. This end scraper may have been used to clean hides or process plants. The biface fragments had sharp cutting edges useful for many daily tasks.

Fish Weirs and Other Food

Fish Weir

Native Americans used different fishing strategies depending on the desired catch. Nets, baited hooks, spears, and arrows worked well for catching fish such as flounder, skate, and dogfish close to shore, while nets and spears were used for larger fish such as cod, striped bass, and sturgeon caught from canoes. Strong nets equipped with stone weights could hold large sturgeon that could grow to 8 feet or more in length! Native Americans also built weirs to capture schooling fish such as alewife and mackerel. Weirs were complex sets of stakes pushed into tidal mud flats. Fish became trapped within the wooden mesh as each tide receded. In the spring when many fish including alewives, shad, and salmon headed upstream to spawn, people moved their settlements temporarily to rocky waterfalls where the fish could be easily netted or speared.

Early residents also enjoyed larger sea mammals including seals and especially prized beached whales. In fact, Native Americans sometimes reserved the right to harvest beached whales on land they had sold to Europeans. Clams, quahogs, mussels, whelk, and oysters could be harvested when they washed ashore in storms or by diving, netting, and digging at low tide. Lobsters and crabs were caught in the same way.

Native Americans enjoyed more than just seafood. A variety of land mammals including deer and birds were plentiful, especially during their fall and spring migrations. Wild plants from both marshes and dry ground made up a substantial portion of the diet. Gathering wild berries, nuts, roots, and greens for both food and medicinal purposes was popular.

Native Americans may have encouraged the growth of edible plants as early as the Archaic Period (10,000 to 3,000 years ago), but it was during the Woodland Period (3,000 to 450 years ago) that the practice of weeding and purposeful selection of seeds for planting developed into full-fledged agriculture. The growing season is short in the Northeast and only after 1000 A..D. were crops available that could be easily cultivated in this climate and still provide high yields of edible parts. Initially, squash, gourds, and wild plants that produced edible seeds were favored. By the later Woodland maize (corn) and beans had joined other species and actually came to dominate cultivated plants in some areas.

Little evidence remains of the Native Americans who lived for many millennia in the Boston area. This lack is due primarily to extensive alteration of the landscape that has occurred over the past 350 years. Only those remains that lay deeply buried below Boston could possibly survive such dramatic changes to the environment. It was exactly this kind of evidence that came to light nearly a century ago and continues to be found at deep construction sites even today.

In 1913, workers digging the tunnel for the new subway 30 feet under Boylston Street found numerous small tree branches that had been sharpened on one end and set in the ground, with more branches woven between some of the stakes. Additional construction in the 1940s revealed more of the fish weirs. Although the bay had been filled in by natural processes and by purposeful land filling in the 19th century, the arrangement of stakes was recognized as belonging to a series of fish weirs built by Native Americans around 4,000 years ago.

Fish Weir Stake

Many people ask why this fish weir stake (photo at right) is encased in plastic. The stake was recovered in the 1940s and encased in plastic soon after. At the time, that procedure was considered the state of the art in wood conservation. Over time, you can see that the plastic has cracked slightly, probably because the wood is expanding or releasing gases. Wooden artifacts are no longer treated in this fashion. Archaeologists and conservators have developed new, more effective ways to preserve wood in the 70 years since the stake was found. 

Charlestown’s Water Street Site

Excavations at the Water Street Site in Charlestown.

Archaeologists working near the Bunker Hill Visitors Center in 1982 made a startling discovery. Buried beneath 5 feet of historic-period soil deposits was a soil layer containing hearths, filled earthen pits, and objects left by Native peoples between 1,200 and 5,000 years ago. Subsequent excavation below the fill identified three separate, short-term occupations. This find was significant because it spanned a time when many new developments were taking place. These included a growing dependence on plant foods in the diet, and the expansion of long distance trade routes. The discovery was also unique because most Pre-Contact sites in urban settings have been destroyed by historic-period activities such as the digging of building foundations and utility trenches.

Although only small portions of a much larger living site were found, archaeologists identified a range of activities that were performed by the Late Archaic inhabitants. These included stone tool manufacture using locally available green argillite, and hunting that was indicated by the presence of projectile points. Different forms of chipped stone tools and pottery fragments found in other portions of the site signaled two later occupations dating to the Early Woodland Period. Finely worked edges on many of the stone flake tools suggested that something relatively soft, such as plant fibers or fish was being processed on the shores of the Charles River. In fact, it was probably such resources that initially attracted people to the area.

Spectacle Island Shell Middens

Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island, which is part of the Boston Harbor Islands Archaeological District, was surveyed by archaeologists after Central Artery engineers decided to deposit there the 3.6 million cubic yards of dirt removed during excavation for the Ted Williams Tunnel. The fresh soil prepared the way for the establishment of a public park. The archaeological survey discovered several well-preserved shell middens on the island’s southern coast.

A shell midden is a trash pile made up primarily of shellfish remains that have been deposited in one place over a long period of time. Shellfish such as clams and oysters were an important part of the diet of the Native inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay. Shell middens represent a convenient dumping place for shells after the meat was removed for eating or for preserving.

Spectacale Island shell midden

Shell middens are a valuable source of information because of their exceptional preservation. When shell decays it causes a chemical change in the soil that helps preserve all of the other things dropped on the ground with the shell.  Food remains, artifacts used to gather and prepare food, and tools are preserved in shell middens. Bone spear points, harpoons, fish hooks, and other bone artifacts preserved in shell middens allow archaeologists to learn how Native Americans hunted and trapped different kinds of animals. The bones that were left over and thrown away along with the shells allow archaeologists to figure out what kinds of foods they ate the most.

Native Americans did not live in settled villages all year round until relatively recently. Their way of life was closely tied to the changing seasons and the food resources that were available during each. This required moving on a seasonal basis to hunting grounds, fishing grounds, or areas where plant foods could be grown. Temporary camps were easily established by transporting house frames to other locations. Traveling to the harbor islands to collect certain resources was probably part of this seasonal round.

Sturgeon (fish) bones Cod fish bones. Vertebrae (spine) fragments. Spectacle Island, MA. Harbor seal bone. Phalanx epiphysis (flipper) fragment. Spectacle Island, MA.

The animal bones found in shell middens help archaeologists to determine when Native Americans visited Spectacle Island. Atlantic Cod normally inhabit offshore waters, but come closer to the coast in the late fall to spawn. The prevalence of cod bones in the Spectacle Island midden suggests the site was occupied during the fall. Supporting this theory is the presence of migratory bird species, namely ducks and geese, that would also have been plentiful in the late fall or early spring. Additional evidence of seasonal use of the island comes from the only plant food remains found in the midden: charred hickory nut shells. It is unclear whether hickory nuts grew on the island or were brought over from the mainland, but the fact that these were generally collected in the fall supports the hypothesis of seasonal occupation. From the above combination of findings, archaeologists were able to conclude that during the Middle and Late Woodland periods (about 0–1600 A.D. or 2000–400 years ago), small groups of Native Americans made trips in the late fall and/or early spring to gather food, primarily fish, shellfish, and wild fowl. Some of these foods were undoubtedly consumed on the island, but some may also have been dried and transported to the mainland for use during the winter.

Spectacle Island shell Midden excavation

A study of left over food scraps provides archaeologists the rare opportunity to learn what kinds of foods the people who created the trash midden consumed. This knowledge, in turn, can reveal a great deal about the general health of a population and even provide insights into how they spent much of their time.

Mollusk shells reveal preference or availability of certain species such as softshell clam, quahog, mussels, or oysters. Because each species lives in a different setting the presence of one or more type reveals information about the local environment such as the presence of tidal flats where some shellfish grow. Employing mathematical formulas that use shell counts, measurements, and weights, archaeologists were able to estimate that over a period of perhaps six centuries, a yearly average of 24 to 26 pounds of shellfish meat were harvested from the Spectacle Island shore.

Mixed with the shells were bones of raccoons, deer, a variety of birds, and fish. The mammals may have lived on the island or were brought from the mainland to be eaten during shellfish harvesting. Birds consisted mainly of geese and ducks, but also included sea birds such as cormorants and gulls and even turkey and possibly crow. The greatest proportion of bones, however, was from fish. The dominant species was cod, followed by flounders, wrasse, sturgeon, alewife, and bluefish.

Native American Women

For many years archaeologists interpreted most Native American sites as the result of activities performed by men. Recently, however, interpretations have shifted to focus on the contributions of both women and men.

Stone tools are among the more common artifacts found on Native American archaeological sites. Studies in cultures where stone tools are still used have revealed that many activities long thought to be men’s work were actually shared by the sexes. Many others were carried out by women alone. In fact, women in many cultures have been found to contribute as much, if not more, food to the diet as men. In addition, microscopic studies of the cutting or grinding edges of stone tools have revealed that many tools were used for cutting and working plant fibers for both food and crafts, scraping animal hides to make clothing, and grinding various plant parts and other substances used for food, medicine, and pigment. All of these tasks are performed traditionally by women.

Firsthand accounts written by European explorers and colonists support the critical role that women played in Native American society. According to William Wood, who lived in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 1630s, Native women, often accompanied by children, worked almost constantly.

William Wood visited New England between 1629 and 1633. He reported these tasks among Native American women’s regular tasks. Most tasks were done while carrying children at the same time.

Along the shore and in estuaries:

Collect clams, cockles, and lobsters
Jig for fish through the ice

In the garden:

Plant, gather, and dry corn and other plant grains
Plant other vegetables and weed gardens

On the land:

Gather wild plant foods such as berries and nuts
Gather plants for their fibers

On the path:

Carry food including the fish and game men catch
Carry house frames and coverings to new settlements
Carry water

At home:

Prepare, cook, and serve meals
Dry meat
Dig underground storage pits
Store dried foods in underground pits
Make mats and baskets
Make dyes and decorate objects (baskets, etc.)
Make and fire clay pots (not specifically mentioned)
Make shoes and clothing
Build and maintain houses
Disassemble houses
Make fish nets

Native women also served as important and powerful political leaders. The Northeast was divided into numerous communities, each of which was governed by a political leader called a sachem. The position usually was inherited by boys from their fathers, but it could also be assigned by other sachems or achieved through marriage to one already holding the position. For a sachem to remain in power, he or she had to govern wisely and protect the community. Sachems set themselves off from other members of the community by their ability to resolve conflicts and their great skill at giving speeches to large audiences. After the arrival of Europeans, sachems took on new roles in negotiating treaties and land purchases. They often could be identified by certain body postures when in public, as well as high status clothes, hair style, and body decoration. Fathers usually passed this position to their eldest son, but occasionally women, too, became sachems.

Squaw SachemAt least one female sachem is recorded in Massachusetts Bay. Her name is not known but she is referred to as Squaw Sachem or Sachem of Mystic. What little is known about her comes from brief entries in the early Cambridge town record book. When her sachem husband, Nanepashemet was killed in 1619, she assumed his title and the responsibility of governing the people occupying a large territory north of the Charles River. She lived in Cambridge or Charlestown and had two sons who also became sachems. She and her children formed good relations with the colonists and deeded various portions of land to them. Squaw Sachem’s status must have been considerable not only among the Native community, but also among the colonial elites, since her complaints about simple offenses were clearly taken seriously by town officials.

Pottery Production

Pottery made from local clay and hardened by baking in a fire began to be produced and used in the Northeast between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago. Fragments found in archaeological sites suggest its use was fairly minimal until around 2,000 years ago when pots came into regular use. Women are believed to be the traditional producers of ceramic wares in the Northeast. The earliest pottery is thick, heavy, and has minimal decoration. Vessel shapes closely resemble basketry made at the same time. During the course of the Woodland Period, these characteristics changed to include thinner, lighter walls and a greater variety of shapes. In addition, the kinds of decoration on pot surfaces also changed. Early decorations were created by wooden paddles that were wrapped with twine and then pressed into the moist surface of a pot. Other decorations were produced by poking, cutting, scraping, or rolling carefully shaped objects into or across the pot’s surface.

Pottery body fragments. Shell-tempered earthenware. Spectacle Island, MA. Pottery rim fragment. Earthenware with crushed ceramic temper, Incised decoration. Spectacle Island, MA. Pottery fragment. Shell-tempered earthenware, decorated with impressed cord-wrapped stick. Fire soot on surface. Long Island.

Just as decorative styles of clothing or automobiles change over time today, certain decorations and shapes of Native American pottery have been found to change as well. Pottery fragments therefore serve as important tools to help assign Native American archaeological sites to particular periods of occupation. While the mere presence of pottery fragments suggests that cooking or storage activities took place at particular sites, the scientific analysis of residues on the interior surface of pots can sometimes reveal what food was cooked or heated in a pot. Study of fragments from a site in Maine, for example, found that a pot had been used to boil nuts, possibly to remove the oil.


The Native women of Massachusetts Bay used the coil method to make their pottery. They would prepare a strip of rolled clay resembling a snake and wrap the coil around and around, piling the coil on top of itself to build the wall of the pot. They smoothed the sides of the pot with their fingers or with a smooth paddle. Decoration was added to the outside by pressing objects into the drying clay.