Press Room

Joseph Bagley and “A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts”

by awilliams

image1Joseph Bagley, City Archaeologist of Boston, wrapped up the BPL’s spring Local and Family History Series with a discussion of his new book A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts. He treated the crowd of 100 people that filled the Central Library’s Commonwealth Salon to images of some of the artifacts highlighted in the book as well as the fascinating stories behind them.

Bagley was inspired to write A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by the volume A History of the World in 100 Objects. When writing the book, he made sure to select artifacts that represent all time periods in Boston history, not just the Revolution, and Bostonians from all walks of life. For instance, he highlights a plate found in an excavation of the 1806 African Meeting House on Beacon Hill that was part of a matched set of shell-edged pearlware – a luxury in the 19th century. It was identified as belonging to Domingo Williams, a free black man who lived below the meeting house and ran a successful business as an event caterer for Boston’s upper classes.

Other artifacts serve as a gateway into the lives of fascinating Bostonians throughout history. For example, the oldest bowling ball in North America, dating from 1660-1715, was uncovered in the North End in a privy on the property of Katherine Nanny Naylor. Though lawn bowling was illegal in Puritan society, the wealthy Nanny Naylor may have openly bowled as a sign of her elite status. Illegal bowling was just the tip of the iceberg of ignoring convention for Nanny Naylor; she was also the first woman in Massachusetts to successfully sue for divorce from her abusive husband.

Other artifacts highlighted in Bagley’s book remind readers that the history of Boston did not begin with the Puritans. A native spear point found during an archaeological survey of Boston Common dates from 5,500-7,500 years ago, making it older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids. Bagley also explored the stories behind such objects as a comb found in the Paul Revere House, a whizzer toy that belonged to the son of wealthy merchant and slave dealer Charles Apthorp, an arrowhead made from a kettle traded to native people, and a page from a Hebrew prayer book found in the walls of the African Meeting House.

Bagley concluded with an overview of the City of Boston Archaeology program, including the current work at the Malcolm X House. He emphasized that the program is truly public, as anyone is welcome to help excavate the property. During a question and answer session that followed, the audience proved eager to learn more about archaeology in Boston.

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