Metro

Old North Church excavation seeks treasure in the trash

Boston, MA--6/21/2016--Retired planner Charles Deknatel (cq), center, and other volunteers, sift through dirt and other debris from the first trench. Led by Joe Bagley (cq) (not shown), Boston's city archaeologist, a group digs in the Washington Memorial Garden of the Old North Church, on June 21, 2016. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 22northchurch Reporter: Meg Bernhard

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Charles Deknatel (center) and other volunteers sifted through dirt and other debris from an archeological trench near Boston’s Old North Church.

Dishes. Bones. Bottles. Brooches.

Underneath a quiet garden at the Old North Church, archeologists and their volunteers sifted Tuesday through layers of soil to seek their own kind of treasure.

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“We want to go where the trash is,” said Joseph Bagley, Boston’s city archeologist, who is leading the excavation of a tenement housing site from a century ago.

Bagley believes immigrant families — first English, then Irish, and later Italian — occupied the small apartment buildings from the 1830s to the 1930s, when the structures were demolished to make more room for the Old North Church.

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After poring through tax and census records, Bagley said he’s not certain about the families’ socioeconomic statuses or even how many people occupied each of the 400-square foot apartments. He hopes the dig will fill in the gaps in history.

In the two days that Bagley and his team of volunteers have worked in the church’s Washington Garden, spared from the early summer heat by the shade of an old crab tree, they have uncovered hundreds of small objects, including a woman’s blue brooch and several thick animal bones, perhaps from pigs or cows.

Such items were likely discarded, Bagley said, but even food remains can tell a rich story because they may indicate what the families could afford to eat.

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The archeological survey comes ahead of the church’s planned garden renovation, part of a multimillion dollar effort to restore Boston’s oldest standing church. The archeologists are in the first step of a possible two-stage project: If their preliminary survey, which lasts until next Thursday, yields interesting items, they will, quite literally, dig deeper. Just last month, Bagley helped excavate a 19th-century shipwreck from a Seaport construction site.

For now, though, at the Old North Church, they will work slowly, centimeter by centimeter, in a small trench, collecting items and evaluating their historical value.

“Wow,” Bagley said as one of the volunteers, Cory Palmer of Jamaica Plain, brought him a medium-sized shard of cream-colored porcelain he had discovered in the trench. Brushing off residual dirt, Bagley examined its curvature and size, holding it as though it were part of a bowl.

“It looks like something I would eat salad from,” he said.

Meg Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.
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