Boston’s city archeologist cupped a shard of a ceramic bowl in his soil-smudged palm, gazing at its delicately traced image of a yellow daisy. Created in northern Italy and brought to the New World, the artifact likely dates from before 1650.
“This is a little intimidating,” archeologist Joe Bagley said as he handled the pottery with care. “As far as we know, this is the oldest piece of European ceramic ever found in Boston.”
The remarkable discovery, made near the Paul Revere House in the North End, delighted Bagley, who has dug up tens of thousands of artifacts from beneath Boston’s streets and homes.
Not only does it harken back to the city’s earliest days, its craftsmanship indicates that this 17th-century household was not shy about acquiring wealth, even in Puritan Boston.
“This family was not poor,” Bagley said recently, standing beside the small hole where the fragment was unearthed.
The pottery, along with other remnants of high-end living, apparently was discarded by the family of John Jeffs, a mariner whose Atlantic trade enabled him to buy a house and two acres in 1656 in the crowded heart of Boston’s original downtown.
Bagley found richly decorated bits of expensive Italian glass, animal bones that indicate an upscale diet, and a clasp from a woman's bodice.
“They’ve got glassware that would make Liberace blush,” Bagley said.
The home’s adornments might have made the neighbors blush, too. Famed Puritan ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, whose decades of influence overlapped with the Salem Witch Trials, lived next to Jeffs on the present-day site of the Paul Revere House, Bagley said.
The excavation was a precursor to improvements planned for the grounds of the Paul Revere House and adjacent buildings. Under state law, sites of potential archeological importance must be explored before new construction can begin.
Bagley expected to find a trove of 19th-century artifacts underneath the bricks behind the Pierce-Hichborn House, a museum on the Paul Revere campus that dates to 1711. The North End of the mid-1800s teemed with immigrants, many of them Irish, and the remains of their day-to-day lives are never far from the surface.
What Bagley did not anticipate was a window into Boston as it existed nearly two centuries earlier.
“This is exciting, not just for people who think about Boston, but for everybody,” said Nina Zannieri, executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, which owns the Revere house and adjoining site in North Square.
Bagley said the find represents the first time in 25 years, since the Big Dig cut a swath through downtown, that a large number of 17th-century artifacts have been discovered in Boston. Nearly 400 years of development in such a compact area has obliterated much of the subterranean evidence of the city’s infancy.
But as Bagley dug, he came upon a soft layer of dark, undisturbed soil with plenty of charcoal, possibly used as fill after a fire in 1676 destroyed many surrounding homes. To his delight, all of the artifacts could be traced to the 17th century, including the large piece of Italian ceramic.
“It was terrifying to me to see something this big and not know what it is,” Bagley said.
Puzzled, he consulted archeologists who had studied the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, which dates to 1607, in the hope that they might recognize what he had found. The outreach paid off. The ceramic bowl was linked to a type — known as “sgraffito” — produced in the Pisa region of Italy, possibly between 1630 and 1640.
“It’s so rare to see these things,” Bagley said.
Perhaps not all that rare among well-to-do residents of mid-17th-century Boston, even for neighbors of the Mathers. Bagley said that families able to afford small luxuries could choose from imports made in faraway countries such as England, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany. As a growing port, Boston in the 1600s looked toward the vast sea for commerce, not in the opposite direction toward the American wilderness.
Zannieri, who oversees the Paul Revere site, said such artifacts bring history to life.
“It always makes me sad when people don’t encounter the kind of history that makes it interesting,” she said.
Behind her, volunteers sifted through dirt they had carried a few feet from the hole. They searched methodically and meticulously, adding ever more discoveries to a collection that could surpass 10,000 objects, each of which will be examined at the city’s archeology lab in West Roxbury.
Matt Delvaux, a 33-year-old doctoral student at Boston College, was among the volunteers. His interest is medieval history, and the opportunity to get his hands dirty outside the Paul Revere House was too good to pass up.
“It’s hard to get out to a medieval dig in Boston,” Delvaux said with a laugh. A Colonial dig was the next best thing, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
“I get really excited about the personal stories,” Delvaux said.
The previous day, he had found the bodice clasp that so interested Bagley. The metal hook is tiny, unused for more than 300 years, but Delvaux saw in its rusted form a hint of a tale from Boston’s distant Colonial past.
“They lost this thing,” Delvaux said, marveling at the thought. “And now I’ve found it.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.