Boston’s City Archaeology Program, established in 1983, was one of the first such departments in the country. Maybe you’ve heard of the excavation that was beginning around that time? It was called the Big Dig.
Joe Bagley is the fourth person to serve as Boston’s city archeologist. In December, he will celebrate his 10th year in the position. In 2016 Bagley published his first book, “A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts.” Inspired by “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” a best-selling brick of a book written by the director of the British Museum, Bagley dug up various tokens of Boston’s rich history, from cannonballs to fine china.
For his second book, out this week (April 24), Bagley set his sights not down into the ground, but up toward the sky. “Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them” documents the city’s antiquated Top 50, from Dorchester’s Blake House, built in 1661, to Charlestown’s Salem Turnpike Hotel, built around 1794.
Why would the city archeologist, charged with unearthing buried treasures, devote so much of his research to architecture? It’s simple, Bagley says as he strolls downtown, past several of the city’s best-known “olds,” from the Old State House to the Old South Meeting House: If the city loses its oldest buildings, he could run out of places to dig.
Standing on the sidewalk across from the Old Corner Bookstore, Bagley is asked whether it bothers him that a burrito chain currently occupies the ground floor.
Not at all, he says. The building has housed all kinds of businesses over the years, including a cigar shop, a barbershop, and an apothecary. Five decades or so ago an unsightly billboard towered over the building.
In a city as dynamic as Boston, change is constant. Frankly, Bagley says, if the latest tenant is a takeout restaurant, the building is still useful to the community.
“This is a city. We have to fit more people over time. If there are creative ways to reuse these buildings, then they can hang around a little longer.”
Visitors come from far and wide, of course, to tour Boston’s famous civic and residential properties. They shuffle through the North End’s Paul Revere House (circa 1680), one of the country’s oldest-operating house museums, and quaff the Guinness at Charlestown’s Warren Tavern (1780).
But Bagley, a Maine native, relishes the opportunity to shine a little light on some less-famous monuments to Boston’s nearly 400-year history. For a time, he and his wife, Jen, served as caretakers of Dorchester’s William Clapp House. Built in 1806, it doesn’t quite qualify for the oldies list. But the Clapp House does headquarter the Dorchester Historical Society.
“This book is definitely meant to get people out to find them all,” he says.
Earl Taylor is president of the Dorchester Historical Society, which will host one of several online events Bagley has planned for the rollout of his book in May and beyond. Taylor takes pride in the living history that surrounds his neighborhood. Dorchester, he points out, was settled “about three months prior to Boston.”
When Bagley lived in the Clapp House, Taylor says, he found some scribbling on the timbers in the attic — “what we call ‘graffiti.’ He was able to decipher some of it for us.” Archeology, Taylor says, “is not just in the ground.”
All the proceeds for Bagley’s new book will benefit Boston’s Landmarks Commission, just as the earnings for his first book went to his own archeology program.
“We’re not allowed to moonlight,” he explains. (He does, however, spend his free time creating incredibly intricate hand-cut paper art.)
The archeology position, Bagley says, is his dream job.
“I’ve never had to tell anyone why there’s a city archeology department,” he says. In Boston, where history is around every corner, “everyone just gets it. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
“Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them,” by Joseph M. Bagley, Brandeis University Press, $28.95.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.