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EDITORIAL

Beyond the Freedom Trail, Boston history rocks

A bid to recognize the cultural and historical significance of a volcanic rock quarry in Mattapan once harvested by the Massachusett Tribe should get its due.

Sarah Keklak, lab manager for City of Boston Archeology Program, holds a fragment from a rhyolite tool found at a dig at the First Church in Roxbury in 2019.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

More than 600 million years ago, some of what we now call Boston was part of a chain of volcanoes whose lava flows hardened into a rock called rhyolite. The volcano chain later fused with the North American continent, and the volcanoes eroded over time into more modest landscape features like the Blue Hills and Lynn uplands. Far more recently — but still thousands of years ago — Massachusett Tribe members in the region began to quarry what remained of that beautiful volcanic rock from an outcropping in present-day Mattapan, harvesting it by hand and carving it into spears and knife tips.

Now the descendants of those Massachusett people want to see the city designate the ancient Mattapan rhyolite quarry, a 2.5-acre parcel across from the Jubilee Christian Church also known as the Babson-Cookson tract, as a city landmark. It’s a worthwhile endeavor that would recognize an unsung part of Boston’s history, while giving the Massachusett Tribe the chance to share more of their ancestors’ story with the broader public.

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Hundreds of stone tools and weapons found at archaeological sites across the Commonwealth, including nearly all the stone fragments found at a Massachusett site at First Church in Roxbury, have been traced to the quarry in Mattapan — including some dating back as far as 7,500 years ago. Known to archaeologists as Mattapan banded rhyolite, the stone varies in color from deep maroon to white or pale green striped with pinks, depending on its stage of weathering. According to oral histories of the Massachusett, rhyolite was considered highly valuable, and its dispersal to many sites suggests it was traded for other goods.

“This quarry was active before the construction of Stonehenge or the pyramids of Egypt,” said Joseph Bagley, Boston’s city archaeologist, in a Nov. 9 city Landmarks Commission hearing where he spoke as a designee of the Massachusett Tribe. If the city makes the landmark designation, the Massachusett descendants of the original quarry-harvesters would seek to help manage the site and to educate the public about its importance.

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The city will soon commission a study of the historic significance of the site, after which public comments will open. The landmark designation would elevate the city-owned quarry’s status to that of historic sites like Boston Common and the Old State House, which could create more public awareness of the role the Massachusett have played in Boston’s history. It could also help Bostonians and tourists learn a little more about the science of the ground beneath their feet. Separately, the city will determine whether to protect the tract as an “urban wild,” which would prevent it from being developed.

Boston is obsessed with its colonial and revolutionary-era history. A new landmark that surfaces both the deep geological history and the Indigenous history that predates the nation’s birth gives the city a chance to embrace a wider — and no less remarkable — view of its past. That’s why the landmarks commission, City Council, and mayor should give this piece of ancient Boston history its due.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.