Boston city archeologist Joe Bagley lay on his side in moist, brown soil underneath the crypt at Old North Church, probing a tape measure into serpentine trails burrowed by rats around a crumbling tomb.
“I’ve never dug a site in Boston that didn’t have rat burrows,” Bagley said, his mouth creasing into a small smile.
While rats may be expected in the dirt floor here, bodies are not. All of the 1,100 burials recorded in the crypt between 1732 and the Civil War were placed inside 37 vaults that line the brick walls underneath Boston’s oldest church.
But before Old North Church can begin a $600,000 project to make the crypt more accessible to the public, Bagley is leading the first archeological excavation conducted there.
The goal is to determine whether any bodies lie under the narrow walkways between the tombs — “plunked in the basement,’’ as Old North’s vicar, the Rev. Stephen Ayres, wryly put it.
An Old North sermon from the early 1800s indictated that at least one body had been placed in the ground. But so far, no bones and no graves have been found, which — in a archeological twist — is exactly what Bagley has been hoping.
“We ultimately don’t want to find anything,” Bagley said.
Instead, archeologists have discovered what could be a coffin handle, pieces of pottery, and clam shells that suggest the fill under Old North came from a Native American site.
If remains are found, state officials would be notified and the dig would stop until the bones are analyzed and investigated. Only then could work proceed on a plan to lower the crypt’s claustrophobic walkways by 18 inches as part of a larger makeover in time for Old North’s 300th anniversary in 2023.
Lowering the floor and creating more space for visitors of 21st-century height will make the crypt easier to visit, Ayres said. Air-conditioning pipes will be laid in a trough to suck out some of the moisture. And that will help the church’s ongoing mission to embrace its past as well as its future.
Better lighting, interpretive displays, and other improvements in the crypt “will add to our ability to teach about colonial Boston,” Ayres said.
The project is the latest restoration work that continues to uncover long-buried pieces of the past at the church that launched Paul Revere’s ride. Although the crypt is open for special public tours, racks of pipes that hang as low as four feet off the floor can make navigating the space a head-stooping challenge.
At the moment, “this is a classic, damp New England basement,” Ayres said.
It’s also a basement rich in history. Samuel Nicholson, the first commander of the USS Constitution, is buried in the crypt. As is Major John Pitcairn, a Scot who led the British marines at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he was mortally wounded.
As the archeologists worked, the deterioration of nearly three centuries surrounded them. Seals on tombs are disintegrating, moisture is turning bricks to powder, and white-wash is peeling from the walls.
Burials in the crypt stopped in the 1860s following an order from city officials. The North End neighborhood around the church had become increasingly crowded, and continued entombment was considered a sanitation problem.
The tombs line the exterior walls of the basement as well as an inner wall that runs down the middle of the space. Twenty to 40 coffins could be placed in each vault, but the cramped space sometimes prompted Old North officials to remove old bones to make way for freshly dead arrivals — which also, perhaps not coincidentally, meant a bump in church revenue.
The crypt even holds a Strangers Tomb, where travelers or the unknown were buried, according to Jane Rousseau, an osteologist — or specialist in human bones — who works at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
Rousseau, who surveyed the crypt about a decade ago, joined the current Old North dig and was prepared to determine whether any skeletal remains were human.
“This site is very dear to me,” Rousseau said during a brief pause in the musty, dusty, grunt work of urban archeology. “This is the history of Boston, right here.”
Bagley relies heavily on volunteers, and several of them hunched over four test pits — roughly 3 by 6 feet each. Dirt from the test pits was hauled outside to be sifted for historical bric-a-brac. Once studied, the soil was returned to the crypt.
During the labor-intensive process, volunteers such as Tufts University junior Meg Kenneally busied themselves by bending, scooping, and squinting in the dim light where candles once led the way.
Kenneally, who found the possible coffin handle, clearly enjoyed the job. She even mustered enthusiasm for the notion that “we’re establishing there’s nothing here.”
But when a glimpse of the past emerges, the rewards are that much richer.
“The moment of discovery is always awesome,” Kenneally said, clasping a small clear bag that held the handle. “People haven’t seen this for hundreds of years. Even small pieces like this can tell us so much.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.