Brittle stucco fell from the entry to a two-century-old tomb beneath Old North Church. Wire mesh was removed next, then a corroded metal hinge. Finally, a carpenter pried open the heavy wooden door with a creak, and two archeologists peered into the darkness.
Slowly, a long-hidden piece of Boston history revealed itself under the harsh glare of flashlights and overhead lamps.
“Oh my God. This is amazing,” said Jane Lyden Rousseau, an expert in bones and burials who began researching the Old North crypt more than a decade ago. “Never in a million years did I think we would get to this point.”
After being closed for more than a century, the tomb was opened Tuesday for a quick structural inspection as Boston’s oldest surviving church undertakes a $900,000 project to make its crypt more accessible for visitors.
A gleaming white skull rested atop a cluster of collapsed coffins. Below, another skull lay in a nest of wood shavings. A few bones protruded from the jumbled mess, which once had been an orderly arrangement of more than a dozen coffins.
The archeologists couldn’t have been happier. Instead of speculating, they were examining first-hand one of the church’s 37 long-neglected tombs, which date from 1732 to about 1860.
This brick-lined tomb, built in 1808, had been reserved for vestry members and other church officials whose dedication to Old North earned their remains a place of respect. Their wooden coffins had been stacked for efficiency here, some on shelves, to help make room for the 1,100 bodies that were eventually interred throughout the dark, narrow crypt at Christ Church, the formal name for this Episcopal congregation.
The early signs were promising.
“It’s really in good shape back there,” said Joe Bagley, the city’s archeologist, who stuck his head and shoulders inside the tomb’s gaping entrance and marveled at what he saw. Coffins had crashed on top of one another, their pieces broken and scattered. But the interior looked remarkably preserved. Neither mold nor salt had marred or discolored much of the walls underneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling.
The artifacts showed that parishioners of many ages had been buried here —
“It’s so interesting to see a microcosm of life at that time in Boston, and also death at that time,” said Rousseau, who has worked on this project independent from her job at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
Some brickwork will have to be repaired, and the thick door — roughly 32 inches by 55 inches — will be replicated as a way to protect this and other tombs, which contain the bodies of Captain Samuel Nicholson, the first commander of the USS Constitution, and Major John Pitcairn, the commander of British marines who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The names of the dead in Tomb 12, the one opened Tuesday, are not displayed on its door. Even if they were, chances are slim that those remains are still inside.
Church records show that this tomb was “cleaned” in 1844, which means that some or all of its original remains were removed and placed elsewhere, including the church’s charnel pit, to make room for other entombments. Those new burials each came with a price, which brought more revenue to Old North’s coffers.
For the Rev. Stephen Ayres, the vicar at Old North, the crypt again has the potential to help the church. The renovations, scheduled for completion in 2019, mark the latest step in preserving and improving the church where two lanterns set Paul Revere on his famous ride in April 1775.
“This is a major overhaul,” Ayres said of the larger project, the biggest at the church since 1912. “These buildings need constant attention.”
In addition to the crypt, the interior of the church will be restored as part of an $8 million makeover to coincide with Old North’s 300th anniversary in 2023. An adjacent garden will focus on “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the 1861 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and its connection to the abolitionist movement and the looming Civil War.
The crypt already is open to visitors who purchase a “behind the scenes” tour that also takes them to the bell-ringing chamber where the lanterns launched the Revolutionary War. The renovation will provide more walking space, suck out some of the humidity, and remove overhanging pipes that can leave a bump on the heads of unwary tourists.
Down one of its narrow alleyways on Tuesday, Rousseau and Bagley began comparing observations on Tomb 12. Through it all, the archeologists and the two workers who opened the vault showed a careful respect for the dead inside. Its haphazard contents will be left as found.
“It is important that we maintain its integrity,” Rousseau said.
Even beside a bone-filled tomb, there were a few light moments. Paul Brayton of Leominster, a union laborer who helped carpenter Paul Gagnon open the tomb, said the scene called for a few stanzas of macabre music.
Even Ayres joined the fun. “If we wait a week or two, maybe we’ll have a ghost story,” the vicar quipped.
But for the most part, the mood was serious, almost solemn.
Much of the work was done in silence, and the archeologists spoke in hushed voices. One discovery conveyed what this place had once meant to thousands of long-gone Bostonians.
Deep in the tomb, almost lost in the darkness, a page from the Bible lay atop one of the coffins. The date of the page is unknown, as is the deceased, but Ayres recognized the passage immediately — Christ’s resurrection in the Gospel of Luke.
After so many years, one family had been heard again.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.