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Pieces of history unearthed in archeological dig at First Church in Roxbury

Volunteers Judy Macioci and Charlie Deknatel sifted through soil at the dig site in Roxbury.
Volunteers Judy Macioci and Charlie Deknatel sifted through soil at the dig site in Roxbury.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

A 19th-century slate pencil and a 17th-century nail are among artifacts that have been unearthed this month from the grounds of the First Church in Roxbury.

The archeological dig began April 8 and work will continue into May, according to Joe Bagley, the city archeologist.

The First Church in Roxbury has sat on a grassy knoll overlooking John Eliot Square since 1632. The existing building, which dates back to 1804, is the fifth meetinghouse that was built there, according to its website.

Bagley and his team have been searching for evidence of the earlier meetinghouses that occupied the site and looking for signs of Native American life. Bagley hopes to find fragments of stone tools that were used by a Native American tribe called the Massachuset.

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“If we do, they will help us date the site,” he said.

The team has unearthed several stone flakes, which show that stone tools were made there many generations ago.

Sarah Keklak (left), lab manager for the city’s archeology program, makes notes while the dig team worked.
Sarah Keklak (left), lab manager for the city’s archeology program, makes notes while the dig team worked.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

On April 16, Bagley and his team shared a photo on Instagram of a piece of purple rhyolite that had probably been broken off when someone was making a tool.

“A large purple rhyolite flake, likely made of stone found in the Hingham area, is a great way to end a sunny day of archaeological survey at the First Church in Roxbury,” the post read. “This flake was made when a Native person was working on a stone tool here on the property long ago. We’re hoping to soon find stone tool fragments that are more datable to give us a better idea of the age of this site.”

The next day, they posted a photo of a slate pencil that had broken in two pieces. Slate pencils were used by children in the 19th century to write on their slates, which served as personal-sized chalkboards they used in school.

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The team also posted later that week a photo of a hole they had dug in the yard that had a block of puddingstone at the bottom.

“Random puddingstone block or foundation of a 17th century Roxbury meetinghouse?” the post read. “We don’t know but will be working to find out!”

City archeologist Joe Bagley recorded data after a test hole was dug.
City archeologist Joe Bagley recorded data after a test hole was dug.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

They’ve also unearthed a piece of an old gas fixture; a ceramic fragment of a creamware plate from the late 18th or early 19th century; and an old cobblestone pathway that had been hidden under 8 inches of dirt.

There’s a lot of history at the site, which has been in continuous use since English settlers built the first meetinghouse there in 1632. The current building is the oldest wooden frame church in Boston, according to its website.

A ceramic marble was found during the dig.
A ceramic marble was found during the dig.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

The property is now owned by the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, a nonprofit social justice organization, but the former church has no active congregation.

The Rev. Mary Margaret Earl, executive director and senior minister at Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, said she’s looking forward to seeing what else Bagley and his team of volunteers can find.

“We were really excited to work with Joe,” she said. “It’s a deeply historic site. It’s one of the jewels of Roxbury.”

To view photos and updates on the dig from the city’s archeology program see its posts on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

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Among the finds: a fragment from a rhyolite tool that could be thousands of years old.
Among the finds: a fragment from a rhyolite tool that could be thousands of years old.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.