The history of Boston is primarily told in facts, stories about what is known. The date of a battle. The location of a grave. The writings of a revolutionary. But as important to a culture so steeped in history is what isn’t known. We tell and retell stories of sunken treasure off Cape Cod and restless spirits in the Copp’s Hill burial ground because mystery turns facts into fascination. We built a dubious statue of Leif Eriksson on the Commonwealth Mall because the forces of whimsy and speculation can’t always wait for evidence.
In May, the federal government committed major funding to the $310 million dredging project of Boston’s Inner Harbor, which will deepen the navigation channels enough to allow massive so-called “New Panamax” super-ships to deliver goods here. Chelsea Creek will also be deepened.
And though the harbor was dredged as recently as 1997, shifting water levels and tidal flow can significantly move or expose artifacts. “The full range of our history is out there,” said Victor Mastone, director of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources.
So what could be a better opportunity to speculate on Boston’s historical mysteries than the stirring up of one of our famous waterways? Maybe there really is a connection with Boston and Leif Eriksson, and maybe proof of that connection lies at the bottom of the harbor. Along with, possibly . . .
The HMS Diana
On May 28, 1775, during the Battle of Chelsea Creek, this schooner was abandoned, captured by provincial forces, then set ablaze and run aground. As this battle was the first naval engagement of the American Revolution, the HMS Diana site would be a major find. Could ship remnants still exist by the creek’s entrance? The state’s Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources thinks so and has requested additional survey work on the site.
Two years ago, a visitor to the harbor islands stumbled on a palm-sized metal disk that could change history: A King Henry trade weight (note the lower-case “h” with a crown in the lower right corner) that would have been in use in England between 1496 and 1558. If its provenance could be verified, it would be the earliest known evidence of European trading on the North American Atlantic coast. Brookline medieval archeology expert Sira Dooley Fairchild, who is studying the trade weight, speculates that it could have come from a shipwreck, been lost during trade on the island, or was kept as an heirloom past its useful life before being lost on the island. “It’s an unsolvable mystery,” she said. But the plot would certainly thicken if more of these turned up.
Evidence of native peoples
Boston’s harbor islands of today were hilltops until between 6,000 to 3,000 years ago, overlooking land certainly occupied by native peoples. “Fill and deposits can preserve a site beautifully, submerged and sealed,” said Ellen Berkland, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Organic remains — even hair and bugs — can be preserved.”
One such organic preservation of historical value would be a large seafaring mishoon, or dugout canoe. Thirteen- to 14-foot-long mishoons have been found stored in inland Massachusetts lakes, possibly dating back to the mid-1600s. A seafaring version, easily 20 feet long or more, would demonstrate wider trade networks, as well as marine resource extraction skills.
Unexploded World War II ordnance
Boston Harbor was protected by controlled underwater mine fields during the war, and military ruins on the Harbor Islands are not far away, but this isn’t a discover anyone’s eager to make. Unexploded ordnance actually becomes more dangerous with time as the detonator erodes; in January a bulldozer in Germany hit what was believed to be a World War II bomb, killing the driver and injuring 13 others.
A modern surprise
With more than 4 million people living in the region plus 12 million annual visitors, a lot of antics can occur without being noticed. Could someone have launched a vehicle into the harbor? Could that vehicle contain perfectly preserved paintings from the Gardner Museum heist?
Ice Age beasts
New Hampshire fishermen hauled up a mammoth tooth in 2013, and the skull of an American mastodon (pictured at left) was found just last month in Chesapeake Bay. Giant beavers and the dire wolf also roamed New England, the latter of which would be a thrilling find for “Game of Thrones” fans. Another long shot: An 11,500-year-old beluga whale skeleton was found in a Vermont field in 1849.
Evidence of Norse visitation
Of all possibilities, this is the one that gives archaeologists goosebumps. Even though the Vikings were master sailors and world travellers, no confirmed evidence of Vikings has been found south of Newfoundland. Though a helmet like this one found in Scandinavia in 1943 is fun to imagine, wooden hull remains would be a more likely find.
Pilot error may have stranded this 74-gun French war ship on a Lovells Island shoal in 1782. The crew then completely stripped the ship and abandoned it, which was the end of the Magnifique but the start of more than 200 years of rumors and political intrigue regarding how exactly she ran aground. The ship’s remains were allegedly last seen in the mid-1800s.
Heather Hopp-Bruce is the Globe’s op-ed design supervisor. Follow her on Twitter @H_HoppBruce.