Researchers Dig Garbage, Flesh Out Colonial Boston History


John Carnes, an 18th-Century pewter-smith who lived in the city’s North End, married twice, had 14 children with his first wife and paid for one son’s tuition at Harvard with pewter forks and knives.

Historians have known all that for a long time, thanks to various documents.

Now they’re sorting through his garbage to learn his shoe size and what he ate for dinner. Looks like he had a healthy ego too.

“He had wine bottles with a seal with his own name,” said Elena Decima, project manager for a company digging up the remains of an old colonial neighborhood. “Usually you just had initials . . . so he must have thought well of himself.”


The discoveries are part of more than 150,000 artifacts recovered from beneath a parking lot in the city’s North End.

A team of archeologists is examining and preserving remnants of the 2-square-block area, which needs to be cleared to make way for the $7.7-billion Central Artery-Third Harbor Tunnel, the costliest highway project in the nation’s history. They dug 3 to 6 feet under the lot to find the crumbled walls and drains.

Many of the items have been found in about a half-dozen brick privies, all-purpose outhouses and garbage dumps that residents used in the 1600s and early 1700s, said Decima of Timelines Inc. They include parts of leather shoes, long-stem clay pipes, bottles for herbal medicines, surgical instruments, bone combs and buttons, a George I halfpenny, animal bones and china fragments.

At the time, the North End was an upper-middle-class neighborhood of homeowners who kept stables of horses, Decima said. As the city grew, many of those families moved out, leaving the North End to tradesmen and tenants.


When Timelines excavates the last privy this summer, the archeologists hope to find parasites, evidence of diseases the colonists may have suffered. They also will examine pollen to find out what kinds of plants the colonists grew.

Decima hopes that researchers will finish preserving and cataloguing their finds by early next year.