Digging for Deep History

Frozen Charlotte doll, privy, 8:12:15

Frozen Charlotte Doll. The team unearthed hundreds of doll fragments.
(Boston City Archaeology Program)

During the summer of 2015, City Archaeologist Joe Bagley and his team of volunteers from the City Archaeology Program conducted an archaeological dig at the site of the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. They recovered 17,723 artifacts, the majority of which were deposited between 1859 and 1880. Their finds offer an intimate glimpse into the school’s operations and its occupants.

Prospects for the dig arose when the Epiphany School—the current owners of the building—began to discuss demolition of the historic structure to make room for a new and improved complex. Facing protest from the Dorchester Historical Society who wanted to designate the property a landmark, Epiphany agreed to restore the building and construct a new building that will surround the western and northern yard. Together, the Epiphany School and the Boston Landmarks Commission sought to diminish the impacts of the new structure to the historic building and landscape. An archaeological dig in areas that would be disturbed by the new building was agreed upon and conducted nearly two years before construction began.

blue shell edge iron stone plate, trash pit, FB, 10:3:15

Blue Shell Edge Plate. 
(Boston City Archaeology Program)

During the archaeological survey, the team discovered the foundation walls of the original carriage house, a trench that was used as a trash pit, and the largest privy (outhouse) ever to be excavated in Boston at over fifteen feet in length and four feet wide—enough for five or more girls to use the bathroom at once. Both the trash pit and the privy produced a wealth of artifacts including dishes, chamber pots, pharmaceutical bottles, dolls, jewelry, sewing equipment, beads, buttons, toothbrushes, writing slates, and pencils. The closing of the privy once the school received running water and installed indoor bathrooms, along with discussions of the trash pit found in the transcriptions of the managers’ meetings, suggest that the vast majority of these artifacts were deposited during the 1860s and 1870s. This specific timeframe—along with the demographic data available for the girls—reduces the number of historical variables and allows researchers to more accurately connect the objects to their prospective users.

These artifacts offer a glimpse into the past in a way that the written record cannot. The physical traces left behind by the students, staff, and managers shed light on details of the students’ domestic training, education, living conditions, and even the aspects of their leisure activities—providing a more nuanced and complete insight into this nineteenth-century benevolent institution and its inhabitants in Victorian Boston.

Joe Bagley and his team have brought the Dorchester Industrial School into what he describes as the “complex and personal narrative of Boston’s deep history that is only known through archaeological investigation.”                                                          
(A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts)

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All images courtesy of the Boston City Archaeology Program.


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