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City Archaeologist Announces Archaeological Dig in Roxbury

Archaeology team seeks information on possible site of 18th century slave quarters and kitchen

City Archaeologist Joe Bagley and a team of archaeologists and community members will begin a new archaeological dig at the recently-Landmark designated 42-44 Shirley Street. The building currently at the site is likely half of a former stable built around 1750 as part of a country home for Royal Governor William Shirley and his family. The property is also likely the home of enslaved people who lived and worked on the property.

During research carried out before the dig, the City Archaeology Program team made the discovery that the property may have been the former location of the Shirley-Eustis House. The house was moved across the street in the 1860s.  If this is true, the original foundations, kitchens, and slave quarters may still be present in the yard at 42-44 Shirley Street. This would also mean the current building was moved onto the site.

“This dig will answer a ton of questions,” said Bagley. “Either we find the foundations of the other half of 42-44 Shirley Street, or we find the foundations of the original mansion footprint. Either way, we will learn more about this important place in Boston’s Black history.”

There are documents of at least five enslaved Black Bostonians at the property.  The first was possibly an infant named Jane. Later was an 18-month old baby named Nanny, listed in her 1753 baptismal record at Kings Chapel as a servant of Catherine Shirley, Governor Shirley’s daughter. Nanny died just four days later. Shirley’s other daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Eliakim Hutchinson, lived on the property and also enslaved two children, Affy and Cesar, and a man named Thomas Scipio. These five individuals, and likely others, were all present at the household in the mid-late 1700s.

“The stable likely had living quarters in or above it, as was common with many stables at the time. It’s possible that Thomas Scipio or other enslaved people lived in this building.  The kitchen had slave quarters, later used and recorded as a dungeon, with bottle glass windows and thick plank doors.  It is likely that if we find the original basement of the mansion house on the property, we will also be able to find these quarters, too,” said Bagley.

The excavations will begin on September 13 and will likely last through the end of the month.  The team will excavate by hand a series of narrow trenches across the yard, hoping to intersect one or more building foundations from the 1700s.  Once these are found, their location and alignment should reveal if they are parts of the old stable building that is still standing on the property, or if they are the original mansion foundations.  Once the building foundations are located, the excavations will stop.

“Our goals are not to dig up the whole site,” said Bagley. “We just want to better understand what kinds of spaces are preserved under the ground on the property so we can better manage any changes that happen on the site.”

In 2021, 42-44 Shirley Street and the Shirley-Eustis House were formally designated Boston Landmarks, requiring review of any changes to the building or the landscape by Landmarks and Archaeology Staff. The archaeological site and the building on the property are protected by Landmarks rules and regulations.  The current owner does not wish to alter the landscape, but working with the Archaeology team, they aim to better understand what may be on the property so that any future changes can avoid disturbing the site.

“The best thing you can do with an archaeological site is to leave it alone,” said Bagley. “This testing will be absolutely minimal, but it will allow us to better protect the site as we will know what is under the ground, where the foundations are, what buildings they represent, and what kinds of stories may be present. Once we know better about the history here, we can work with the property owner, Black community, and the Landmarks Commission on what, if anything, should happen with the site next.”

The only known standing slave quarters in New England are at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.  The City Archaeology Program’s investigations may help document whether the current building was also a slave quarters, and whether there is another place where enslaved people lived present in the yard in front of the house.

The dig is open to the public and there are volunteer spaces reserved for Roxbury community members to join the dig. No previous experience is necessary. The team will update the public via social media posts from the field as well as status updates on the project as the artifacts are washed and cataloged. A final public report summarizing the findings of the project will be made public in 2023.

For all media inquiries, please contact Stacia Sheputa, Director of Communications for the Environment, Energy and Open Space Cabinet at stacia.sheputa@boston.gov or 617-459-9279.

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