Back to top

Mayor Walsh Announces Archaeological Dig at Old City Hall and Former Boston Latin School Site

June 1, 2015

Mayor's Office

Published by:

Mayor's Office

BOSTON - Monday, June 1, 2015 - Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced that the City of Boston will be undertaking an archaeological survey in front of Old City Hall on the former site of the 17th century Boston Latin School and Schoolmaster’s house.   

“It is an exciting moment for the City of Boston to potentially unveil an important part of Boston’s history and a piece of the Freedom Trail,” said Mayor Walsh.  

City of Boston Archaeologist Joseph Bagley will lead his volunteer team in the dig beginning June 2, 2015. Crews will excavate approximately 10 test trenches measuring 5x.5 meters (16x1.5 feet) throughout the month of June in an attempt to re-locate the foundations and yards of the 17th century Boston Latin School’s Schoolmaster’s house and other later structures. The courtyard of Old City Hall and businesses located within will remain open throughout the 4-week dig.  

Extensive research prior to the excavations has revealed a complete timeline of the owners and occupants of the Old City Hall courtyard. In 1645, the Boston Free School was built and later renamed the Boston Latin School. While it no longer remains in its original location, Boston Latin is the oldest public school in America. The Schoolhouse was located in an area that is now partially under King’s Chapel and within the courtyard of Old City Hall. At the same time, the City officials allowed the Schoolmaster to live with his family next door. The Schoolmaster’s house may have been built as early as 1639. In the first decade of the 1700s, both the Free School and the Schoolmaster’s houses were re-built on their original foundation locations. 

In the 17th century, the courtyard would have contained the Schoolmaster’s house, a stone mansion owned by the wealthy and prominent Cooke family and a portion of the Free School.   

Notable Graduates who would have taken their admissions test at the Schoolmaster’s house and attended school next door include Cotton Mather (1669), Samuel Adams (1729) and John Hancock (1745), among others.    

In 1809, plans to build the Suffolk County Courthouse, where Old City Hall stands today, required the demolition of the standing Schoolmaster’s house.    

Archaeologists are hoping to find the foundations of the 17th-19th century Boston Latin Schoolmaster’s house and the yard behind it. If successful, it is likely that they will recover significant amounts of artifacts relating to the seven Schoolmaster’s and their wives and children who lived in the building between 1645 and 1809. These artifacts would reveal new information on these families and 17th and 18th century Boston.   

“What we are really hoping to find is their privy, or outhouse, which would have been where most, if not all, of their household garbage and human waste would have been disposed in," said City Archaeologist Joe Bagley. "Since archaeologists primarily study trash, their outhouse would be a treasure-trove of historic data. Finding an intact 17th century privy would be the ultimate goal.”  

The dig was first proposed by Sean McDonnell, President of the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF). AHF is a not for profit organization, and, in 1970, preserved the building under a long-term lease with the BRA. AHF intends on improving the landscape of the courtyard and install additional interpretative displays of the building and yard’s history, but what remains under the paved and landscaped surface remains a mystery.   

“We are thrilled to have found someone as enthusiastic about Old City Hall’s courtyard and so able to uncover and tell the story of what else may have happened on the site," said McDonnell. "Everyone in the building takes ownership of Old City Hall’s place in Boston’s history- I think Joe’s work will only add to the building and site’s lustre.”  

“This is an ideal situation where a property owner understands and appreciates the importance of their archaeology, and takes preemptive measures to involve archaeologists from the inception of a renovation plan to ensure the proper preservation and recording of any archaeological data and to increase the awareness of the history of a place,” said Bagley.  

The archaeological dig will be staffed by volunteers of the City of Boston’s Archaeology Program, which is part of the Boston Landmark’s Commission. The dig is also incorporating volunteers from the Boston Latin School Alumni Association and current Boston Latin School students.  

The public are encouraged to visit the dig, which will be ongoing through the month of June, weekdays from 9AM -5PM, rain or shine, though not during thunderstorms. Progress of the dig can be followed through live updates on the City Archaeology Program and Old City Hall social media pages including facebook at facebook.com/bostonarchaeologyprogram and on twitter @bostonarchaeo.  

The City Archaeology Program was established in 1983 to preserve, protect and promote Boston’s archaeological heritage. With hundreds of known archaeological sites documented in Boston spanning nearly 10,000 years of human history, the City Archaeologist and a dedicated team of volunteers work to review development projects, excavate archaeological sites on public land, and manage over 1,000,000 artifacts excavated from dozens of archaeological surveys stored in the City Archaeology Laboratory repository.  

About the Architectural Heritage Foundation  

Founded in 1966 as a not for profit organization with a mission of preserving historic structures at a time when urban renewal was razing large historic portions of cities, AHF has, for 40 years, blended the fields of historic preservation and real estate development, asset management and property management. In 1969 AHF won stewardship of Boston’s Old City Hall, successfully redevelopment the grande dame structure into a thriving restaurant and office building, thereby demonstrating the relevance of adaptive reuse to downtown Boston’s future. AHF continues to manage and maintain Old City Hall, safeguarding its future.Today, AHF is active in both Boston and across the Commonwealth where preservation remains a critical component of economic revitalization.