Originally scheduled to appear at last year’s event, Joseph Bagley, the city’s archeologist, was on hand as the keynote speaker for the 99th annual meeting of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, which was held virtually on Monday, May 17, to discuss the neighborhood’s archeology.
Bagley, who has served in his current role since 2011, and is the city’s fourth archeologist since 1983, said Beacon Hill was formed at the edge of a glacier about 20,000 years ago, and that a stone axe found in the backyard of the African Meeting House is “by far the oldest artifact found on Beacon Hill.”
Much of the neighborhood’s native landscape was lost to land reduction, including Mount Vernon Hill, as it was sometimes called, on the west and Pemberton Hill, among other names for the hill on the east, said Bagley, leaving only what some called Sentry Hill in the middle remaining. But even that one, now called Beacon Hill, was substantially reduced, he said, when workers carted away glacial landform from the area and deposited it into landfilled areas on the Flat of Beacon Hill, as well as in Back Bay.
But because Beacon Hill was so “hilly,” he said, development in the neighborhood didn’t really take off until after 1800.
In 2016, the city made what Bagley described as a “surprise discovery” on Pinckney Street – a 30-foot-deep well.
Since wells don’t require deeds, Bagley had to do some detective work to ascertain its date of origin, and he uncovered a map from 1814 that shows a number of buildings had popped up in the vicinity of the well, which, he believes, was enough development to justify building it there.
To get a look inside the well, Bagley constructed a makeshift camera rig using a paint-roller that he lowered down to obtain video footage, which revealed that no mortar was used in its construction, and that a syphon made from hollowed-out logs had once been used to pull water up to the surface.
The well’s syphon functions much like the city’s early underground sewer system, added Bagely, “only turned on its side.”
The well was in use for about 40 or 50 years ago, he said, and has been decommissioned for at least 150 years.
A trove of archeological evidence was also discovered in the privy for the outhouse of the African Meeting House, the nation’s oldest standing Black church, which, Bagley said, had been thoroughly documented in a 270-page report released by UMass Boston in 2007.
The privy, which, said Bagley, was lined with wood inside and clay outside to create a “water-tight bucket” that when filled with water, made for optimal preservation of the contents inside.
Sifting through these contents turned up discarded liquor and medicine bottles, which, said Bagley, provide some insight into the health and diet of Black residents living on the North Slope of Beacon Hill at the time.
A carpenter’s rule estimated to be around 200 years old was found as well, he said, along with wooden cutlery and broom handles.
Also among the 38,000 artifacts recovered from the privy that all date back to the 19th century, said Bagley, were 2,000 individual ceramic vessels used for communal dining; they were donated by Domingo Williams, a Black owner of a catering business who lived in the basement of the African Meeting House from 1819 to 1830, and whom Bagley said was most likely a member of the “upper echelon” of Black society at the time.
“You want to summarize archeology in a nutshell,” said Bagley, “it’s studying history using trash.”
In what he called a “shameless plug” for his new book, “Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them” (2021 Brandeis University Press), Bagley also discussed the Glapion-Middleton House at 5 Pinckney St. (circa 1786), which came in at #34 and was Beacon Hill’s only entry in the list.
In 1786, Col. George Middleton, a free Black man who fought in the Revolutionary War as the leader of the all-Black rebel militia company and a horse-tender by profession, and Louis Glapion, an abolitionist, who, in 1796, helped organize the Boston African Benevolent Society to support Black communities facing white resistance to integration, purchased an undeveloped lot at the corner of Pinckney and Joy streets, and together, they built the house at 5 Pinckney St. between 1786 and 1787.
Middleton and Glapion later added two other buildings at 1 and 3 Pinckney St., respectively, which extended the structures to the corner of Joy Street.
The two buildings later served as an addition to the men’s main residence at 5 Pinckney St., which, Bagley describes as a two-story wooden building with four bay windows that has the distinction of being one of 11 remaining wooden structures in a neighborhood made up largely of brick buildings.
The middle structure at 3 Pinckney St. was demolished in 1855 and subsequently replaced with a four-story brick building similar in character to the neighboring row-houses.
Middleton and Glapion’s curious living arrangement, along with historical records and accounts, said Bagley, have led to the theory that the two men were romantically involved.
“A challenge with unrepresented and unrecorded history is often the only way is to back-engineer and read between the lines,” Bagley told the Beacon Hill Times last month when discussing his book. “Unfortunately, that can lead to some guesswork and maybe even inaccuracies, but it’s the only way we’re going to come even close to getting there.”
Joseph M. Bagley’s “Boston’s Oldest Buildings and Where to Find Them” is available at https://www.brandeis.edu/press/books/no-series/bostons-oldest-buildings.html, as well as at local bookstores and from Amazon. The author’s proceeds from the book will go to the Boston Landmarks Commission.