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Conversations: Digging Under Beantown Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004

There's "no rest for the wicked" when you're Boston's city archaeologist

A professional archaeologist for more than 18 years, Ellen Berkland has been Boston's city archaeologist since 1996. She runs the City Archaeology Laboratory, Education and Curation Center, where 27 collections excavated from sites in Boston are kept, including half of those from the $14.6-billion, decades-long highway project officially called the Central Artery/Tunnel Project but better known as the "Big Dig." ARCHAEOLOGY recently asked Berkland about her work.

What was your role in the Big Dig?
I've worn many different hats. My favorite was a hardhat, digging as a crew member on various sites. Being the first person to uncover deposits left by other humans hundreds and even thousands of years ago is pretty exciting.

Has all of the Big Dig archaeological work been completed?
The project reports have been submitted and approved, and the results and the collections are available to the public through popular reports, a website, educational materials, and an artifact exhibit at the Commonwealth Museum in Dorchester. Next time you're in Boston, come visit me at the City Archaeology Lab in Boston's North End!

(Brian Werth)

What was the most surprising thing found during the Big Dig?
The condition of artifacts in a seventeenth-century privy. This waterlogged, sealed environment preserved extremely fragile organic remains such as bugs and parasites, pollen remains, seeds and bones, and even leather shoes.

There's concern that the million-plus artifacts recovered during the project will be stranded without funding for conservation and curation after a $300,000 federal grant ends in two years.
The City of Boston supports my position of city archaeologist, and with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, we are presently able to keep the collections safe. Boston deserves a museum, a central repository where these priceless artifacts can be curated and the untold history shared with the people.

How did you become an archaeologist?
My digging career began at a very early age in a gigantic backyard sandbox designed and built by my father, Ted. Many hours were spent burying, mapping, and excavating things. I even had a Barbie cemetery at one point.

You teach an archaeology class in the public schools and run a volunteer program. Should more archaeologists be doing such work rather than staying in the halls of academe?
Public outreach is viewed as a professional courtesy by many archaeologists. It should be a professional commitment. Archaeologists have access to important data recovered from sites, and they are professionally obligated to transform the raw archaeology into tangible, accessible information. The archaeological record needs to be shared.

Have teaching and working with volunteers revealed a level of public understanding of archaeology you didn't expect?
Archaeology is still not a formal part of state or municipal curricula, but TV, movies, magazines, websites, and books have made it more popular and accessible to the public. The insights children have to offer often amazes me. During a presentation on Native American net-making technology, one young person contributed details because her grandfather makes them in the same fashion in Puerto Rico. It's the adults who sometimes scare me--especially when they have no clue that New England has been peopled for over 11,000 years.

You live in Boston's oldest home, the Blake House, built in 1648. Does living there give you any insights into your work?
The Blake House in Dorchester is an important artifact. It's hard not to think of the hundreds of people who were born, and who lived and died, in the "Blakey"...especially with the family burying ground (ca. 1634) right around the corner. It makes me realize that we are only a blink in the eons of time.

And don't you have a pet parrot to tend to? What does he say about your work?
"No rest for the wicked." Actually, he ignores me when I don't spend enough time with him.

What do you do when you're not doing archaeology?
Travel and cook. Last year I took a month-long vacation to cook for a crew on an underwater archaeological survey in Morocco, and just last month I completed coursework and testing for my coast guard captain's license. I hope to return to North Africa next year, captaining one of the dive vessels. When I get a chance, I love to cook for friends and family. I'll cook just about anything. My favorites? When I cook what I catch--fish--and what I grow--vegetables--myself.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America