Book Review: A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph M. Bagley


Author: Joseph M. Bagley
TitleA History of Boston in 50 Artifacts
Publication Info:  Hanover ; London : University Press of New England, [2016]
Summary/Review:

A few years ago I listened to the brilliant podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by the BBC and the British Museum.  Joseph Bagley also listened to this podcast while he was at work and since he’s the city archaeologist of Boston it inspired him to write this book.  Bagley selected 50 objects and broke them down into 5 time periods: Native American Shawmut peninsula before colonization, 17th century Puritan Boston, 18th century growing Boston, Revolutionary Boston, and 200 years as an independent city from the 1780s-1980s.  The artifacts come from several significant archaeological sites including the Katherine Nanny Naylor Privy in the North End, the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, Boston Common, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, along the Big Dig construction site, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury.  My favorite artifacts include weaving by the Massachusett, a bowling ball from a time when the Puritans forbade such things, vaginal syringes from Ann Street brothels, a Hebrew prayer-book (at the African Meeting House!), a Red Sox pin, and children’s toys.  Each artifact tells a story and from them Bagley draws a bigger picture of the people in that time and place.  Together the 50 artifacts tell an intriguing history of Boston and is a brilliant introduction to archaeology as well as advocating for the importance of archaeology programs in local governments.  This book is a must read, especially if you have any interest in archaeology or Boston history.

Favorite Passages:

“Archaeology, as we archaeologists describe it, is simply the study of the human past through the artifacts that people leave behind.  One important thing missing from this definition is a cutoff date – the coin dropped today is already part of the archaeological record.  When I encounter people who doubt this fact, I always remind them that archaeology is not about the stuff, it’s about the story.  We may know more about the story of daily life now because we live in the “now” and can see how many things interconnect in someone’s life, but over time, these connections break down and the meanings behind various aspects of the past are lost.” – p. 173

Recommended BooksRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, and Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis

Rating: ****1/2

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