Document Type

Research Report

Publication Date



In collaboration with the Museum of African American History, an archaeological research team from the University of Massachusetts Boston carried out a data recovery excavation at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The African Meeting House was a powerful social institution for 19thcentury Boston’s free black community. The site played an important role in the abolition movement, the creation of educational opportunity, and other community action for social and political equality. The Meeting House was originally built in 1806, and renovations in preparation for the 2006 bi-centennial celebration prompted an investigation of areas of the property to be impacted by the proposed construction. Archaeological fieldwork, conducted under Massachusetts Historical Commission Permit Number 2750, was spread over seven weeks in May through July 2005. The field team opened and explored about 19 m2 of the site in the backlot south of the Meeting House and alley to the west. These excavations recorded information about a series of significant features and deposits, and collected over 38,000 artifacts and a series of soil samples for a detailed archaeobiological research program. These excavations met the requirements of the data recovery program as outlined in 950 CMR 70.00 and in the Memorandum of Agreement for the project, and the proposed renovation work proceeded with a finding of no adverse effect (36 CFR 800.5(b)).

The depositional history and the nature of the archaeological record allow us to separate the overall excavation into three sub-areas: 1) the west alley between the AMH and 2 Smith Court; 2) the historic Meeting House backlot; and 3) the south yard, which originally belonged to the 44 Joy Street property. In terms of significant features and deposits, the west alley was almost entirely a series of builders’ trenches reflecting the historic sequence of construction and remodeling of the Meeting House and adjacent buildings to the west. In the backlot, the units against the south wall of the Meeting House contained similar builders’ trenches. The backlot also contained a series of stone and brick drains and a trash-rich midden layer. The vast majority of artifacts in the Meeting House backlot date from about 1806–1840. The ceramics assemblage is particularly large, and reflects both community meals at the Meeting House and business of Domingo Williams, a caterer who rented a basement apartment. Finally, only one feature was studied in the south yard, a privy (outhouse) that was for the 44 Joy Street property. The bottommost layer of the privy was an artifact rich nightsoil layer, dating to about 1811–1838, and containing the trash of African American tenants living at 44 Joy Street. Together, the archaeological deposits in the backlot provide a variety of insights into living conditions, economic opportunity, foodways, health, and daily life for 19th-century Boston’s free black community. These results thus provide information to help further the research, interpretation, and public education goals of the Museum of African American History.


Submitted to Museum of African American History (Beverly Morgan Welch, President) by the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Cultural Resource Management Study No. 22.