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Digging into city’s past

Faneuil Hall excavation paves way for visitors center

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By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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At one of Boston’s hallowed historical sites, from a deep pit beside Faneuil Hall, heaps of dirt are being pitched to the surface with grunts and gusto.

“Have you found Jimmy Hoffa yet?’’ at least one passerby asks every day.

The wisecracks bring a chuckle from the diggers, but their quarry is much older than the long-vanished labor leader. Here, beside the north wall of the Cradle of Liberty, archeologists are inching their way, shovel by carefully placed shovel, toward a potential treasure trove of the city’s Colonial past.

“We’re right about where the town dock was,’’ said Joel Dukes, a National Park Service archeologist, as he stood a few steps from the work. “This is the heart of Boston right here.’’

This side of Faneuil Hall, which faces TD Garden, has never been excavated by archeologists. Its proximity to what had been a busy shipping channel in Colonial times, as well as a warren of lodgings and taverns, has excited researchers who hope to uncover new history of one of America’s most history-conscious cities.

“This was, essentially, the port for Boston until Long Wharf was built’’ in 1710, said Ellen Berkland, the city archeologist. “It was a merchant area, sort of the hub of Boston during the 1600s.’’

Although Faneuil Hall was not constructed until 1742, the building was located beside what had been Town Cove, a small extension of the harbor that was one of the earliest landing points for Boston shipping. Cargo was dropped and discarded here, trash was tossed into the water, and artifact-rich landfill eventually covered the cove to make room for the expanding city.

To archeologists, the site is a precious gift waiting to be unwrapped.

“There’s such an extensive history at Faneuil Hall,’’ said Kim Parson, the project’s principal investigator from URS, an archeology firm based in Burlington, N.J. “Not only for Boston, but for the entire country’s heritage.’’

The excavation, which is being aided by the University of Massachusetts Boston, is required before the Boston National Historical Park visitors center can be relocated from nearby State Street to Faneuil Hall.

The 15-by-15-foot pit is being dug where a stairwell will lead to new Park Service offices and public restrooms in the basement.

The north wall of the building, which had served as a market and Town Meeting hall in the Revolutionary War era, was part of an expansion in 1806 by renowned Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, who also designed the State House.

Parson said the work, which began this month, is expected to be completed by Friday. Until then, the public is invited to watch the digging and screening of artifacts, and to ask questions of the archeologists.

“We want to find things we didn’t know,’’ said Sean Hennessey, a Park Service spokesman in Boston. “We think we’ve closed the book sometimes, but archeology is so vital.’’

Berkland said the finds could provide an extraordinary glimpse of the city’s 17th-century history, for which only a relatively small number of artifacts have been found. The physical characteristics of the dig site — sealed, saturated, and oxygen-free soil — could yield amazing preservation, she said.

Wood, leather, ship timbers, barrels, egg shells, nuts, bugs, ceramics, and fragile textiles are all possible discoveries. “This was just a natural dumping ground,’’ Berkland said.

Parson said archeologists, who will dig 15 feet deep, might find evidence of the wharf from the old Town Cove channel, whose tidal waters once reached near present-day City Hall. “And if we’re really lucky,’’ she said, “we’ll find a coin’’ stamped with a date.

Artifacts will be washed and bagged at the city’s archeology laboratory. Some will be shipped to researchers who will study parasites, pollen, and other organic samples for time-capsule clues about everyday life in young, growing Boston.

Meanwhile, the “al fresco’’ form of archeology beside Faneuil Hall is attracting the curiosity of tourists and natives alike.

“I think it’s a great idea. No doubt, there are many artifacts here,’’ said Joe Schmidt, who stopped to watch the work with Frances O’Brien, a fellow Jamaica Plain resident.

“Maybe we should throw something in there to keep them interested,’’ O’Brien said with a smile.

“A rusty penny?’’ Schmidt suggested.

Such incentives will not be needed for excavators such as Michael Ligman, a UMass Boston graduate student from Williamsburg, Va., who sifted through piles of dirt thrown up from the pit.

“You can find something that can redefine history,’’ Ligman said.

Dukes, the Park Service archeologist, agreed. As he stood behind a stretch of metal fence, focusing on the deepening pit, he relished his front-row perch on buried history.

“I love this,’’ Dukes said. “It’s a great job.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.