Boston archaeologists work with Massachusett Tribe to study eroding Harbor Islands

The eroding northern tip of Thompson Island, which is home to a recorded Native Massachusett archaeological site. (Photo courtesy of Joe Bagley)

By Toni Baraga
Boston University News Service

The effects of climate change have begun to damage and erode away the sediment of many Boston Harbor Islands. Considered the most preserved Native American landscape in Boston, the threat of losing this piece of the Harbor Islands appears imminent. 

Thirty-four islands dot the salty waters of Boston Harbor, each containing a buried story of the area’s long and turbulent past. From Native American ownership to military occupation, these islands contain nearly 12,000 years of important archaeological and historical material, all of which are now under threat from climate change. 

The Boston Harbor Islands made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in June, underscoring the imminent threat of climate change on the islands. 

According to Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley, the Harbor Islands that face north and east are in the most danger to erosion as they experience the heaviest wave action from storms. “Those are really the ones that I’m most worried about.”

Bagley is one of the many people co-leading a potentially years-long project to help study and preserve the Harbor Islands. The Boston Harbor Islands Climate and Archaeology Project is a collaboration between a multitude of local, state and national groups who seek to survey and study the eroding shorelines of the islands, identify those that are most at risk and create action plans for preserving or studying the Native American archaeological sites that are most threatened. 

The Community Preservation Coalition awarded a $100,000 grant to the City of Boston Archaeology Program for the project in May, kickstarting the tremendous endeavor. Some of the project’s main collaborators, in addition to Bagley, include Marc Albert of the National Park Service, Elizabeth Solomon of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag and several researchers from Boston University. 

The project will start with a determination of  which islands are most at risk of climate change. Zoe Hughes, a research assistant professor at Boston University, will lead this stage of the project. Hughes has been studying the Harbor Islands’ shoreline for nearly two decades. 

“My part in it right now is to identify the sites to triage,” Hughes said. “It’s about rescuing as much information as we can before it gets lost.”

Using a combination of physical measuring, a geographic information services (GIS) photographic aerial imagery system and storm surveying, Hughes and her research team will create a map of the sites most at risk to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, flooding and erosion. 

Once this initial stage is completed, the most at-risk sites will then be cross-referenced with a map of known archaeological and historic sites. The research team will then collaborate with the local Massachusett Tribe to determine which sites need immediate attention and what steps they should take to either preserve or study areas deemed culturally significant.

“We are going to be putting forward a proposal of how to do these archaeological surveys that includes Native consultation and Native perspective in the actual proposal itself,” Bagley said. “There will be Native people involved in the actual excavation process. There will be Native people involved in the cataloguing and the curation process.”

In addition to being the most preserved Native American area in Boston, the Harbor Islands are also special due to their unique landscape. 

“In terms of geography, the Harbor Islands are a drowned drumlin field,” said Catherine West at the European Archaeological Association’s annual meeting last week. “This is a type of glacial landscape and one of only two of these in the world.”

West is a research assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology at BU and one of the many collaborators on the project. At the meeting, West explained the long history of the islands that helped create this rare landscape, starting nearly 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene period.

“At the height of the last ice age, this region was obviously covered in glacial ice,” West said. A few millennia later, during the Holocene period, the glaciers melted, creating river channels. Over the next 6,000 years, the sea level rose and submerged most of the open plain, thus beginning the formation of the islands.

According to West, the Harbor Islands were fully formed by 1630. Most of the islands’ current shorelines consist of bluffs of glacial sediment, West said, yet some still contain parts of their original drumlin landscape. The islands have been home to a multitude of residents and stakeholders since the 17th century. 

“After European colonization, the Boston Harbor Islands were continuously used, including as concentration camps for Massachusset and Nipmuck people, burial grounds, colonial farmsteads, homes and pastures,” West said. “And [they] continue to be used.”

Now with the Harbor Islands facing the threat of climate change, collaborators like Bagley are scrambling to collect data and study the important archaeological areas before they’re lost. 

“We’re at a full-on triage mode for the archaeological sites … they’ve been eroding for 10 years and we’re kind of late to the game when it comes to the sites on the islands,” Bagley said. “We’ve lost so much of them that we don’t even know how much we’ve lost, because we don’t really know how much of the erosion has already taken away the islands. So at this point, it’s really just recover what we can.”

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