Great Pond yields clues to city's past
Allen Gontz (above), a professor at UMass-Boston, and Ellen Berkland, the city's archeologist, began a search for Great Pond last year. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Clark
Boston Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2008
It was once one of the largest bodies of water in the now-extinct Dorchester Commons. Centuries later, Great Pond may appear in the spotlight again.
Allen Gontz, a professor of environmental, earth, and ocean sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Ellen Berkland, the city's archeologist, began a search for Great Pond in 2007 as a project for Massachusetts Archaeology Month. Currently, they are working at a site in front of the Blake House - the oldest home (circa 1648) in Boston - on Columbia Road, where they believe the pond once sat before it was filled. Work on the site recently stopped for the winter and it may finish up in the spring.
The project holds a special importance, Gontz said.
"One of the main goals in doing this project is that when we get to the pond sediments, we will have something that provides us with a good record of what life was like hundreds of years ago," he said.
"We can analyze the pond sediments and see what different types of pollen are in there. Then we can tell what kind of trees grew in the area. From there we can tell what kind of climate existed, and it allows us to reconstruct what Dorchester was like before colonization."
Ground was broken at the Blake House site in October of last year, when Gontz and Berkland used ground-penetrating radar to provide a map of the property. Since then, a 4-by-12-foot trench has been dug on the lawn in front of the house, where the bulk of the research has been done.
So far the excavation has led to a number of interesting finds.
Gontz estimates that about 1,500 items have been unearthed, including pottery, children's toys, animal bones, and a nearly century-old bottle of cough syrup that was still filled.
To find the site of Great Pond, Gontz and Berkland relied on street names - the site is situated off Pond Street - as well as the radar and landscape analysis. The site is "naturally where the pond should be located" based on its topographical location, said Gontz.
In addition to Gontz and Berkland, four UMass-Boston undergraduate and graduate students - Christopher Maio, Ekatherina Wagenknecht, Helenmary Hotz, and Chris Stillman - are also assisting with the project.
Students have found working at the site to be an enriching experience.
"It might seem unimportant to be studying something so far removed from Boston's past as a filled pond," said Wagenknecht. "But it's often useful to know what the history and past geology of a particular site is, so that you can get a good idea of how to properly develop or protect it."
Though they know that the pond was created by glaciers between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago, Gontz and Berkland do not know exactly when the pond was filled. At this point, the pair has not reached the surface of the pond, though they project they are about 2 feet away from doing so.
Another question that Gontz and Berkland aim to investigate is how the Blake House was moved to its current site. Berkland stated that the 360-year-old house, which was originally built 400 yards away, was moved in 1895. However, no pictures, drawings, or documents were available that detail how the move was accomplished.
"The moving of that house was such a monumental task," said Berkland, who hopes that research at the site will give some indication of how the house was transported.
"It's important [to find out how the house was moved] because the Blake House is one of the most important standing structures in the city of Boston, especially because of its age and status as the oldest home in Boston."
The trench has been closed up for the winter, and Gontz says they will be reopened in late March at the earliest.
When the project is completed, Gontz and Berkland hope to share their findings with the public. "We are in the process of cleaning and cataloging the artifacts," said Berkland.
"After we write a report and summarize our findings, we hope to put together a display. Maybe we could put it in a public place somewhere in Dorchester, or have something at the Dorchester Historical Society."
? Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.
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