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The “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel Project

The Big Dig is not only an excavation, but an exhibit about public archeology.

Boston's Big Dig (formally known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) is the largest and most complex highway project in the nation's history. The plan includes replacing the aging, elevated portion of Interstate 93, which winds through downtown Boston, with an eight- to- ten lane tunnel.

The scope of the project meant that probably every Massachusetts citizen had been exposed to some basic information about archeology. Additionally, some of the sites were close to tourist destinations in downtown Boston. Archeologists first planned to interpret field archeology to the public while the dig was in progress. Interpreters were assigned specifically to this purpose so the excavation could continue. Viewing platforms were constructed so visitors could peer into the excavations. A wide range of people visited: school groups, historians, tourists, homeless, international students on holiday, and executives. They would then incorporate the materials and findings into exhibits to interpret the past for modern audiences.

The interpreters answered questions, but also used other interpretive methods. Boxes of artifacts from personal and corporate collections were put together so people could “touch” the past and experience the artifacts more closely. A series of handouts explained the site. The public in general was most interested in the live archeologists and the artifact displays, although teachers and history buffs in particular collected the handouts. A kiosk was placed near the Freedom Trail to attract people to the site. The lab hosted tours by appointment so the public could learn that archeologists do more than dig alone. A slide show was also put together to interpret the work to local organizations and clubs.

The CRM firms at the same time compiled an Interpretive Plan. They noted the successes and problems of each interpretive method in the course of the work, and evaluated the techniques. They then created a plan with participation from local historical organizations to recommend a course for future interpretation.

When the collections from the Big Dig were turned over to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for curation, the big question was, "Now what?" How can we take hundreds of thousands of artifacts and a couple of linear feet of very technical reports and translate them for the public? Although the primary goal of the Commission's Archaeological Curation Center center's is caring for the state's collections, a close second is creative public education. The Big Dig provided a rare opportunity to bring an archeological project full circle, expanding MHC's public education program in the process.

They began work on a full-scale exhibit: Archaeology of the Central Artery Project: Highway to the Past. Since the highway was the only unifying theme among these sites, they chose to organize the exhibit as a kind of historical tour of the neighborhoods through which the artery passes, highlighting common topics along the way. The predominately female staff decided to spotlight the lives of women in each neighborhood. They also chose to focus on past diet, the history of technology, and general archeological techniques.

One sign of the exhibit's success was the number of class trips among third to tenth grades. Thousands of students have visited. They begin with a quick introduction to archeology and what it has to do with the Big Dig. Since most school buses get stuck in construction-related traffic on the way, the archeologists designed a perfect segue. Younger students get an activity kit with scavenger hunts, word searches, short art projects, and artifact projects that they complete as they walk through. Older students participate in the "Experts" program. Small groups are assigned to different sites in the exhibit and, with guidance from staff archeologists, conduct small research projects that help them become experts. Then they give their classmates a guided tour. The program can be scaled according to skills, and the archeologists are flexible about how the students interpret the site. One group, for example, chose to interpret theirs in the form of a poem.

Adapted from:

Lewis, Ann-Eliza H. and Brona G. Simon
1999 Mining the Big Dig: Tapping the Education Potential of Boston's Central Artery Project, The Future of Public Archeology, Common Ground.

MJB/EJL