Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Friday, October 1, 2004
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 2
Fall 2004

What Lies Beneath
For Ellen Berkland ’81, a little dirt is loads of fun
By Sherri Kimmel
Where are the perfect digs for an archaeologist who loves the sea? How about the oldest house in Boston, just one-fourth mile from the ocean? “I can’t imagine living anyplace else right now,” says Ellen Berkland ’81.

While Berkland, as city archaeologist, possesses the symbolic key to Boston’s history, she literally holds the keys to the city’s most-ancient cemeteries. This Halloween she’ll unlock the gates of Dorchester North Burying Ground, just five minutes from her circa 1648 home, the Blake House, and lead a tour past some of the notable headstones.

There rests William Stoughton, one of the judges of the Salem witch trials, as well as many of the Blakes who occupied the house that now sets adjacent to Edward Everett Square. (Everett, born nearby, was the other, windier, orator who spoke the day Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.)

“Many of the people buried in this cemetery died in my bedroom,” Berkland says matter-of-factly. She suspects that one restless Blake still hangs out there. Her evidence? One night a book hurled itself across her room. It was titled Puritans at Play.

Besides her day job as city archaeologist, Berkland has had, for three years, this second post as caretaker of the Blake House, owned by the Dorchester Historical Society. She shares the two-story, four-room, dark, shingled house with Ashes, her African gray parrot, whose colorful vocabulary was learned from his previous owner, head of the vice squad at Pompano Beach, Fla.

As caretaker Berkland gives tours of the house twice a month and enlists the help of children in this blue-collar, multicultural neighborhood to plant and tend a large garden of squash, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and every child’s favorite, brussels sprouts. At Halloween the children rally ’round, knowing that she will hand out the local Hoodsie brand ice-cream bars—but not in costume.

“If you were a little kid, would you approach the house if you saw a 6-foot white witch in the doorway?”

Berkland’s sense of humor, warmth and deep knowledge of the city’s many layers make her the perfect advocate for historic Boston. She’s happy to talk to the press, having been featured many times in The Boston Globe and in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine.

She’s hoping the publicity will fund her quest to display some of the million objects that she and other archaeologists excavated during the nearly 20 years that the nation’s largest public-works project, the Central Artery/Tunnel, was being constructed. Before work could progress at each stage of the $15 billion “Big Dig,” archaeologists surveyed land along the 7.5-mile corridor to ensure that nothing historically significant would be destroyed. They identified 12 sites to fully excavate; four made the National Register of Historic Places.

The Big Dig has occupied much of Berkland’s time since she returned to her native Boston in 1986. For five years post-Dickinson she worked in Carlisle as program director for a residential-treatment facility for adjudicated females. “The ocean and family brought me back to Boston,” she says.

She landed a job digging in the dirt for archaeological-management companies and feeding another passion, cooking, as a caterer. Excavating was more in line with her Dickinson major, anthropology. She was inspired by Dickinson anthropologists Julius and Melissa Kassovic, “who nurtured that connection to studying culture and my interest in New World histories.”

Berkland relished being part of a crew “digging privies, exposing sites for the first time in hundreds of years. My most exciting times have been working in the trenches. I like to get dirty.”

One of richest privies in the path of the Big Dig belonged to Katherine Nanny Naylor. While Nailor’s privy contained items that bespoke the everyday life of a 17th-century Boston woman, she was not your typical Puritan. Through documentary research Berkland discovered that Nailor had petitioned for divorce.

“She supported two children [as a seamstress] after her husband impregnated a servant. I found a reference to a letter asking her to send his clothes [after he moved away with the servant].”

Tending the Big Dig—to conclude in 2005—has been part of her role as city archaeologist since Berkland took the job eight years ago. She reviews all construction projects planned for Boston to ensure that no important archaeological sites will be destroyed, and manages the City Archaeology Laboratory, Education and Curation Center, which contains more than 276 collections owned by the commonwealth. She also leads a volunteer program that brings archaeology to the public. Next to privy digging, outreach is her favorite activity.

“I love sharing information and having people ‘get’ why it’s important,” she explains. As the Big Dig winds down, she’s also “looking at the big problem of funding for conservation and curation [of artifacts].”

Yet another of Berkland’s titles is manager for Rainsford, a city-owned, 11.4-acre island in Boston Harbor that she calls “Boston’s version of Ellis Island.

“Rainsford had a quarantine hospital as well as a home for paupers and house of reformation. The mayor of Boston in the 1700s sent a port physician to search cargo and passengers coming into the harbor. If they were diseased or contaminated, he sent them to Rainsford to be cleansed and quarantined. There are many extant foundations associated with multiple institutions as well as a cemetery.”

Berkland even has a family connection to Rainsford. “I found out my great uncle on my mother’s side, Jack McGee, had been one of the bad boys at the house of reformation,” she says with a chuckle.

She’s now looking at a master plan for the island to find “ways to make it more accessible. This includes transportation and policing. I’d like to bring groups out here. It’s one of my incentives to get my captain’s license. Now I’m just waiting for someone to donate a salvage vessel or other type of water transportation.”

Another reason Berkland earned her captain’s bars this spring is for her second sojourn to Africa. A year ago she helmed a boat and cooked for an underwater expedition co-sponsored by the Royal Moroccan Navy and the king’s gendarme that explored fishing and anchorage sites from Roman times. In January and February she plans to work with the group, this time in the Canary Islands.

“The maritime industry is in my future, at least my retirement,” Berkland notes. “I’m anticipating my next adventure, wondering what’s going to happen. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”


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