An archaeological dig in Boston's Chinatown, slated to stretch through August, was shut down on Tuesday.
Boston city archaeologist Joe Bagley, who was leading the project, confirmed to WGBH News that the team hit the water table before reaching the remains of a mid-1800s row home and boardinghouse that they hoped would be packed with artifacts that could shed new light on what day-to-day life in the neighborhood was like all those years ago.
I visited the now shuttered dig — the first of its kind in this historic Boston neighborhood — on what turned out to be its next to last day.
It was hazy, hot and humid as I ambled through a bustling Chinatown, searching for the dig.
In the shadow of the Chinatown gate: a park, packed with neighborhood residents, crowded around tables playing cards. As I made my way through the park, an area came into view, conspicuous on a street so dense with buildings because it was essentially empty, save for two giant piles of dirt.
I quickly learned that those dirt piles were were far larger than planned. The team had already dug six feet down — significantly deeper than they expected — and were still on the search for evidence of the 19th century structure.
"It's been three weeks and we still haven't seen anything on this site older than me, which is not great," said Bagley.
Still, spirits were high among the dozen or so volunteers working in and around the six-foot hole on this day. There were first-timers like Emily Holden, who works a desk job in Boston and took a vacation day just to be here.
"I've never done something like this before," she said. "It's totally out of my element and it is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Rose Gruniere, a preservation studies masters student at Boston University, got some first-hand field experience.
"For me, it's very valuable just to see the process," she said. "Even if they don't find anything, it's really good for me, educationally."
Some of the volunteers were on their hands and knees, scraping and scooping deep in the ground. Others were hoisting chunks of concrete and buckets of dirt out of the hole. Still others got down to the bread and butter of a dig like this, painstakingly combing for artifacts in the dirt.
"We’re sifting," explained Holden. "I found a button. But I found a piece of china earlier, which was slightly more exciting." Neither were particularly earth-shattering finds. Still, she explained, "everything's important."
As the small team scraped, scooped and sifted in the blazing sun, a steady stream of onlookers stopped along a chain-link fence overlooking the hole to watch for a while, including Marcelo Palacios — who was visiting from Argentina.
"We just stumbled upon this archaeological treasure," said Palacios. "Looks very nice."
As the afternoon stretched on, Bagley pointed to the increasingly moist dirt and standing water they'd uncovered as causes for concern. He held out hope that the water might be contained in a 19th-century cistern, which would have indicated they were on the right track, and could have yielded a trove of artifacts. But he suspected the team might have hit the water table, a development that would force them to cease the dig.
"It feels like we're on death watch," he said. "Either it's gonna be the next phase of the dig ... or it's going to be one of the last days of the dig."
It turned out to be the latter.