Ancient Fishweir Project
in the place we now call Boston

Fishweir stake (preserved in PEG)

from the archeological work during the excavation for 500 Boylston Street

5,300 years ago, in what is now Boston’s Back Bay, Native people built fishweirs in tidal flats to catch alewife, smelt and salmon. These four-foot high, fence-like structures were woven of alder, willow saplings and brush wattling and were made of over 65,000 wood stakes.

Archaeological evidence discovered during subway excavation and building construction over the last one hundred years indicates that fishweirs were built over a 1500-year period in tidal marsh now located 28 to 40 feet below the Boston Common and the Back Bay.

Buried under Boylston Street and the Green Line subway, fishweirs are direct evidence of the native communities that once occupied the area where urban Boston has grown.

In a city full of bronze sculptures of historical markers and memorials, there is no public display of information about the ancient fishweirs or the people who lived here 250 generations before the colonists arrived.

By engaging the imagination with the fishweir story, the Ancient Fishweir Project seeks to expand the timeframe of history told in Boston's public places and honor the memory of Boston's early Native inhabitants.

Project Team

Ross Miller - Project Concept, Development &
                        Project Director for annual event

Nancy Murphy Spicer - Artist, Project Coordinator

Resource people and support for
the Ancient Fishweir Project include...

Judy Battat, Ginny Zanger, Boston Children's Museum

Ellen Berkland
, Archeologist, City of Boston

City of Boston Environment Department

Boston Parks and Recreation Department

Dr. Dena Dincauze
, Chief Archeologist on Boylston St.Fishweir Study

Shannon Flattery, Touchable Stories, Inc.

Jeanne Foster, elementary school teacher, Winthrop School

Henry Lee, Friends of the Public Garden

Sage Marsters, curriculum consultant

Martha McKenna, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, Lesley University, Cambridge

Nancy Seashoals, historian and author of "Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston"

Jim Peters, Executive Director, Commission on Indian Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Gil Solomon, Massachuset tribal leader

Annawon Weeden, Native American educator, Boston Children's Museum


Gill Solomon,Sachem of the Massachuset Tribe, uses a rock to pound in a stake during fishweir construction on Boston Common,

assisted by a Boston Public School student


Gill Solomon introducing students

to the fishweir project on Boston Common

listen to Gill  Solomon

Annawon Weeden and Jonathan Perry from the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers perform an Honor Dance along the fishweir on Boston Common

collecting fish caught by the fishweir

in the place we now call Boston

fishweir on Boston Common

150 feet long built from local maple, buckthorn, willow

installed during late May and June - time of the spring spawn


Note:   As an artist I have been exploring the place, use and story told by monuments in our contemporary public landscape. 

In seeking to understand the early cultural record in the place I live, I became intrigued by documents about wood fishweirs stakes discovered during Boston Subway construction in 1913.

Buried under the foundations of the tallest building in Boston, these wood stakes are preserved in the oxygen deprived grey silt of the last glacial age.

Building a fishweir on Boston Common, not far from where fishweirs were traditionally built, is an active way to imagine this place 5000 years ago. At that time family groups came to the ocean’s edge with freshly cut wood, pounded stakes into the intertidal shoreline, and waited for the cycle of tide to bring the spawning fish.

Building a fishweir today provides a new vantage point from which to interpret the contemporary built urban landscape.

A Mystery!

This is assumed to be an ancient  fishweir stake recovered from within layers of sediments under the streets of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.

No one knows exactly where, when or how this fishweir stake was collected.

This water filled jar was given to a bedside nurse by a man as he was dying in a Boston Hospital.

The only clue is that the man had worked as a lawyer in Boston’s Back Bay in the 1940’s  - at the time when underground construction along Boylston Street was uncovering fishweir stakes that had been buried for over 3,700 years.

Recently re-discovered during a house cleaning, this jar was brought by relatives of that nurse to City Archeologist Ellen Berkland... “because it seemed important”.

It is now in the collection of the Boston City Archeology Lab.

Tools left behind

by early people

Artifacts dating back 8,000 years

found at the Frog Pond in Boston Common

Photos and research

by Joe Bagley

More information:  http://www.bu.edu/research/spotlight/magazine/06/students/bagley.html