Excavating the Old North Church – Looking Ahead

In 2023, Christ Church in Boston—better known as the Old North Church—will celebrate its 300th anniversary. Last week, we revisited the Old North as it exists in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries and our reasons for setting part of the story in its basement crypts. That excavation is strictly fictional, but a real excavation was recently completed in those same crypts.

In advance of planned celebrations around the tricentennial, an eleven million dollar campaign will fund major restorations around the church and within the crypts where brick is crumbling, and the locks and plaster that have sealed the tombs for centuries are disintegrating. In addition,  massive metal pipes run through the extremely damp basement walkways, part of an early twentieth century fire prevention system. I took the picture to the right during my first tour of the crypts in 2009. The bottommost pipe crossing the walkway is only four feet above the floor, forcing visitors to scramble underneath to continue their journey through the crypts.

To make the crypts more visitor friendly, the crypt floor will be dropped eighteen inches and the existing metal pipes will be moved. Additionally, a dehumidification system will be installed to make the crypts a drier, warmer environment. However, a sermon in the church’s records from the late 1800s indicated a body buried beneath the walkways surrounding the crypts. If human remains are found during the upcoming renovations, then all work would be halted until the remains could be carefully and respectfully removed. To avoid any work slowdowns, the Boston Archeology Program started a trail dig, specially looking for human remains.

They excavated four units, one in each of the four hallways of the main crypt. Each unit was approximately four feet square and was excavated down to a depth of two feet, as that is the extent of the future renovation. While no human remains were found, a selection of other artefacts were recovered: rat bones, a coffin handle, stoneware shards, burial shroud pins, and a brick and shale floor drain.

With this project complete, the crypt renovations can now move forward. After the renovations are complete, if you have a chance to see the Old North Church, I’d highly recommend visiting this wonderful piece of history for both the church proper (including the bell tower) and the crypts. And this might just be the excuse I need for tour #3. The other two tours were fantastic, but being able to see the crypts without the acrobatics of climbing around pipes would definitely be worth another visit!

Photo credit: Boston Archeology and Jen Danna