Boylston Fishweir Site

Fishweirs are fence-like structure built out of sticks and brush in tidal zones and streams. These weirs would channel schools of fish traveling with the tides or during seasonal migrations in to areas where people could collect them for food.

In 1913, construction for the brand-new (and first) subway found thousands of odd stakes and twigs 32 feet below Boylston Street in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston.

Later construction events in 1939, 1946, and 1993 exposed even more stakes and series of weirs in Back Bay.

Until the late 1800s, Back Bay was a large tidal mud flat where the charles River would flood and fill each high tide. In the late 19th century, landmaking operations filled the area in creating the neighborhood of Back Bay.

Archaeologist and researchers have been examining the stakes, the mud around them, and the pollen within the mud for many years.

We now believe there were numerous fishweirs in Back Bay beginning around 5,200 years ago (the end of the Middle Archaic) and regularly used and rebuilt, for the next 1,500 years (into the Late Archaic).

Tree-ring evidence shows that the wooden stakes used for the main support structure of the weirs were collected towards the end of Winter. This coupled with pollen analysis indicates the weirs were most likely used to harvest the herring and other small fish that arrived each spring in huge seasonal migrations.

The abandonment of the weirs apparently was due to the changing climate. They only extended approximately 3 feet (1 meter) above the mudflats of Back Bay. At the time of their use, the tide only went up about 3 feet during hightide. As time went on, the tides grew larger and at the time of the weir abandonment, the waters at high tide would have been so deep people would not have been able to easily walk out to the weirs to collect the fish. People still lived and collected seafood from the area for thousands of years after the weirs were constructed, just changed their methods of collection in Back Bay.

Fishweirs did continue to play an important role in Shawmut, just no longer in the deep tidal area of the Back Bay. There are numerous accounts of fishweirs being used when Europeans arrived to Shawmut in the smaller rivers around Boston including Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Dorchester, however many of these rivers are now filled-in and heavily developed destroying any evidence of the weirs today.

If you do want to see a fishweir, every spring the Ancient Fishweir Project is held on Boston Common. The Fishweir is rebuilt with the help of students, archaeologists, and researchers to celebrate this ancient event!

Sources and Additional Information

 

 

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