By Wayne Curtis
This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
Not much is left of the Remer property. Located in Philadelphia’s Kensington-Fishtown neighborhood, the lot wasn’t very large to begin with— just shy of twenty feet wide and a shade over 150 feet deep. It contained a house that was occupied from the late-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries by the descendants of Matthew Remer, who immigrated here from Germany in the 1750s. When the last of the Remers moved out, the lot passed through various hands over the decades.
The Remer property was eventually acquired by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in the 1960s to accommodate I-95, the new interstate highway being built along the East Coast that stretches from Maine to Florida. Not long after came the earth movers and cement mixers and hard-hatted workers, who built a tall and imposing concrete abutment on the property that had all the subtlety of a medieval fortification. All that remained of the lot was a narrow, weedy strip that served as a repository for discarded coffee cups and windblown litter.
AECOM crew excavates a portion of the Dyottville Glass Works factory complex. The archaeological work revealed a wealth of information about the construction and frequent alteration of this building throughout the nineteenth century, the evolution of the landscape on which it was built, and the myriad glass products and “whimsies” manufactured by the skilled Dyottville artisans. | Credit: Image courtesy of FHWA, PennDOT, and AECOM
Intact early nineteenth-century domestic artifact deposits found in a box privy feature. Numerous wood-lined box and barrel privy features have been found during the investigations of the I-95/Girard Avenue Interchange Improvement project and they have frequently contained voluminous artifact deposits that help archaeologists learn about the specific families and households that lived on these properties. | Credit: Image courtesy of FHWA, PennDOT, and AECOM
Archaeologists recovered these childhood artifacts. (Left to right) The pearlware child’s plate entitled “Keeping School” dates between 1825 and 1840. The two glazed china doll heads are of molded porcelain and were sewn or pasted onto coarse cloth bodies, perhaps with matching porcelain arms and legs, and likely date between the 1830s and 1870s. Boys probably used the porcelain marbles and iron jack. These artifacts are in scale except for the plate, which is approximately 6.5 inches in diameter. | Credit James Burton
These assorted glass condiment containers, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century, were recovered from the Cramp-Bumm Site in Kensington-Fishtown. | Credit: Thomas J. Kutys
Rockingham vessels typically featured a buff or yellow ceramic body with a distinctive brown mottled glaze and elaborate relief molded decoration. Rockingham had its origins in the late eighteenth century, but the more mottle glazes—as seen on these pitchers—did not become common until the 1840s. These streaked glazes peaked in popularity during the 1850s and 1860s, remaining the prevailing style through the 1870s. This particular pair of pitchers is unique due to the combination of their plain, hexagonal shapes and “North Wind” pour spouts bearing identical bearded faces. | Credit: Images courtesy of FHWA, PennDOT, and AECOM
But that strip has yielded a vast treasure trove of local history. Archaeologists excavating it have recovered some 250 Native American artifacts dating from approximately 1200 to 500 B.C. They have also found a series of ten barrel and box privies, which contained some 25,000 Euro-American artifacts ranging from a single domino to an English pearlware bowl.
“And at the bottom of one of them, we found a pair of eyeglasses,” said Doug Mooney, a senior archaeologist with AECOM, a Fortune 500 engineering firm that is involved in the reconstruction of the Girard Avenue interchange segment of I-95 as well as the archaeological work that, mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, precedes the construction. The team sought advice from experts in historic eyewear. ”And they looked at (the glasses), and they were like, you guys have no idea what you have here,” Mooney said. Eyeglass experts have flown over from Germany just to inspect them. It turns out they may be the oldest eyeglasses ever found in America.