Whistling Past The Historic Graveyard

The inadvertent discovery of historic burials during a construction project in Philadelphia has revealed lax and confusing historic preservation laws in this historically-rich city.

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A team of archaeologists and volunteers excavate the site in March. Credit: Mütter Research Institute
A team of archaeologists and volunteers excavate the site in March. Credit: Mütter Research Institute

Winter 2017: By Tamara Jager Stewart.

On January 26, 2017, Kimberlee Moran, the director of forensic science at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey, and Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist and director of the Mütter Research Institute in Philadelphia, visited a construction site in Philadelphia’s Old City Historic District. The site, a vacant lot at 218 Arch Street, is where the developer, PMC Property Group, plans to build an apartment complex.

In November of 2016, Moran and Dhody had read a Philly.com story that a construction crew with Fastrack Builders, which was hired by PMC, had uncovered human remains while excavating the lot with heavy equipment. So Moran and Dhody contacted PMC and asked permission to recover a small box of bones for analysis and to survey the site. “There were bones on the surface of the grounds,” said Moran, and they were clearly from humans. They collected some bones—“enough to fit in a shoebox,” Moran recalled—for analysis. Before departing, they offered to monitor the excavation on a voluntary basis in the likely event that more remains were uncovered, but PMC declined.

Approximately three weeks later, Moran and Dhody were contacted by the construction foreman: the workers had uncovered more bones and they didn’t know what to do with them. As the construction project continued, many more bones, and in some cases entire skeletons enclosed in their caskets, were uncovered. It turns out that a portion of the lot at 218 Arch Street covers the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia Cemetery, which was in service from 1707 to the mid 1800s, when the First Baptist Church moved to another location. It was assumed that all of the graves in its cemetery were removed and reinterred in Mount Moriah Cemetery in another part of Philadelphia at that time. But after researching the historical archives, Moran and Dhody realized it was possible many more bodies were still buried in the vacant lot. “If records are correct, thousands of (bodies) were interred in this cemetery.”

Excerpt.

Read More in our Winter 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4.             Browse Content of this Issue: WINTER 2017.

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