Philadelphia isn’t really the city of the dead, although some unlucky developers may think otherwise.
Old burial grounds seemingly lie everywhere, and it is not an infrequent occurrence for a backhoe to dig up a human bone or a skeleton – or lots of both – along with the rocks and dirt being removed from a building site.
The Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, which has decried past haphazard handling of such cemetery locations, has now published an interactive map online that shows the locations of dozens upon dozens of cemeteries and burial grounds all over the city, from West Philadelphia to Germantown, North Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, Kensington, and Frankford.
The sites cover Center City almost like a bad case of measles.
And the map is far from complete.
Douglas Mooney, president of the forum, said that much data still must be uploaded. About 200 burial grounds have been entered in the map database, “with many more yet to enter,” he said.
The burial ground information, which archaeologists have been gathering for about a decade, can help both the city and developers, Mooney said, noting that the information is “something that could be used to prevent inadvertent impacts on unmarked cemeteries.”
Such “impacts” can be a nightmare for city officials and developers.
Last year, for instance, PMC Property Group, excavating for an apartment building foundation in the 200 block of Arch Street, stumbled onto the old burial ground of the First Baptist Church. Eventually the remains of over 400 people were exhumed from the site.
There is no city requirement that developers search historical maps in order to avoid such consequences. Mooney said that the database the archaeological forum is building could serve the city well in that capacity in the future.
“There’s no way we’ll ever map every cemetery in Philadelphia,” he said. “But we’re trying to be as comprehensive as possible.”
The city Department of Licenses and Inspections has shown what could be called guarded interest in the idea in the past. Officials at L&I could not be reached for comment Monday.
“We’re hoping this is a tool that could be used by private developers and city agencies to try and anticipate where these unmarked cemeteries and unmarked burial grounds could be present,” Mooney said. “With advance warning, someone might decide not to develop a particular site, or they might build around it, or, in the worst case, they can at least plan for removals.”
The city’s role in such circumstances has often proven to be problematic, Mooney and other archaeologists have said. In the case of the Arch Street bones uncovered by PMC throughout 2017, no city agency would acknowledge jurisdiction in the matter — not L&I, not the Philadelphia Historical Commission, not law enforcement authorities, not the medical examiner’s office.
Mooney said the forum is seeking “to get the city to accept the fact that it has to step up and take control.” He said it is possible City Council needs to pass an ordinance clarifying responsibilities the living have to the dead and forgotten.
The map will make it difficult, Mooney said, “for someone in the future to say, ‘We didn’t know.’”