Mütter Institute begins crowdfunding to analyze, reinter historic human remains found in Old City

Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground on March 8, 2017 as a construction company clears the space for construction of an apartment building.

The Mütter Institute has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help support the analyzation and reinterment of historic human remains recently discovered at a construction site in Old City.

Discovery of the remains began in November 2016, when a contractor for PMC Properties came across bones and gravestones while constructing a foundation for a project at 218 Arch St. in Old City, the Inquirer’s Stephen Salisbury reports. A medical examiner determined that the bones were historic, and archaeologists placed them as coming from the old First Baptist Church Burial ground, which was established in 1707 and closed in 1859.

Since then, what could be as many as 300 historic gravesites have been found in the plot, some with coffins stacked three feet deep, Salisbury reported earlier this month. According to the Mütter Institute, volunteer crews recovered more than 70 coffins from the site as of March 13.

Dubbed the Arch Street Bones Project, the Mütter Institute’s crowdfunding effort is seeking $20,000. The money will go in part toward “conducting the biological profile” of the skeletal remains, which the institute says can provide a historic look at some of Philly’s earliest residents.

“These are our ancestors. This is our history. They may have lived through, or died during, some of Philadelphia’s major public health crises; the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or the cholera epidemics of 1832 or 1849,” Mütter Institute director Anna Dhody said in a release. “We may be able to determine if any of the individuals died of these diseases by examining the remains and researching the city’s archives.”

The crowdfunding effort also will help pay to reinter the remains at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia. That location is where bodies buried at First Baptist were to have been moved when the cemetery closed in 1859.

"Or so we thought," William R. Warwick, an architect and volunteer at Mount Moriah, told the Inquirer earlier this month. "Clearly somebody didn't do the right job."

Mütter Institute's Dhody, in a release, predicted that the project would take “months, if not years” to complete. Donors to the project, Dhody added, can track its progress online as the institute documents and shares its process, and will get access to a future event highlighting the project’s progress.

Those interested in supporting the project can do so at the Arch Street Bones Project page.