Archaeologists beat the clock and the storm, recovering all First Baptist coffins

Archaeologists racing to excavate what had been thought to be hundreds of bodies from an old cemetery unearthed during an Arch Street development project brought their effort to a successful conclusion Monday night, hours before freezing rain and snow pummeled the city.

The team of forensic archaeologists and anthropologists working between Second and Third Streets, site of the old First Baptist Church burial ground, extracted about 70 coffins and more than 100 bodies, they said.

In many places, coffins were stacked three and four deep below ground, the archaeologists said, originally leading to fears that as many as 300 coffins might have been overlooked in 1860 when the graveyard was moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery. But not all areas of the orphaned burial ground turned out to be so densely packed.

Still, the number far exceeded what was expected when PMC Property Group first encountered a small number of bones during foundation digging for its apartment complex.

Last month, contractors hit the larger cache. PMC halted work and brought in archaeologists, then became concerned about the time given to the scientific work. Ultimately, PMC decided to let the work proceed.

The remains have been removed to the forensic-osteology lab at Rutgers-Camden. Eventually, all will be taken for reburial at Mount Moriah. PMC has said it will seek approval from Philadelphia Orphans' Court for the reinterment.

“The excavation is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum and director of the Mütter Institute, who has been a leader on the archaeological dig. “We now have months, perhaps years, of work and research ahead of us.

"The remains will need to be cleaned and an inventory conducted before we will know the final number of individuals removed from the site," she said. The Mütter Institute hopes to collaborate with additional institutions and researchers "to shed more light on the history of the parishioners of the First Baptist Church.”

The old burial ground dates from about 1707, making it one of the first established in Philadelphia.