Race to dig at historic cemetery a mere hint of what ails Philadelphia's oversight of buried treasures

Construction Site Coffins Found
Crews working on an apartment building in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood got a shock last month when their backhoes started hitting coffins and unearthing fully intact human remains.

Archaeologists had Philadelphia on the edge of its seat this past week as they raced to excavate what may be hundreds of coffins from a historic Arch Street burial ground under a tight Saturday deadline imposed Monday by a housing developer.

On Friday, the developer PMC Property Group decided to give the archaeologists the time they needed to remove the human remains from the old First Baptist Church burial ground between Second and Third Streets. Weather permitting, they hope to finish next week.

Jonathan Stavin, a PMC executive vice president, said the developer would also take the case to Orphans' Court to get the OK for reinterment in Mount Moriah Cemetery, where the entirety of the burial ground was supposed to have been moved in 1860. It now appears that families and neighbors torn asunder for more than 150 years will be reunited.

In Philadelphia, this ostensibly positive outcome is highly unusual for ancestral bones and historic artifacts uncovered unexpectedly during a construction project, a frequent happening.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground on Wednesday afternoon, March 8, 2017 as a construction company clears the space for construction of an apartment building.

All too often, these important clues to the city's past and remnants of its people are quietly scooped up by builders and carted off to landfills, torn from the ground by looters and collectors, or shattered and ground to bits by excavators and auger boring drills.

In virtually every neighborhood – the river wards, Kensington, Old City, Society Hill, Southwest Philadelphia, Germantown, West Philadelphia  – the accumulated human past stretching back to colonial days and beyond lies everywhere beneath our feet.

And almost all of it is without municipal protection.

"I think right now, we're suffering a devastating loss of history," said Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (PAF), an educational and service association.

"Over the last couple of years, it's gotten exponentially worse," Mooney said. "With all the construction going on now, the potential loss of archaeological resources -- it's just tremendous. And because no one is looking, we don't even know what we're losing."

The answer is a lot.

Camera icon GLENN PERLMAN
The dig site’s human remains are being preserved. The developer is seeking permission to reinter the bodies in Mount Moriah Cemetery, where the burial ground was supposed to have been moved in 1860.

The city with the most to lose

"Philadelphia is the premier city in the colonial period, hands down," said Carmen Weber Creamer, who served as the city's only staff archaeologist – ever – in the late 1980s. "There are extensive archaeological collections in Philadelphia that are much more intact than in any other Eastern city."

But those collections – deposits in the city's mundane dirt – are disappearing, despite the fact that the Philadelphia Code specifically proclaims that preservation of archaeological resources is a "public necessit[y] in the interests of the health, prosperity, and welfare of the people of Philadelphia."

Indeed, archaeological protections could become a huge headache for the city as Kenney administration officials gear up for a much-touted $500 million renovation of parks, playgrounds, and rec centers.

Mooney, who sits on the historic designation committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, did a quick preliminary map check on the location of old burial grounds. What he found was a strong correlation with current city playgrounds and parks.

"There could be a real problem," he said.

History's grubby stepchild

The purpose of the Historical Commission is to identify and protect such resources. Nevertheless, archaeology – perhaps because its treasures cannot be seen, perhaps because it is expensive – is more often than not treated as the grubby stepchild of preservation.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies.

In the case of the bones discovered on Arch Street, officials at the city Historical Commission, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Medical Examiner's Office, and the state Historical and Museum Commission all said it wasn't their responsibility. Ajeenah Amir, spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, contended, "Cemeteries are governed by state law, and not within our local jurisdiction."

Charged by law to address archaeological preservation, the Historical Commission rarely appears eager to dirty its hands with excavations. Potential treasures then slip through history's fingers.

When the Shirt Corner complex east of Third Street on Market Street was demolished in 2014, for example, bottle collectors swarmed over the site, plucking up artifacts to a degree that amazed archaeologists.

The PAF tried with no success to rouse the Historical Commission to protect the site and authorize archaeological work, sending a written plea to Jonathan Farnham, executive director, outlining the pending danger.

The letter was ignored.

Farnham said that the Historical Commission "did not identify" the site for its "archaeological potential at the time it [was] designated" and could do nothing as a result.

Amateur bottle collectors "dug in multiple spots," PAF archaeologist Jed Levin said. "There was no documentation. There was no site mapping. We lost all the information."

One collector showed Levin and his colleagues a unique glazed ceramic pot, very reminiscent of African American earthenware found south of the Chesapeake, taken from a privy pit along Market Street.

It was unlike anything Levin had ever seen here and suggested an 18th-century black pottery industry in the city – something that would be a complete surprise. It is now an unsolvable mystery.

Another lost chance

In 2016, the Historical Commission declined to designate as historic the site of the old Mutual Burial Ground of Kensington, located beneath a planned development at 1934-48 Frankford Ave.

The developer, Ori Feibush, wanted to demolish two garages, dig out a foundation, and build residences.

Kensington historian Kenneth Milano heard about the building project and quickly nominated the ground, in active use during the first half of the 19th century, for historic designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Milano said he believed it important "to see if we could get information about our community." The burial ground had been started by German immigrant laborers, in many ways the founding fathers of Kensington.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground.

But the Historical Commission seemed not to understand the basic purpose of protecting such unseen and unnamed resources. David Schaaf, a member of the commssion's historic designation committee, puzzled over the nomination. He said he had "trouble pinpointing exactly what resource the historical commission would be protecting," according to the minutes of the designation meeting.

Feibush hired his own archaeologist, who did a small test excavation, uncovering the skull of a cat. "I don't know what more could be done," Feibush's lawyer told the Historical Commission.

After a back-and-forth among members, the commission decided to ignore the recommendation of its own historical designation panel, the only body where a professional archaeologist participates. The verdict: no designation.

The site remains unprotected. Feibush says no bones or gravestones have turned up.

Advice unheeded

Even when the Historical Commission specifically directs a developer to pay attention to archaeological resources, the result can be less than ideal.

This proved to be the case with the One Water Street residential development next to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, another PMC Property project. PMC came into the picture after an earlier failed development at the site for which the commission had mandated an archaeological study and report in 2006

north of the site lay the old Hertz parking lot, where then-city archaeologist Creamer led a famous 1987 excavation that uncovered remains of a vast early shipyard lying below the asphalt. The Hertz lot became the first archaeological site listed on the city's historic register.

The 2006 report for what became One Water Street stated it was highly likely more shipping infrastructure lay beneath the One Water Street site. It went on to say that a development plan – to drill to bedrock and insert concrete piles for the foundation – might be archaeologically appropriate with close monitoring.

But the idea of drilling through the city's early waterfront horrified members of the archaeological forum in 2012. They warned the Historical Commission, when PMC's One Water Street was gearing up, that the drilling could be calamitous and early artifacts could be destroyed by the auger-bit drilling process.

The commission let the developer forge ahead anyway. "We said, 'Don't do it,' " Mooney said. "The commission ... completely disregarded us. They drilled 375 holes, and just as we said, what the drill pulled up -- there was no way you could tell what it was. No way you could tell what was there. It's a terrible approach, and everything was ground up by the drill."

The project moved forward; no early waterfront evidence emerged in the muck.

Thanks, Uncle Sam

In Philadelphia, a large portion of the past that has not been lost has been rescued by federal rules requiring exploration of what may lie hidden in the soil. For instance, remnants of an entire 18th-century block emerged from a 2000 excavation on Independence Mall that preceded construction of the National Constitution Center. Children's toys, legible newspapers, work tools, the varied lives of the block's varied residents emerged -- thanks to federal requirements.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies

What is likely the first porcelain made in America -- a simple white bowl referred to by one expert as "the holy grail of American ceramics" -- was found in 2016 beneath the soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets, former site of a National Park Service facility. Again the federal government required the excavation.

Such artifacts are often the only aids in determining the meaning of the past and who lived here, from simple laborer to powerful politician, and no other Eastern city has anything approaching the buried archaeological treasure and potential of Philadelphia.

Yet Boston and New York, for instance, have stronger approaches to their hidden pasts. Boston has an established position of city archaeologist who serves as chief public educator as well as a regulator. In New York, the Landmark Preservation Commission has an archaeologist on its staff.

Archaeologist Levin, who has worked up and down the East Coast, said that in both cities, archaeological resources are taken far more seriously than they are here. It's not that conflicts between the buried past and living growth do not occur in those other cities.

"It's how they are handled when they do occur," Levin said. "They actually enforce what [laws] they have."

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
The remains, dating to the mid-1700s, will be studied then may be reinterred at the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Philadelphia is spotty to say the least in enforcing laws and regulations protecting the buried past.

Of the city's 13 official historic districts, only Society Hill is designated as an area with archaeological potential, and even there, consideration for what might lie underground is minimized.

As one example, in April 2013 the Historical Commission considered a development request for sites in the 500 block of South Front Street, a vacant lot.

The minutes of the April 2013 Historical Commission meeting report: "Nothing in the quick research indicates that anything unusual or exceptional occurred at these sites. Therefore, while it is likely that archaeological artifacts would be found at the site, it appears unlikely that they would reveal 'important information in pre-history or history.' "

To Mooney, this illustrates exactly why professional archaeological judgment is needed on the commission and its staff.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies

"What they're thinking is that the point of archaeological investigation is to document the exceptional," Mooney said. "What they don't understand is that, especially in an urban setting like Philadelphia, what archaeology is really good at is documenting everyday life, mundane life.

"The real nitty-gritty of what life was like in the city is what was not written down. You can't get at it any other way."

The commission approved the proposed work at the Front Street site.

Would one expert be too much to ask?

Commission executive director Farnham insists that "artifacts of the everyday lives of ordinary people are as important, if not more important, than those of famous historical figures."

Asked if the commission has any plans to hire a staff archaeologist, he said: "No."

This reluctance comes despite a critical assessment from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which reviews the performance of the Philadelphia Historical Commission to ensure that the city and state remain eligible for federal grants under a special program known as the Certified Local Government program.

Comments from several preservation groups were solicited by the Historical and Museum Commission and incorporated into a report, completed in May 2016. Many cited the absence of a staff archaeologist or commission member as a "critical deficiency" of the commission.

The report suggests that the commission is overwhelmed by "the tremendous volume of permit applications for buildings" that "requires existing scant resources for staff to be directed toward above-ground resources while archaeological resources receive only cursory attention in the permit review process."

What that means is archaeologists, if they are involved at all, are called in at the last moment, when the bulldozers and Bearcats are revving up on-site.

This is the scene so vividly illustrated by the race to exhume the coffins on Arch Street.

Camera icon BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
The volunteers work at the site of the former First Baptist Church burial ground on Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets

But for every Arch Street there is a Water Street. For every protected site, there are multiple vacant lots, any of which may hold "a holy grail" of some sort  crushed by a backhoe.

"Things get showcased but then they are destroyed," said archaeologist Deborah Miller, commenting on the bottle collectors who picked the Shirt Corner site clean.

"We shout our history from the rooftops," said Miller, "but then don't do anything."

Continue Reading