Bones from Arch Street excavation disappear

Bones of at least 12 people excavated from an Old City construction site by archaeologists this winter and ostensibly stored by the developer for safekeeping are now missing, according to researchers at Rutgers-Camden who are examining the human remains removed from 218 Arch St.

Kimberlee S. Moran, a Rutgers forensic archaeologist who participated in the hasty excavation and is now in charge of research on the historical remains before their reinterment, said bones associated with 78 distinct individuals and coffins were removed from Arch Street in March and placed in storage by PMC Properties.

The bones were removed from storage in the last few weeks and taken to a Rutgers research facility.

But some of the excavated bones did not turn up at Rutgers, Moran said, following a careful inventory. They’ve vanished.

A coffin had been enumerated in the initial count for each of the 12 bodies now missing.  “That coffin exists,” she said. “It was taken out of the ground. Where has it gone?”

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Bones and coffins have turned up over the last eight months at the 218 Arch St. construction site, where archaeologists pulled human remains from the ground last winter.

Jonathan Stavin, executive vice president of PMC, said he didn’t know.

“There were two locations where items were stored, and both of those locations are being checked again,” Stavin said in an email.  “As far as we are aware, everything has been turned over to the professionals handling the study and cataloging of the remains.

“We have no further comment about 218 Arch St.”

Philadelphia-based archaeologist George M. Leader, who volunteered to help on the Arch Street site as earth-moving machines closed in on hundreds of skeletal remains and coffins in March, said he was not at all surprised that bones had disappeared.

He cited the lack of regulations and procedures – a factor in the ad-hoc excavation – as “a major reason so many bones can go missing.”

These types of things will happen and will continue to happen until [regulating legislation] is put in place,” Leader said.

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A coffin with bones protrudes from an excavated wall in a June photo at 218 Arch Street.

The police, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and the state Historical and Museum Commission all said at the time of the excavation that they lacked jurisdiction to oversee exhumation of the worksite and the bones, which first began surfacing in November.

No one contacted Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, which has legal authority in matters involving cemeteries.

After the first relatively modest find in November, a large cache of coffins was hit in February, and PMC agreed to halt work for a week to allow a volunteer group of professionals to hurriedly excavate. A couple of dozen archaeologists worked the site in March, uncovering an astonishing tangle of bones, skeletons, and coffins, all apparently from the First Baptist Church burial ground, established there in 1707.

The First Baptist dead were supposedly removed in the middle of the 19th century to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia. Clearly, to a large degree that did not happen.

Moran said that as bones and skeletons were removed, their in-ground locations were mapped and photographed, and an identifying tag was affixed to each individual and coffin.

She said remains were first carted to and stored in the basement of a PMC apartment building on North Ninth Street. All but three of those coffins were eventually moved to storage containers under I-95 at Porter Street in South Philadelphia.

Moran described a frenzy of excavation. Earth movers were tearing into the ground all around the archaeologists and dumping whatever was carved out of the ground into the back of trucks that then hauled it all off to a dump site located in or near Conshohocken, she said.

Moran described “backhoes swiping and bones scattering” and coffins half chewed away by earth-moving equipment.

“I’d love to find where those trucks went,” Moran said.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Rutgers-Camden forensics professor Kimberlee Moran is leading the analysis of more than 100 bodies collected from an Old City construction site that was once a cemetery. One of the boxes of recovered bones that will be photographed by a student researcher is seen in the Science Building at Rutgers-Camden.

The 78 distinct individuals represent only a portion of the remains at the Arch Street site, Moran said. Isolated bones that could not be associated with a particular burial location or coffin were placed in boxes.

This summer, more bones began appearing at the site. The city informally asked PMC to hire a professional archaeologist and petition Orphans’ Court for permission to remove and reinter the deceased. The developer agreed.

So where are the bones?

“I’m hopeful there’s another location that [PMC officials] haven’t told us about,” Moran speculated. “There’s also the possibility that someone wanted to keep some bones.”