Inquirer Editorial: City's history shouldn't take a back seat to development

Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground on Wednesday afternoon, March 8, 2017

The race to extract about 70 coffins and more than 100 bodies from an historic grave site in Old City to make way for a proposed apartment complex underscores the need for the city and state to develop rules for handling remains and other historical artifacts discovered at construction sites.

It is beyond belief that no government agency claimed authority to ensure the removal of graves found at what is believed to be one of the first cemeteries in Philadelphia. Instead, it was left to the developer, PMC Properties, to oversee the removal of human bones and coffins found at the site of a proposed 25-unit apartment complex where the old First Baptist Church once stood on Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets.

In the end, PMC did the right thing. But a developer should never be in charge of such an operation. Most developers have no expertise in this area. More to the point, a developer has an inherent conflict of interest in that it is racing to finish a project, not protect an historic discovery.

In fact, construction work didn't stop until an anonymous caller informed police in September that some bones had been found at the site. The Medical Examiner's Office determined the bones were historic. Archaeologists said the remains were likely from the burial grounds of First Baptist, which was established 310 years ago.

A number of agencies were informed of the discovery, including the state Historical and Museum Commission, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. But the agencies all claimed there was nothing they could do or that they lacked jurisdiction.

Backhoes started digging again. But on Feb. 20 workers discovered a larger area with scores of graves and coffins stacked three- and four-deep on the property. Construction was halted again and some of the coffins were removed. But PMC gave archaeologists less than a week to complete the excavation.

The contrived deadline shows the need for clear rules and enforcement surrounding the discovery of historically significant remains or artifacts at a construction site. At the very least, there should be regulations to ensure bodies are exhumed and moved to a proper resting place.

If current laws don't provide proper authority to any agency, then clearly new regulations need to be codified. In a city with such rich history, this will not be the first or last time developers stumble across an unexpected find. The next developer may be even less accommodating.

Indeed, the First Baptist cemetery may contain more historical artifacts than what was discovered in the rush to remove the bodies. Philadelphia owes it to its ancestors to preserve the history where so many lived and died.

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