Articles

The Race to Rescue the Remains of an 18th-Century Cemetery

When a forgotten graveyard was unearthed at a Philadelphia construction site, no city agency would step in. The Mütter Institute came to the rescue, but now it needs the public’s help.

A coffin at the Arch Street excavation of a recently rediscovered burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Last fall, human bones were discovered in a construction site at 218 Arch Street in Philadelphia. Work was stopped, but it was unclear how these human remains, dating to an 18th-century burial ground, would be treated. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the medical examiner alerted the appropriate agencies, all of which stated, “there was nothing they could do; all said they lacked jurisdiction in the matter.”

Then the Mütter Institute, the research branch of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, stepped in. The private developers of the site allowed the institute’s team of forensics and archaeology volunteers to quickly exhume the remains. The bones and other artifacts are now in storage, and the Mütter has launched a crowdfunding campaign, the Arch Street Bones Project, to raise urgent funds for the protection, study, and reinterment of the remains at Mount Moriah Cemetery. That’s where the bones were supposed to go when their cemetery, part of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, was presumably relocated between 1859 and 1860.

The Arch Street excavation of the burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

“Because we were kind of taken by surprise by the enormity of this site, it’s not something that our institution, which is a small museum, was able to budget for,” Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum and director of the Mütter Institute, told Hyperallergic. “We are really relying on our public to step up and help us.” Dhody said her “number one priority right now” is getting the remains out of temporary storage centers into a climate-controlled facility, with public donations going immediately towards their transportation.

A coffin at the Arch Street excavation of the burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

“Once we get all the remains removed and they’re in a secure location, the plan is to clean and inventory all of the remains, so that will give us a better idea of how many individuals we’re dealing with,” Dhody said. It’s a huge initiative, yet she affirmed how vital it was that the Mütter take the lead on it. “We are one of the oldest professional societies in continuous operation in the United States, we have a significant history in the city of Philadelphia, and we thought it was important, as members of the historic Philadelphia community, to do our part to rescue these individuals.” The Mütter “felt like we had a moral obligation to do what we could,” she added.

It’s difficult to estimate how many individuals were at the site, as the findings include jumbles of unassociated bones. Over 70 surprisingly intact, plain wood coffins were unearthed this February, having possibly been protected by dense clay soil. “The deposition time period is very extensive,” Dhody said. “The church was formed around 1707, and then there are records of burials up to the 19th century.”

In many urban areas (including New York City, where an African burial ground was rediscovered in the early 1990s), cemeteries can be forgotten beneath new development, especially when they’ve previously been recorded as exhumed. And when private owners take control of that land, archaeological investigation becomes limited. The New York City Archaeological Repository, for instance, only includes objects found on public property.

“This is privately owned property and a private construction project, and the way that the laws are written in Philadelphia, there are no legal rights for the archaeologists to stop construction,” Dhody explained. “We were at the good will of the developers [PMC Property Group], and we were very lucky that they were amenable to us to come in. For every happy ending, there are cemeteries that just get bulldozed away into oblivion. ”

The Arch Street excavation of the burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)
The Arch Street excavation of the burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Beyond respecting the memory of the buried people, their rediscovery can also be valuable for better understanding early life in a city. Their remains could shed light on past epidemics and diseases, shifting demographics from immigration, indications of child mortality, and historical coffin architecture, as well as offering the potential to resurrect individual stories. The Mütter will create a website where the public can track the progress of the Arch Street Bones Project in real time, including plans for any future digital or physical exhibitions.

Working with the Friends of Mount Moriah, a group that supports the preservation of another cemetery, the Mütter hopes to give these remains both the dignity and the archaeological attention they deserve. It’s a colossal, volunteer-driven task, and one that needs public backing, but Dhody emphasized its importance. “This is our history,” she said.

The Arch Street excavation of the burial ground in Philadelphia (photo by Evi Numen, courtesy the Mütter Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Support the Mütter Institute’s Arch Street Bones Project on CauseVox.

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