History of the Project
Our Story so far...
On November 4, 2016 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article. That was the start of the Arch Street Project.
Kimberlee Moran, a forensic archaeologist and teaching professor at Rutgers-Camden, read the article and reached out to her colleague, Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist, curator of the Mutter Museum, and director of the Mutter Research Institute. Kimberlee's idea was simple: let's contact the developer; see if we can get our hands on, what was then a banker's box of bones; and see if any info could be gleaned from the assemblage. The project was small and descrete; it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Prior to acquiring the box of bones, Anna and Kimberlee did some background research regarding the site, its history, and regulations (or lack of) governing historic human remains on private land. In addition, they met with respresentatives from the Friends' of Mt. Moriah, a group of volunteers that help promote and maintain the Mt. Moriah Cemetary, the intended final resting place of the Arch St remains. They also assembled a small team of professionals and students willing to volunteer their time to conduct research and to help clean and document the remains.
On January 26, 2017, Anna, Kimberlee, and Ani Hatza, a forensic anthropologist, and Bill Warwick from the Friends of Mt. Moriah, arrived at 218 Arch Street to receive the box of bones. During the visit, they learned a little more about how the bones were found: a large auger was used to drill holes to lay the initial support beams for a 2-story subterranian parking deck that was being built prior to the planned condo unit. As the auger was retracted from the ground, bones were coming up with the dirt. The bones appeared to be localized in the South-west corner of the site. As the team toured the site, bones were visible on the ground and in the large pile of back-dirt. These were collected an added to the box, which was now quite full. The team learned that 30 feet of soil was going to be excavated for the parking deck. They advised the site manager that there was a strong likelihood that additional human remains would be uncovered and offered to monitor the backhoe opperations. Their offer was politely declined on the grounds of site safety. The team said their goodbyes and the box of bones was taken to the osteology lab at Rutgers-Camden.
On February 20, 2017 Kimberlee received a text message from Anna asking whether she had seen an e-mail from the site manager. Kimberlee had been delivering a workshop in New York City that day and was on her way back to Rutgers. The e-mail said that more bones were turning up and the site manager wasn't sure what to do. Kimberlee called him right away and offered to come down to the site. When she arrived she found that the backhoe excavation had begun in the South-west corner of the site. Bones were all over the ground surface, were sticking out of the pile of backdirt, and in the wall of the remaining dirt was clearly visible two gaps - coffins with long bones inside of them. The bones were collected, Anna and Ani were called. The question was - what should be done? In the meantime, the site manager agreed to let the team monitor the backhoe operations to ensure that bones did not end up in the backpile of dirt.
For the next couple of weeks, Anna, Kimberlee, and Ani re-arranged their work schedules and other committments to ensure that at least one of them was on site as much as possible. The team also investigated whether any regulations existed that could halt construction to enable a proper excavation of the site. They also consulted with other archaeologists in Philadelphia for advice and help. Unfortunately the site fell into a legal grey area. Because the construction project was completely funded with private monies and the land was privately owned, no legislation existed to halt the construction. Because the historic cemetery on the site was "moved" in 1860, the land was no longer considered historic and, therefore, was not protected. Archaeologists consulted did not want to be involved and advised the team not to engage in the project since there was no chance that the required archaeological investigation would be permitted by the developers. Such an investigation would take months, perhaps even over a year, and without any legal requirement to do so, there was no reason for the developer to take on the financial burden of such a delay. Anna, Kimberlee, and Ani were faced with an extremely
difficult decison: do they engage in a sub-standard salvage effort, potentially setting a damaging precedent, or do they walk away from the project and leave the remains to an uncertain fate?
Ultimately, the team felt it would be unethical to knowingly leave the remains. They continued to monitor backhoe opperations. As the work moved eastward across the site, full coffins started to appear. It was clear that there were mulitple layers of burials, sometimes stacked three coffins deep. No longer was this an isolated set of bones; it was clear that there was a structured burial ground. At this point the team appealed to the developer to halt excavation and allow a larger team to conduct a proper excavation. It was essential that some sort of documentation of the site be done. The developer granted the team a week and up to 12 volunteers on site. The team rushed to contact and mobilize equipment, labor, and other resources to execute as thorough of an effort as possible given the time constraint.
Between March 7th and March 13th, the team struggled to conduct the excavation. Given the limited duration, it was decided that the team would try to remove coffins intact. The coffins would be taken off-site and then internally excavated at a later date. The site was mapped; each burial received a number and was photographed. In many cases, the burials did not have well preserved coffins. These remains were excavated and put into individual storage boxes for later processing. To add to the team's troubles, the weather conditions deteriorated and the team worked in sub-freezing temperatures, in wind, rain, and even snow. A major snow storm of up to 14 inches was forecasted for March 14th, meaning that the team had to be finished.
Ultimately, thanks to many hours of hard labor under trying conditions from an exceptional team of volunteers, all the burials were recovered in time. The Arch Street Project would like to express its gratitude to all the students (Rutgers-Camden, Arcadia, Towson, UPenn), CRM archaeologists, retired archaeologists, the Forensic Archaeology Recovery group, construction workers, and other friends who lent a hand during the week. We are indebted to you! We would also like to thank those who have donated to the project. Your donations have helped to fund vital equipment, the transport of the remains, and future analysis.
Since the March 2017 excavation, the remains were in storage. In June 2017, the coffins and boxes were moved to a facility where the coffins were internally excavated, analyzed and where the cleaning of the remains began. This work was done in collaboration with Drs. Jared Beatrice & George Leader from The College of New Jersey. In July of 2017, additional burials were discovered. The excavation of these "new" burials was conducted by AECOM, a contract archaeology company. From July 2017 until the end of September 2017, more remains were transferred to our research facility daily. By the end of September, what started as a small project of around 150 burials became a very large project of nearly 500 burials!
The last coffin to be internally excavated was that of Benjamin Britton on January 2, 2018. Since then, our team has been in cleaning mode, meaning that all recovered remains must be cleaned of all remaining soil before analysis can begin. All the recovered remains will be reburied in September 2023, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Before then, our hope is to learn who these early residents of Philadelphia were, how they lived, and why were they left behind. Please visit our site for updates. We hope to share this journey with you!