In 1707, the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, which was less than 10 years old, found a permanent home at a Quaker meeting house on what is now Arch Street in the Old City area. The Quakers soon moved out, but the Baptists stayed on, building new brick buildings as the congregation grew—and an adjacent cemetery to bury those who died. By 1763, the church decreed that congregants who chipped in for the building of a meeting house could be buried for one dollar. Others would have to ante up at least two dollars.
For most of the next century, that cycle of growth and death continued, until First Baptist became too large for its location and decided to move to another spot nearby. The church made an agreement with the newly chartered Mount Moriah Cemetery that in 1859, the remains of the people in its cemetery would be moved to section 112 of Mount Moriah.
But as construction workers discovered last fall, the bodies hadn't been moved. They were still literally six feet under.
As the crew from PMC Property Group broke ground on the former church site to build an apartment complex, bones began appearing. At first it was just a box full, and not all of them were human. They were also unclaimed, as Kimberlee Moran, director of forensic science at Rutgers University-Camden, read in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper reported that local and state agencies typically charged with looking after cultural heritage said they had no jurisdiction in this case, because the remains were discovered on private land in a privately funded project. The site manager told the paper that unless someone claimed them, the bones would buried in the concrete floor of the building's parking garage. "They'll be there forever," he said.
That's when Moran called Anna Dhody, director of the Mütter Institute and curator at the Mütter Museum. Dhody contacted the developer and said the museum would take temporary custodianship of the remains, clean them, and then re-inter them at Mount Moriah, with which the museum already had a relationship.
The construction crew resumed work. In late February, Dhody got an email from PMC saying a backhoe had unearthed more remains. Dhody asked how many more. “‘You’d better come down here,’” the PMC representative told her.
So she and Moran did. “And there’s just remains everywhere,” Dhody recalled to mental_floss. There were both exposed bones and sealed coffins, which would turn out to be buried three to four deep in some places. “It became clear to us that there at least was a substantial chunk of the cemetery that had not even been touched," Dhody says.
In March, Dhody and Moran put together an emergency archaeology dig to remove all the human remains. Dhody says, “We sent out the bat signal, or the trowel signal” to colleagues all over the country. Archaeologists and forensic scientists from Massachusetts to Maryland joined the roughly week-long salvage operation. PMC paused construction and loaned equipment and crew for the project.
Working in teams of 12, the crew excavated an area roughly 20 feet x 50 feet x 6 feet, mapping the layout of the discoveries on paper by hand as a photographer documented it all. “The concentration of coffins in there was staggering,” Dhody says.
In all, at least 80 sets of human remains were found during the emergency excavation—but there are a lot more people than that, says Moran. That single box of bones turned into 50 boxes, many of them unassociated with coffins, of which there are about 70. Roughly half of the coffins are intact. In all, Moran says, there are at least 100 people—so many, the researchers can’t house them all in one spot, so the remains are currently divided among a few locations, including the Mütter Museum and Rutgers-Camden.
More may remain underground, hidden beneath adjacent standing buildings; according to historical maps of the cemetery, the area they excavated was in the middle of the burying ground. In that area, at least, “I’m hopeful that we got everyone out,” Moran says.
Now here’s where you come in. The researchers are trying to raise $20,000 to house the remains in one place and analyze them. It's called the Arch Street Bones Project. Right now, the research is entirely reliant on crowdfunding.
The project has the potential to open a new window on life in Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States, through some of the most transformative periods of American history—from the pioneering urban settlements of the early 18th century through the period just before the Civil War. Who were these early Philadelphians? Were they European or African? What were their lives like? What did they eat? How did manual labor and childbirth leave marks on their bones? What kinds of diseases and injuries plagued them? Did some of them die during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, and others the 1849 cholera epidemic? Their bones hold the potential to answer all of these questions.
I’m going to be there in the lab with the scientists as they conduct their research, including opening some of these coffins for the first time.
The first step will be to create a biological profile of each person: sex, age at time of death, height, racial or ethnic origin, and any injuries or pathologies that leave marks on the skeleton, such as osteoporosis. Further down the line, the research team would like to do isotopic studies (which can indicate where they were born), hair analysis, and analytical chemistry of the bones to identify the kinds of foods they were eating, and whether the dead had any nutritional deficiencies.
The team already has some initial insights into the remains. “We truly have a cross-section of society,” says Moran. “We have everything from the very, very young—the smallest coffin that I personally excavated was not much larger than a shoebox—and then we have the very, very old. We have some individuals who’ve lost all their teeth, and you can tell from their bones that they made it well into their ‘70s, or maybe even beyond, which is pretty significant for this time period, when mortality rates were relatively high, and people didn’t live too long. We’ve got men and women, we’ve got teenagers … and that’s great, because that gives us a really interesting sample population.”
Moran continues, “A number of people—and some of them pretty old people—had various ridges on their long bones of their arms and legs that were well defined, and that’s indicative of having some pretty significant muscle mass. So I don’t know if that means these individuals were laborers, but they were strong. Even the old people were strong.”
These muscled people were split between men and women. One woman, whose remains were found in the last coffin the team pulled out of the ground, was virtually toothless—but she had nevertheless been very strong when she died.
Other initial findings suggest unique genetic traits shared among several people. “We have quite a few people that appear to be male—their pelvis tells us they’re males—but they kind of have feminine facial features,” Moran says. She cautions that these are very preliminary assessments, but “on the very surface of things, we have quite a few men whose skulls don’t have the same kind of heavy, masculine features that you would expect to see in a masculine skeleton—they don’t have a heavy brow ridge, or other kind of prominent skull features. So that’s interesting.”
These kinds of unexpected skeletal features may be useful to family, racial, and ethnic identification. For additional insight, the researchers are bringing in a forensic artist who does facial reconstructions based on skull features.
So far, surprisingly few artifacts have been recovered. There are few textiles beyond the soles of leather shoes. There are no buttons or aglets, jewelry or hair pins. There is a good amount of hair—which is also surprising, because the same soil conditions that caused some bones to crumble should've also destroyed the hair.
After analysis, the remains will be re-interred at Mount Moriah Cemetery—and the researchers are determined that it will actually happen this time, unlike in 1859. (Mount Moriah is itself in disrepair, but that's another story.) No one “owns” these remains. The researchers have custodianship over them for now, and they are fascinated with the remains’ potential to reveal new insights about the history of Philadelphia and the United States. But they’re also keenly aware of the fact that these people need to be interred in section 112 of Mount Moriah—the place they were supposed to have been all this time.
It's unclear whether anyone was moved to Mount Moriah. "There are headstones in section 112 that belonged to the First Baptist folks, but they were repurposed into a walkway," Moran says. "There are some headstones that are standing, but they are too weathered to see any inscription. It’s hard to say if anyone was moved. Section 112 was used after the 1860 move, so there are lots of more modern burials there. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know for sure."
Nevertheless, Moran and Dhody hope that by cross-referencing with historical documents—archives, death and church records, newspaper accounts—there's a chance that they may be able to identify some of these individuals and, potentially, their living descendants.
“We’re just generally trying to be respectful,” Moran says. “We don’t want to make this a salacious story.”
If you’re as fascinated with this discovery as the researchers are—and I am—then chip into the project, and join us in the lab. Dhody says, "We've got years of work ahead of us."
All photos are courtesy of The Mütter Institute of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.