Researchers excavate remains from centuries-old cemetery
“They’re just bones, until we can figure out who lived in these bones,” said George Leader as he stood next to the remains of an elderly woman, carefully arranged in anatomical order on a sheet of plywood.
The professor from The College of New Jersey’s School of Sociology and Anthropology is working with forensic archaeologist Kimberlee Sue Moran of Rutgers-Camden to excavate and catalog more than 160 sets of human remains — and counting — that were discovered at a construction site in Philadelphia’s Old City beginning in late 2016.
The Courier-Post reports that the remains were from the former burial ground of Old First Baptist Church, established in 1707, and date from the mid-1700s to the 1860s: three generations, nearly 100 years, a trove Moran calls “a once-in-many-lifetimes” find for historians, archaeologists, anthropologists — anyone interested in the past and what it can tell us in the present.
Working in a previously vacant building along an industrial stretch of Burlington County highway, Moran, Leader and their team are digging, painstakingly cleaning bones from the dirt, mud and detritus of two centuries of Philadelphia history. For the last three weeks, they’ve used trowels, toothpicks, brushes and their own gloved hands to meticulously search for clues about who these people were, how they lived and perhaps even how they died.
Each of the wooden coffins is in varying states of preservation — or decay. Once opened, delicate material might be compromised, so for the ones that were most well preserved, researchers were both anxious to see what was inside and hesitant to dismantle them.
Before they opened up the most-intact coffins, Moran and Leader brought in Gerald Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University.
Conlogue and his own team of students from the Connecticut college, as well as visiting students from University College Dublin, brought in imaging equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to see what might await them once the coffins were opened.
“I’d never X-rayed coffins before,” said Conlogue, who has a long career that includes a National Geographic Channel called “Mummy Road Show,” in which he traveled the world examining mummified remains.
One coffin, almost achingly tiny and very much intact, clearly belonged to an infant or very young child.
The first thing Conlogue and his team discovered: This body was likely buried in a shroud, without clothing. X-rays revealed not only the nails used to seal the small, gable-lidded casket, but also small pins inside used to secure the shroud around the body.
“It was beautiful,” Conlogue said. “(Leader and Moran) were excited because these pins will usually corrode, but we were able to see them.”
There was some personal satisfaction in the find for Conlogue as well, he said: The first set mummy he’d examined was the Mutter Museum’s “Soap Lady,” and from that 1986 X-ray he determined she was not as old as previously thought — because he discovered the same type of pins as those he found on the infant, pins not made until the 1830s, not the 1790s as the Soap Lady’s original custodian believed.
It was a rare opportunity for his students to learn about imaging, he said.
“It was a great experience for them,” he said. Modern imaging technology is geared toward the living, but working on the Arch Street coffins challenged students to “figure things out and go back to the basics,” he said.
There was another advantage: “Working with live patients, they can’t make mistakes. Here, they could, and I could make that into a teachable moment.”
Rutgers has provided the financing to rent the space, Moran said, and offered her other support for the project.
“Kimberlee Moran’s work helps all of us, as residents of the Delaware Valley, better understand our history and our heritage,” said Mike Sepanic, a university spokesman.
“It also gives Rutgers University-Camden students an exceptional opportunity to learn about science and history in a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of way.”
Students and volunteers work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily. Victoria Solomon, a College of New Jersey biology major, noted that bones “are really living tissue, even though we don’t think of them that way… We think they’re these hard, fixed things but everything that happens in the body affects the bones.”
Chelsea Cordle is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Rowan University whose interest is in dental remains.
“I love mysteries, and I love history,” she said. “I’ll keep coming here as long as they let me.”
So what are researchers learning about the people who seemed to be forgotten for more than two centuries?
Nearly all of them were buried in shrouds and nothing else, and with few exceptions, in plain wooden coffins with gabled lids. One casket for an infant or small child had ornate metalwork with cherubs’ faces; Moran theorized that the child came from a wealthy family.
Many of the remains belonged to “really old people, or babies and toddlers,” Moran noted, though one set of remains seemed to be from a teenage boy around 15 to 17 years old. That set of remains raised another question: Its bones weren’t all properly fused for a person that age, perhaps due to malnourishment or a congenital condition — something that may be determined with lab analysis.
Dental remains were surprisingly well preserved, with many people having full or nearly full sets of healthy teeth even in old age. Moran said that likely was a result of low-sugar diets of the day. Many of the skeletons indicate the people were robust; the bones suggest they were hard-working people.
Still, “Philadelphia (in the late 1700s and early 1800s) was a really unhealthy place to be,” Moran said. “There was cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, syphilis, all these diseases.”
“We have this very Hollywood-ized version of what life was like in Colonial Philadelphia,” Leader said. “But really, it was a very difficult place to live.
Some skeletons revealed surprises, like soft tissue remains — desiccated brains inside skulls, lungs hidden behind ribs, a liver lurking in an abdominal cavity, spinal cords inside vertebrae, hair, and even a 250-year-old specimen Leader bagged and discreetly labeled “Male, pelvic region, center.”
Materials unearthed near or with the remains also provide clues: soles of shoes, fragments of ceramics, bottles and bits of tobacco pipes have all been discovered and will also be analyzed.
“Once a graveyard was derelict, it became a place where people threw their trash,” Leader said. “All these things help give us context about the dates, their lifestyles, what they did.
“Every coffin has a story.”
There may soon be more stories to tell, more mysteries to unravel. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in June, more remains have been unearthed at the Arch Street site, and the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum asked that construction work be halted to allow for a formal excavation.