Beyond The Bones

 

The skull of Benjamin Britton, a Philadelphian who died in the 1780s.

The skull of Benjamin Britton, a Philadelphian who died in the 1780s.

By Tom McLaughlin

When construction workers in Old City Philadelphia unearthed human bones at a burial site dating back to colonial times, Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor of forensics at Rutgers University–Camden, read about it in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The construction site on Arch Street had beeen a church graveyard until 1860, since then, a hat factory, car repairshop, and parking lot had been above the remains.

The construction site on Arch Street had beeen a church graveyard until 1860. Since then, a hat factory, car repair shop, and parking lot had been above the remains. Photo by Evi Numen.

And then she started digging.

She and the curator of the Mütter Museum, an associate of Moran’s, contacted the developer, who allowed a team to visit the site at 218 Arch Street. Moran suspected many more bones would turn up at what had been the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia cemetery, which dated back to 1707, establishing it as one of the city’s earliest burial grounds. Contractors gave them a box of bones for research, but did not allow them to search further.

Moran thought it would be a small, intriguing project to research and use with students.

But a month later, after more excavation where developers were building a 25-unit residential complex and parking deck, the team was called back. “Bones were all over the ground,” Moran said. “They were sticking out of the pile of back dirt, and in the wall of the remaining dirt were two clearly visible gaps—coffins with long bones inside of them.”

Researchers found that Britton had 13 sets of ribs, one more than usual.

Researchers found that Britton had 13 sets of ribs, one more than usual.

Research revealed that plans in 1860 to exhume the coffins and relocate the remains had never or only partially happened. In the intervening 157 years, the location above the abandoned remains had been the site of a hat factory, a car repair shop, and a parking lot.

Moran and fellow researchers from local institutions and universities kicked into high gear, excavating and cataloging remains, which were stored in a Rutgers–Camden lab, and as the quantity grew, in a lab in Burlington, New Jersey.

Even after their efforts found remains of more than 300 people, additional discoveries continued. “Just as we were finishing up the coffins from our excavation, new coffins were arriving on a daily basis,” Moran said. In total, remains of almost 500 individuals have been documented in the massive effort that has become known as the Arch Street Project. The long-term plan is to record the project’s findings and then reinter the remains in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia, treating the deceased with “as much respect as possible,” Moran said.

Britton, a baker and bolter (one who mills flour), was identified by a nameplate on this coffin.

Britton, a baker and bolter (one who mills flour), was identified by a nameplate on his coffin.

More than 30 Rutgers–Camden students have participated in the research, and that number is expected to increase. Samantha Muller, a Rutgers–Camden graduate student in public history who earned undergraduate degrees in history and anthropology in 2016, said her involvement “has been an amazing opportunity to be there when excavations are actually happening, when material cultures are being gathered. When you go into an archive later, you’ll have a real frame of reference to who these people were.”

Muller assisted Moran and other researchers in January, when in the final excavation of the project, an intact coffin was opened. The coffin belonged to Benjamin Britton, a man believed to be a baker and a bolter (one who mills flour) who died in the 1780s. Because of a nameplate on his coffin, he is the only individual identified by name thus far. “I can not only read about Benjamin, but I have actually met him,” Muller said.

Rutgers–Camden videographer Mary Anderson contributed to this article and took all photos here except for the one noted.

See a video about Benjamin Britton’s excavation, “What Can Bones Tell Us?” produced by Anderson.

Visit the Arch Street Project  for more information about the project by Moran and her students.

Posted in: 2018 Spring, Features

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