Rare Colonia-era Cemetery unearthed in Philadelphia

Rare Colonia-era Cemetery unearthed in Philadelphia

A colonial-era cemetery has been unearthed during building works in downtown Philadelphia. The First Baptist Church burial ground, one of the first designated cemeteries in the city, was moved in 1860 due to neglect and overcrowding but, as is becoming increasingly apparent, many of the burials were left behind.

A forensic study of the bones has created an exciting opportunity to “fill in a lot of gaps about not just Philadelphia, but the colonial period” according to Sherene Baugher, the co-author of “The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Grave Markers”. It is very rare that a colonial-era burial site is unearthed in modern times, and even rarer that the exhumed bodies are analysed, as most are reinterred straight away.

Over 3,000 people are believed to have been buried at the First Baptist Church between 1702 and 1860. This means that the bodies could offer an insight to life during some of the largest changes in American history, such as the American War of Independence, during which Philadelphia was the Continental capital and occupied by the British, and the subsequent growth of the independent United States of America after victory.

So far, 500 burials have been exhumed. Analysis of the bones shows evidence of nutritional deficiencies, such as anaemia and scurvy, and diseases such as yellow fever, chlamydia, tuberculosis and leprosy. This coincides with known epidemics of yellow fever in 1793, 1797 and 1798, believed to have been caused by the explosive population increase in Philadelphia resulting in closer and less sanitary living conditions.

Many of the bodies exhumed belong to young males and children. Unusually, almost all the teeth analysed show obvious sign of physiological stress during childhood, which would have disrupted their growth and development. Some bodies also show indicators of interpersonal violence; one young male was found with a quarter-sized cranial depression in his skull, which was most likely inflicted during a fight.

The excavation and analysis team, led by forensic scientist Kimberlee Moran and forensic anthropologists Anna Dhody and Ani Hatza, are also looking at the unearthed coffins and city records in their quest to identify and investigate the lives of the exhumed bodies. The coffins are simple and made of wood, though many have unique handles which date them to the 1720s - 1790s. Grave goods such as combs, fabric fragments and broken pottery were found inside some of them. Analysis is being conducted on the teeth, bacteria in pelvic cavities and fat residue to determine the dates of death.

Despite the large array of techniques and processes being used, only five names have been found so far, and only one has been matched to a body. Mr Benjamin Britton died in 1782 at age 78 and was a baker and slave owner, according to city records. The other names identified were Thomas Weir, Mr R. Watson, Israel Morris and Sarah Rogers, who died when she was 3 years, 9 months old.

Regardless of the moral and educational opportunities the project presents, it almost didn’t happen. Philadelphia has no laws regulating archaeological finds and the city and heritage agencies have no jurisdiction over finds discovered on private property. At first, when construction began at the burial site in 2016, the unearthed bones were collected haphazardly by site workers until there were too many being found to ignore.

When she heard about the finds, Moran cajoled the construction company to allow her and her team to exhume the bodies with the proper process and respect. In February 2017, the company granted Moran two weeks to excavate uninterrupted. They were faced with a daunting challenge:

“We came to the site and we found very obvious voids in the soil that had wood sticking out of them” Moran said, “It was obvious that this was a coffin that been disturbed by the heavy machinery. And someone’s legs were sticking out.”

The excavation team found 80 bodies during the two-week timeframe, after which construction restarted. However, after another visit in June 2017, Moran discovered another 328 intact burials. The case was taken to the Orphan’s Court, which oversees unmarked graves and cemeteries. The court has granted the archaeologists until September 2023 to exhume and study the remains of the First Baptist Church burial site. After that time, all the bodies must be interred at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, to where they were supposed to have been moved over 150 years ago.

While this is a success, it is also a tragedy. As many as 782 bodies could have ended up in landfill during construction work before the archaeological project started. The construction company denies dumping any remains.

We now eagerly await the analysis results of the project to see what new insight they will provide into the lives of early Philadelphians.

You can visit Philadelphia on our American War of Independence tour.

Photo by: The Arch Street Project


Added: 4th April 2019

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