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Human Skeletons Tallied at Building Site

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

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In an updated report filed in the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court late last week, archaeologists indicated that the remains of more than 400 human skeletons have been removed from a city construction site.

The skeletons of 328 people have been removed by archaeologists in the spot that had once been home to First Baptist Church cemetery, many of which date from the 1700s. There was also another group of 79 graves discovered, which were interred on the property in the 19th century and have since been removed as well.

The site was under construction for a 10-story apartment complex in Philadelphia’s Old City.


The report, which was filed with the court last week and was prepared by construction services company AECOM, detailed what was uncovered.

“The presence of burial shrouds, manner of coffin construction, and style of coffin hardware, in concert with few burial dates inscribed on coffin lid plaques, indicate that this [western] section of the First Baptist cemetery was active during the eighteenth century,” the report noted.

“Rudimentary field observation of the interred population suggests that the majority of individuals were of European descent, although a small minority within the population exhibited skeletal characteristics more commonly associated with individuals of African descent.”

When the presence of the bones was reported nearly a year ago, a number of agencies had indicated they lacked the jurisdiction to intervene with an abandoned graveyard, so construction on the site had continued.

However, in March, construction crews halted excavation activities after discovering dozens more coffins and human remains that were believed to be a part of a First Baptist Church burial ground established in 1707. At that point, the PMC Property Group, which was working on the site, called in archeologists.

Burial Site History

Historic records indicate that the bodies were supposed to have been relocated to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia around 1860, reports said.

“It’s a business unfortunately and sometimes it’s cheaper to cut corners in a business,” Dr. Lee Arnold with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania told a local CBS News affiliate.

According to the Inquirer, archaeologists had supervised the removal 328 18th-century bodies as of September, all of which were contained within the bounds of the site, 22 feet below street level.

President of the local archaeological forum Douglas B. Mooney said that the report indicated clearly how much of the cemetery had been disturbed before the court intervened. Both Mooney and forum attorney Mark Zecca have expressed their hopes that courts would prevent such situations in the future, with Mooney adding that, this time around, more than 800 graves could have been removed without government intervention.

In light of the destruction of gravesites also destroying history, forum member Jed Levin told the Inquirer, “The only way they can speak is through their bones.”

There have been no reports as to when construction on the site will resume. The skeletons will be reinterred at Mount Moirah Cemetery, and are currently being examined at Rutgers-Camden.


Tagged categories: Construction; Good Technical Practice; Historic Preservation; North America; Project Management; Residential Construction

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