Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
When archeologists began excavating at 6th and Market Streets in 2007, they weren’t certain they would even find any remnants of the 1767 house where George and Martha Washington famously once lived. It was likely, they believed, that any substantial physical evidence of the President’s House had been obliterated by development in the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, they found astonishing discoveries–foundations that revealed not just the layout of the house, including a bow-windowed presidential office to be echoed later in the White House, but also an underground connection between the kitchen to the main house, along with root cellars, remnants of food, and household objects. These excavations illuminated the division between freedom and enslavement with evidence not found in the historic record and deepened our understanding of the lives of nine individuals enslaved by the Washingtons.
“Archaeology offers an opportunity where the textbooks and history books fail,” says Alexandra Jones, an assistant professor at Goucher College who also serves as executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Archaeology in the Community. There’s a shared paradigm underlying preservation and archaeology. Both look at material remnants of human culture and decipher, interpret, and construct narratives around them that tell a story about people and their environments. Through the eyes of an archaeologist, the most mundane objects transform into a physical record that explains something about life at any given point in time. As Jones says, “[Archaeologists] are doing the work of putting everyday people back into the story.”
A Wealth of Materials
In a city as old and densely populated as Philadelphia, the sheer volume of archaeology that could exist in any given location presents an enormous opportunity. Continuous habitation and development from the 17th century onward mean areas like Old City, Society Hill, and the waterfront could all offer major insight into 17th, 18th, 19th, and even 20th century life. Given its size and prominence during the industrial age, Philadelphia, once known as the “workshop of the world,” has a wealth of industrial archaeology. Industrial-era relics like PECO’s Delaware Generating Station, the Willow Street Steam Generation Plant, and Point Breeze Gas Works are all ripe for archaeological excavation that could yield an abundance of material evidence on historic urban infrastructure.
Like the President’s House, a number of more recent archaeological endeavors in Philadelphia are well-regarded in the field. The 1976 interpretation of in situ archaeology at Franklin Court, Benjamin Franklin’s former residence in Old City, was one of the first examples of preserving in-ground archaeology for public view. Taken together with the Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown-designed “ghost structure” (Franklin’s house was demolished in 1812), the whole interpretive concept was a truly innovative way to convey the site’s history.
The Digging I-95 project that excavated pits along I-95 and the Delaware River waterfront is a great example of public archaeology. The dig, which covered sections of Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond, took place in coordination with a major construction project for the Girard Avenue Interchange, and excavations started in 2007. To the archaeologists’ surprise, the project uncovered artifacts spanning thousands of years–projectile points, coins, fine china, soldiers’ buttons, patriotic emblems and children’s playthings–that provide a dense, multifaceted history of an area under heavy continuous use. Exhibitions at local museums and site-specific pop-ups shared the intriguing findings, which can still be viewed digitally at www.diggingi95.com.
Revealing Hidden Lives
As a complement to historic preservation, archaeology, as the example of the President’s House excavation makes clear, offers an opportunity to take a more holistic view of the past. While the built environment tends to reflect prevailing power structures (how many “significant” buildings are deemed so for their connection to landowning white men?), artifacts that lie beneath the ground present a fuller and more accurate view of what people from a wider range of races, classes, and backgrounds were experiencing throughout history. In particular, it offers an important window into African American life, says Jones. The lives and experiences she and her colleagues have uncovered aren’t limited to narratives of enslavement. “We are actually finding stories of people who were exceptional, but were just omitted [from the record] because of their race,” she says. Philadelphia, a city where Black people occupied nearly every echelon of society from its earliest history, offers an enormous opportunity to learn more about the layers and nuances of how African American communities lived, worked, and interacted with the predominantly white power structures of the past.
Black archaeology, however, hasn’t been prioritized. Just as African American sites are seriously underrepresented on the National Register, Black cultural heritage hasn’t received the attentive study it deserves. “Within the context of Black Lives Matter,” says Maria Franklin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, “my colleague Joe Joseph and I met to talk about what we could do to address racism in archaeology.”
Franklin and Joseph formed a 12-person task force to evaluate how different State Historic Preservation Offices were handling Black cultural resources, which led to a survey and support from the Society of Black Archaeologists, the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, and the American Cultural Resources Association.
Protecting Burial Grounds
Not all digs are planned in advance. Archaeologists frequently find themselves called on when developers encounter burial grounds and unearth human remains. In a 300-plus-year-old city, such encounters are not uncommon. Doug Mooney, chair of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (PAF) says the first recorded instance where development dug up human remains occurred in 1743. Surveying historic newspapers and recording such instances, along with tracking incidents over the past few decades, PAF has counted 87 “discovered” burial grounds since then. While PAF’s purpose is to raise awareness about archaeology and its value to the public in general, Vice President Jed Levin says that protecting burial grounds became a major focus because the need was great. The organization now hosts a public database of historic burial grounds in the city that includes more than 200 locations.
PAF developed the database to give property owners, developers, or city officials a heads-up before embarking on a development project. By knowing in advance whether they might encounter sensitive human remains, developers would have time to plan and do due diligence ahead of time, thus avoiding time-consuming, costly delays, as well as bad publicity. But, despite PAF’s encouraging city agencies like the Department of Licenses and Inspections to use the database, stakeholders view it as an optional resource.
Such ignorance has led to egregious cases of mishandling human remains. When a new development at 218 Arch Street disturbed well over 500 graves from an 18th-century burial ground, the press hammered the developer, who allowed volunteer archaeologists to excavate the site for one week before resuming operations. Though the developer eventually hired a private firm to continue excavating, Mooney told reporters at the time that he estimated hundreds of additional remains were dumped into the landfill in the interim.
More recently, the University of Pennsylvania made good use of the database when PAF notified them that a pending development on the 4100 block of Chestnut Street might disrupt the former African Friends of Harmony Cemetery. When a private firm the university hired to investigate did find evidence of burials beneath the lot, Penn connected with two longstanding congregations in West Philadelphia with historical ties to the cemetery to plan next steps.
As PAF’s burial database illustrates, predicting which areas have the potential to be archaeologically rich is a straightforward, common, and scientifically sound practice, particularly in older urban areas like Philadelphia where historic maps readily offer up useful information. Mooney and Levin believe that maps and other data should guide historic designation for both districts and individual properties. Indeed, Criterion I for inclusion on the Philadelphia Register specifies that a property “has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in pre-history or history.” Yet, despite Criterion I, the oldest neighborhoods in the city are currently unprotected. “The irony here is that the city register actually confers more protection than the National Register does, in theory,” says Levin. “So, it’s a really powerful tool, it’s just never been used for archaeology, even though the clear intent was that it would protect archeological sites.”
“The issue that comes up time and time again is the one of archaeological potential,” says Mooney, who spent 13 years on the Committee for Historic Designation, an advisory committee to the Historical Commission that reviews and recommends nominations to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Non-archaeologists misinterpret that word “potential” as not providing concrete evidence.
The real concern, Mooney suspects, is that routinely acknowledging archaeological potential will create too much of a burden for developers. “When it comes right down to it,” he says, “Philadelphia’s a town run by developers. There could be fixes to these problems. It just takes political will and an appreciation that this is something that needs to be fixed.”
The Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force, on which Mooney also served, outlined possible fixes in their final recommendations made to the mayor in 2019. These include creating map-based predictive sensitivity models, adding an archaeologist to the Philadelphia Historical Commission staff, and enacting a new ordinance that would allow for designation of “sensitivity zones,” addressing archaeology at a zone or district level. So far, none have been implemented.
Fortunately, when it comes to the public, proving the value of archaeology doesn’t seem to be a challenge. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to Independence Mall to observe the President’s House excavation, astounding National Park Service officials. Archaeologists were less surprised. Sharing the excitement and the palpable exhilaration that come from uncovering new information about the past is one of the joys of practicing archaeology. “These are more than nice little baubles or pretty little things,” Levin says. “These are resources that can make us better, make us whole, make us healthy as a society, and they’re also nonrenewable. When they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Archaeology in the Community
Dr. Alexandra Jones founded Archaeology in the Community (AITC) in 2009. As an archaeologist and educator, Jones recognized a need to teach young people about what exactly archaeologists do, while making archaeology more accessible to the wider public in her hometown of Washington, D.C., through educational programs and community events.
Another part of AITC’s mission is to help connect D.C. locals to professionals and resources that can assist them with protecting sites, particularly African American cultural resources that might not otherwise be protected. There’s a common misperception that archaeologists do all of their work below ground, Jones says, when they actually look–and think–at the landscape level, piecing together the evidence left in remnants of the built environment, the landscape, and material culture to paint a fuller, more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the communities that lived there. Jones is passionate about uncovering stories about free African American communities, turning to resources like burial grounds, churches, benevolent societies, and even privies and bedpans to develop a richer story. In this sense, Jones sees AITC as a conduit, helping to grow a local appreciation for a wide range of heritage resources, then connecting community members with a broad network of professionals and organizations–from preservationists, to historians, to archaeologists–who can assist them through the processes of recording and protecting sites.