In 2016, when Kimberlee Moran read a Philadelphia Inquirer article about a construction project in Old City that had unearthed some human remains, she decided to contact the real estate developer. “I thought, ‘One box of bones, I can deal with that,’” the forensic archaeologist recalled, thinking they could be useful for teaching students at Rutgers University-Camden.
Before reaching out to the developer, she and her colleague, Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist and curator of the Mutter Museum, researched the history of the site, the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia (FBCP), and the regulations concerning human remains.
The former made Moran rethink the potential extent of the find. Founded in 1698, the FBCP held services in an old Quaker meeting house and used the south side of the 200 block of Arch Street as a burial ground from 1707 until 1860. The congregation moved into its new church building at Broad and Arch Streets in 1855. According to church records from the era, burials were exhumed and reinterred in Mount Moriah Cemetery.
“A church record in 1870, after the move date, showed a membership of about 500, so we thought we’d be dealing with a small number of burials,” she recalled. “But from City death records and newspaper accounts, there were about 1,700 named individuals. If you included the unnamed, it totaled around 3,000.”
Regulations, they discovered, were vague. “When a project involves public funds, then there are regulations to be followed,” said Moran. “But with projects using totally private funding and on private land the law is vague.”
Since the construction project at 218 Arch Street was a private undertaking, PMC Properties originally declined to incur the expense of enlisting archaeologists and altering their excavation methods. But when significantly more remains were unearthed, the developer contacted Moran and Dhody and offered to halt work for a week and give access to the site. They quickly assembled a team of professionals and students, believing that even a partial and rushed effort to salvage the burials was preferable to ignoring the find and allowing the remains to be sent to a landfill.
Later, as the group was preparing to evaluate the dozens of coffins they had recovered in that week, news of more remains surfaced. At this point, the Department of Licenses and Inspections encouraged the developer to hire an archaeological firm to excavate the remainder, which had been interred 15 feet below those Moran and her team had recovered. These were added to the collection, which ultimately numbered around 500 individuals. She thinks that possibly another 600-800 burials were destroyed in the excavation.
The story of an incomplete relocation of a cemetery is not a new one, especially in Philadelphia. “I’ve been involved in more than a dozen cemetery excavations,” said Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. “I have not found a single one that was completely moved. Just because there’s a written record that graves were moved, it doesn’t necessarily meant they actually were.”
Bill Warwick, who serves on the board of directors of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, was also not surprised based on their records. “The church hired a contractor from January through March of that year, the middle of winter, to hand dig and move graves to Mount Moriah.”
In the five years since the recovery of the burials, the Arch Street Project team has been analyzing the remains and documenting the histories of the individuals buried there. “There had been some famous people buried in the FBCP cemetery,” said Moran,“like Samuel Miles, who had been a mayor of Philadelphia.” Miles was also noteworthy as the first faithless elector in the presidential election of 1796 where he voted for Thomas Jefferson over his party’s candidate, John Adams. Another important interment was Morgan Edwards, a Colonial-era minister of the FBCP and one of the group of Baptist ministers who founded Brown University in 1764.
However, their current location, and that of hundreds of their fellow church members, is far from clear. Remains are possibly in Section 112 at Mount Moriah, the repository of the 1860 move, in boxes currently being analyzed at Rutgers-Camden, among those deposited in a landfill by the developers in 2016, or even still interred in their original location under the 200 block of Arch Street. Moran feels the latter, perpendicular to Arch Street along tiny cobblestoned Little Boys Court, is likely the fate for many. “The area where the church had been had the most dense number of burials,” she explained. “It’s now under a structure, but there are definitely remains under it.”
“There are headstones memorializing folks from FBCP in Mount Moriah, but whether they’re actually under there isn’t clear,” she continued. “Old headstones were also used as walkways in the plot.”
In 1884, FBCP erected a tall obelisk with the names of all their deceased pastors in the First Baptist Church section of the cemetery. “We don’t know if any of them are actually buried there,” noted Warwick. Their headstones are on display in a stairwell in the church’s current location at 17th and Sansom Streets.
Beyond identifying individuals, the members of the Arch Street Project are engaging in a wide range of research utilizing the remains. Recently, the group gave a public presentation highlighting its work, which includes two scholarly publications and several more investigations that are underway.
Archaeological excavations are not rare occurrences. What sets this project apart is the diverse array of academic disciplines working on it and benefitting from the find. Moran feels two factors contributed to it. First, the limited timeframe of the opportunity forced her to rally as much help as possible. And then others, like herself, learned of the find through the media coverage in 2017 and came forward to join.
As a result, the project draws on a half dozen institutions and spans several disciplines including historians, microbiologists, entomologists, and forensics in addition to anthropology and archaeology. The research has been far reaching. Mutter Museum curator Dhody is studying microbial DNA from the dental plaque on the skeletal samples, which reveals both a normal microbiome at that time as well as pathogens that were present.
“I’m hoping a good outcome would be a model for collaboration. I’m a big fan of multidisciplinary research and a big believer in open access,” Moran said. “We have a richer understanding, fuller experience of this cemetery and the people who attended the church because of this approach.”
This sort of painstaking research on often fragile specimens and artifacts can be a slow process. On top of that, the project members face a looming deadline of September 2023, at which time all the remains must be reinterred at Mount Moriah.
For their part, the Friends of Mount Moriah are getting ready. “Our goal is to get them into Section 112 and repatriate them with friends and family,” Warwick said. “We prefer to get them where they belong. We’ve done ground penetrating radar tests in Section 112, and it looks promising that there will be room.”
It is not just the human remains that will be laid to rest. The Arch Street Project intends to reinter all the artifacts that were found as well. “It’s less typical to do the full re-burial,” noted Moran. “But that person intended those things to go with them into the afterlife.”
Besides the scientific research that is being produced as a result of this event, Moran feels a broader civic lesson can be learned. “We hope we can maintain public memory of the fact that there are lots of cemeteries in Philadelphia. This is going to happen again,” she said. “We have to think as a city, ‘Do we value these burial places? What do we think should and should not be happening there? How do we tighten regulations to make sure that we’re not just throwing bones into a landfill when we want to put up a new high rise?’ I hope we can do justice to these individuals who did not ask to be disturbed. Learning from our past and also giving the past the respect it deserves.”