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Old City developer bringing in pros to watch over excavation where old bones keep surfacing

The Mayor's Office leaned on the developer to make it happen.

Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the former First Baptist Church burial ground on Arch Street.
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the former First Baptist Church burial ground on Arch Street.Read moreBRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

The developer of an Old City construction site where 200-year-old coffins and skeletal remains were removed over the winter — and where witnesses said more bones and coffin fragments have turned up in the last few days — will hire a professional archaeologist before proceeding any further.

Jonathan Stavin, an executive vice president with PMC Properties, developer of the site at 218 Arch St., said on Friday that PMC will bring in an archaeologist at the request of the city.

"We made a commitment to the city to do that," Stavin said. "There seems to be a concern that what we are doing on the site was disrespectful."

The archaeologist would insure proper treatment should any historic remains turn up during construction, he said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney said the city believed something needed to be done at the site — due to the persistent reports of unearthed graves — but "we felt we reached the limits of our legal ability to shut it down" to have archaeological work performed.

David Perri, head of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, suggested contacting PMC directly, which the city did, the spokeswoman said.

Stavin said PMC has been trying to do the right thing.

The archaeologist PMC hired will be tasked with monitoring construction and will have the authority to stop work if something of archaeological significance should appear, Stavin said.

Anna Dhody, head of the Mütter Institute and a leader of an ad hoc volunteer group that was able to excavate the remains of more than 100 people from the site in February and March, applauded PMC's decision to bring in professionals.

"PMC needs to have this done right," she said.

PMC's residential building is on what was once the burial ground of the First Baptist Church, which occupied the property from the beginning of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. The church moved to Broad Street, and the graves were supposedly removed by about 1860 to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia.

Laborers who performed the removals seem to have missed what may be hundreds of graves, however.

In late February, bones started turning up as PMC began construction. A worker called police, who contacted the Medical Examiner's Office. The medical examiner determined the bones were historic and, therefore, outside the  jurisdiction of its office.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission, L&I, and the state Historical and Museum Commission also said they lacked jurisdiction to protect and direct proper treatment of the remains.

A group of volunteer archaeologists then negotiated with PMC, which agreed to halt work around the area of burials while archaeologists raced to excavate the bones and coffins over about a week. More than 100 remains  were eventually removed.

On Monday evening, a worker contacted an archaeologist, saying he had gone to the Arch Street site earlier in the day and was shocked to see many bones and coffin fragments. He took photographs of a skull and coffins with bones that he said were on the site.

The archaeologist contacted police Tuesday morning, and they visited the site, which was closed because of a work stoppage, and found nothing. L&I inspectors visited Wednesday and reported no visible bones.

Dhody said, however, that bones were apparently turning up about 15 feet below street level.

"That's much lower than where we were working," she said, referring to the winter excavation. "That's why they need to have" professionals.

"I can't see how or why they were buried that deep," she said.

"The treatment of former graveyards is governed by state law," a spokeswoman for the mayor wrote in an email Wednesday, "but the Kenney administration will work to come up with a consistent protocol for how we deal with this issue as a city."

It is unclear what the scope of the archaeologist's duties and authority on the PMC site will be. Stavin said an archaeologist would monitor and halt construction when warranted. Dhody said that was not enough.

She said she believed a cultural-resources management firm should assess the site before any further construction.

Stavin said that there have been isolated bones uncovered since the volunteers left the site in March but that contractors had been directed to save them so they can be reinterred in Mount Moriah Cemetery.

"There have been some bone fragments that were found, but we have not found any intact remains," he said.