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Race on to excavate huge number of historic graves found on building site

Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground on Wednesday afternoon, March 8, 2017 as a construction company clears the space for construction of an apartment building.
Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the Former First Baptist burial ground on Wednesday afternoon, March 8, 2017 as a construction company clears the space for construction of an apartment building.Read moreBRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

A team of volunteer archaeologists and anthropologists are racing against the clock to excavate what may prove to be as many as 300 historic gravesites discovered during a residential construction project on Arch Street in Old City in the last two weeks.

The graves and coffins, undoubtedly left over from the 310-year-old First Baptist Church burial ground between Second and Third Streets, remain largely buried, coffins stacked three deep within a shrinking island of dirt amid digging for a parking garage and foundation.

A few dozen coffins have already been removed. None has been opened on site.

The developer, PMC Properties, hit a small snarl of bones last November and agreed, after some consideration, to preserve and rebury them.

But that small snarl proved simply a harbinger of a vast residence of the dead that occupied the building site. Workers found the area with the coffins on Feb. 20.

Work on that area then stopped. Archaeologists were alerted.

On Monday, the developer gave the archaeologists until Saturday to complete the removal. What happens after that is a subject of trepidation for archaeologists.

Jonathan Stavin, a PMC executive vice president, said, "We're trying to be respectful of what is found there, bearing in mind that this is an active construction site. PMC plans to assess the situation Saturday."

Some archaeologists fear that chaotic removal by backhoe may take place. Stavin declined to speculate on the ultimate manner of removal.

Anna Dhody, head of the Mütter Institute and a leader of the archaeological excavation,  said she remained optimistic about the outcome.

Dhody said she put out "a call to arms" to forensic specialists from Massachusetts to Maryland, and they began to assemble Thursday.

"We decided somebody has to do something" about the remains, she said. "These are our ancestors. This is our history. We can learn so much from these bones — about the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, the cholera epidemic of 1849."

"I've got a crack team," Dhody said. "I've got the support of PMC." It's possible there are fewer than 300 remains. "I think we can get it done by Saturday."

PMC had agreed to work with the Mütter Institute and forensic archaeologists from Rutgers-Camden a few months ago to allow orderly removal and study of what was thought to be a small group of bones for eventual reinterment in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia, where those who had been buried at First Baptist were supposed to have been moved after the cemetery was closed in 1859.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has said it has no jurisdiction in the matter, despite the fact that the burial ground, founded in 1707, lies squarely within the Old City Historic District. Commission director Jonathan Farnham has said the Historical Commission has "no authority" to regulate the historic remains, although he notes the commission has protected the cobbled alley – Little Boys Way – a few feet away.

"This lack of jurisdiction is reflected in the historic preservation ordinance explicitly limiting the Historical Commission's authority over so-called 'undeveloped sites,' of which this is one," Farnham said in an email.

Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a professional educational and advocacy group, called the effort currently underway "salvage archaeology," where archaeologists are racing time and backhoes in an effort to preserve history and historical information.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which serves as the state historical preservation office, also says it has no jurisdiction and no ability to intervene.

Mark Zecca, an attorney who formerly represented the city Historical Commission as a divisional deputy city solicitor, called that commission's claim of no jurisdiction "ridiculous."

The claim "completely ignores the remains as historic and the cemetery as historic," Zecca said, adding that the ground "is developed —it is just developed underground. [The commission] is looking only at what is above ground. It makes no sense."

Zecca said he believes the matter should be under the auspices of Orphans' Court, a division of the Court of Common Pleas that has jurisdiction over abandoned cemeteries. Stavin, of PMC, said, "We were told the courts don't have jurisdiction." Calls to Orphans' Court late Thursday were not returned.

Archaeologist Mooney said that "someone has to do the right thing."

Stavin said his company was seeking to do the right thing, which is why it has worked with the archaeologists and given them extra time to allow for removals. He said his firm has "stepped up" its effort "to help significantly" and has taken on the additional cost of funding reinterment at Mount Moriah.

Mount Moriah already operates under an Orphans' Court order regulating interments and removals, according to William R. Warwick, a planner and architect who is helping Mount Moriah on a volunteer basis.

He noted that the First Baptist remains were supposedly moved to Mount Moriah in 1859-60.

"Or so we thought," Warwick said. "Clearly somebody didn't do the right job."

The impulse behind the desire to rebury was simple, he said.

"Our thought was, 'Let's reunite the remains in that plot,'" he said. "It could be there are families that are divided up and the families need to be reunited."