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Bones from 407 human skeletons tallied in court report on Arch Street building site

Graves uncovered go back as far as the 1720s. From the 18th century, 328 people were removed in advance of reinterment. An additional 79 from the 19th century have also been unearthed.

Volunteer archeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the former First Baptist burial ground in March. BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer
Volunteer archeologists work to exhume bodies buried at the former First Baptist burial ground in March. BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff PhotographerRead moreBRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

A report filed in Philadelphia Orphans' Court late last week states that archaeologists supervised removal of the skeletal remains of 328 people, including some African Americans, buried in the 1700s in the historic First Baptist Church cemetery and unearthed between July and September at a construction site in the 200 block of Arch Street.

A group of 79 graves from the 19th century was also unearthed there by the archaeologists. All remains were transported to Rutgers-Camden for study and preparation for eventual reinterment.

The report, prepared by construction services firm AECOM and filed with the court last week, grows out of a July order from Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello, who is now supervising removal of remains and their eventual reinterment at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

At a hearing in Carrafiello's City Hall courtroom Monday, representatives of site developer PMC Property Group and the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a professional association, said they had no objections to the AECOM report, which PMC attorney Courtney L. Schultz of Saul Ewing LLP said "speaks for itself."

"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 states. "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."

The site became a source of fierce controversy when an anonymous tip about bones brought police and the medical examiner to the site about a year ago. They determined the bones were historic and not appropriate subjects for criminal investigation.

The city Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and the state Historical and Museum Commission all said they lacked jurisdiction to regulate removal of the remains. PMC said it was keeping the bones onsite and would reinter them there. No one contacted Orphans' Court, which has jurisdiction over abandoned graveyards.

Bones kept appearing as construction continued.

In March, an ad-hoc team of archaeologists, alerted to the large number of remains appearing, received permission from PMC to come to Arch Street and excavate what they could.

Racing bulldozers and the weather, the archaeologists managed to remove about 100 coffins.

Still more bones then appeared.

After yet another anonymous tip during the summer of bones lying around the construction site and being hauled away to a landfill in Conshohocken, PMC agreed to call in professional archaeologists and petition for Orphans' Court supervision.

The archaeology, mapping of the site, analysis of graves, excavations, and reinterment are now under the purview of Orphans' Court.

The burial ground, established in 1707, ran behind the old First Baptist Church when it was located on Ledger Street, south of Arch Street. The church moved in the mid-19th century to Broad Street and graves in its churchyard were subsequently removed to Mount Moriah in 1860.

Obviously, grave diggers missed quite a few graves. But how many they missed is surprising. The archaeologists at the site supervised 328 18th-century removals up to September. All of those were contained within the plot lines of the construction site, buried up 22 feet below street level. (The burial ground extends well beyond the outlines of the site.)

PMC has maintained that all bones uncovered on site have been dealt with "respectfully."

Douglas B. Mooney, president of the archaeological forum, said that the archaeological report "makes clear how much this cemetery was disturbed by construction before the court intervened."

He continued: "This is what happens when the city doesn't take action."

Carrafiello said he would consider testimony from Mooney and issue rulings in the case in the near future.

Mooney and the archaeological forum's attorney, Mark Zecca, said they hoped the court would consider how to prevent similar situations in the future. Extrapolating from the density of the documented removals, Mooney says as many as 800 graves could have been removed without court supervision.

Jed Levin, a forum member who attended the hearing, said the destruction of the grave sites deprives the dead from revealing their stories.

"The only way they can speak is through their bones," he said.