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More bones reported at Arch Street site; city declines to halt construction

A worker at the old First Baptist Church burial ground took pictures of what he said were human remains and coffin fragments.

In March,  volunteer archaeologists worked to exhume bodies buried at the former cemetery.
In March, volunteer archaeologists worked to exhume bodies buried at the former cemetery.Read moreBRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

The city is resisting a call that it issue a stop-work order halting construction at an Old City building site where 200-year-old human remains were uncovered earlier this year, and where more bones and coffins were reportedly seen lying exposed on the ground in the last few days.

Late Tuesday, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum formally asked the Department of Licenses and Inspections to halt work on the building at 218 Arch St., citing what it called a credible report and photographs of recent discoveries of additional bones and coffin fragments uncovered at the site.

The site was once home of the First Baptist Church burial ground, dating from around 1707, which occupied the area until the middle of the 19th century, when the remains buried there were supposedly moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery.

The halt-work request, directed to David Perri, head of L&I, was prompted by an eyewitness account describing bones, skulls, and coffin fragments that were said to be scattered on the ground at the excavation site on Monday.

PMC Property Group, the developer of the site, said it was unaware of any remains currently or recently uncovered.

In an email Wednesday afternoon, an L&I spokeswoman characterized the account of bones and accompanying photographs as amounting to "hearsay."

"The city does not have a legal basis to take action based on this complaint," she responded in an email to a request for comment.

The eyewitness, a worker who asked for anonymity for fear of losing his job, said he entered the site Monday morning and was startled to find "half a skull" lying on the ground.

"And [over] on the right hand there were bones, and on the left hand there were bones," he said. "As I was walking around I was seeing bones, and then I look over and there's a coffin. It's open. I look inside. Oh, my God. There's a body inside."

The worker said he was so disturbed by what he saw that he took photographs and contacted an archaeologist Monday night, who in turn contacted police Tuesday morning. A police spokesman said officers found nothing at the site when they inquired. The Medical Examiner's Office was not contacted.

Douglas Mooney, president of the archaeological forum, said it made sense to halt work on the residential project and investigate the site.

"There have been human remains found there," he said. "There has been a credible report that human remains are still being found. Let's get some professional archaeologists in there and verify whether or not it's true. I'm at a loss to understand why somebody wouldn't want to verify this claim."

The site was closed Tuesday and Wednesday because of a citywide work slowdown by crane and elevator operators. L&I inspectors visited the site Wednesday "to check for building safety issues and code violations," the L&I spokeswoman said. They "did not find any such issues," she added. "No bones or coffin pieces were apparent."

A reporter was unable to gain access to the site on either day.

Jonathan Stavin, a PMC executive vice president, said the construction crew working there had been instructed to retain any human remains they encountered during excavation for later reinterment. Stavin said that he knew nothing about any recent excavations of skeletal remains, but that workers were told to adhere to the company policy of retaining remains for later reburial.

Mark Zecca, an attorney assisting the archaeological forum, said he was contacted by Mooney about the matter and on Tuesday sent an email to Perri at L&I formally asking that work at the site be stopped and that the matter be remanded to Orphans' Court, which has jurisdiction over abandoned cemeteries.

Perri is out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The L&I spokeswoman wrote Wednesday that the worker's account and photographs of bones and coffins constituted "an insufficient factual predicate for a stop-work order, and the city could not defend such an order if challenged in court."

Zecca called the L&I response inadequate.

"At a minimum," he said, "L&I should get an archaeologist to assess the site, not a regular inspector." He pointed out that PAF has specifically "requested a thorough assessment by a qualified archaeologist."

This winter, when coffins and bones were initially uncovered at the site, another anonymous caller contacted police. Work was halted. The Medical Examiner's Office determined that the bones were historic and not evidence of a recent crime. It had no further jurisdiction in the matter.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission also said it had no jurisdiction, though the site lies squarely in the Old City Historic District. The Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission also demurred, citing lack of jurisdiction.

A group of volunteer archaeologists led by the Mütter Institute and Rutgers-Camden then negotiated with PMC, which allowed them several days to remove skeletal remains.

Stavin, of PMC, suggested that fragments left behind from that earlier excavation or pulled from the ground by drilling for pilings may have been what the worker saw Monday.

The worker who said he was on the site Monday said that was not the case. He reported that he saw "a lot" of bones and coffin fragments, and that another worker told him that "a lot of bones and skulls were being removed from the site."