Concerns loom over historic remains discovered at Old City construction site

     Movers spent Thursday transporting crumbling coffins and other excavated remains from temporary storage units to a central warehouse. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Movers spent Thursday transporting crumbling coffins and other excavated remains from temporary storage units to a central warehouse. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeology Forum, got word on Tuesday that a worker had allegedly seen and taken photos of more bones discovered at a construction site at 216 Arch St.in Old City.

    Months earlier, the site was the scene of what some called a salvage archaeology dig, with forensic specialists rushing to excavate the remains of nearly 80 people at the future condominium spot.

    After hearing of the possibility of additional remains, Mooney’s group reached out to the city and asked that construction be halted for a full investigation. The city Department of Licenses and Inspections sent a staffer to the site, but officials said nothing was found and it could not legally intervene because the site is privately owned. 

    That has Mooney frustrated.

    “It’s like, here we go again, no one seems to care, no one seems to claim to have any responsibility or ability to ensure that these Philadelphia ancestors and their remains are protected and treated in a respectful manner,” he said.

    Amid the allegations that more remains have been uncovered, a crew of volunteer forensic experts is moving ahead with efforts to study and preserve what they do have.

    bonepeoplePolina Kapchits, archaeology intern (l); Kimberlee Moran, director of forensics at Rugters-Camden; and Anna Dhody, director the Mutter Research Institute, oversaw the transport of remains from a temporary storage space in Philadelphia to a central warehouse on Thursday. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    That story began months ago, in the fall and winter, when workers unearthed dozens of skeletal remains and coffins from what turned out to be a Baptist cemetery from the 1700s.

    While government officials did not intervene, a group of volunteer forensic experts did. With permission from the developer — PMC Property Group — the volunteers led a rushed dig, excavating what they could. The developer then moved everything into temporary storage.

    Since then, a small crew of archaeologists and anthropologist has been trying to gather all the remains in one place. On Thursday, after months in temporary storage in several places — including a shipping container underneath I-95 — the remains were finally moved into a central warehouse.

    “Seeing this here, so nicely laid out, this is fantastic,” said Kimberlee Moran, an archaeologist at Rutgers-Camden who has spent weeks trying to land a temperature-controlled space. “We’ve got our storage area in one half, and our working area in the other half.”

    Moran is relieved. But she said not all the remains have been accounted for, and she’s worried that some may have been thrown away — especially if what allegedly happened at the Arch Street site this week turns out to be true.

    “In light of today’s developments, I’m really concerned some of this material went missing,” said Moran, who plans to recount and review the inventory. “I don’t know why it went missing, but I’m really concerned about it.”

    PMC did not respond to a request for comment, but told the Philadelphia Inquirer that construction crews have been instructed to save any human remains they find. 

    Meanwhile, Moran and others are documenting and studying the remains they have gathered with the help of students from Rutgers and The College of New Jersey. The idea, she said, is to preserve and learn about the lives of these early Philadelphians.

    Ultimately, the remains will be reburied where they were supposed to have been moved to more than a century ago: Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia.

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