‘How do we fix this mess?’ Philly archaeologists lay out plan to preserve lost burial grounds

    Workers excavate coffins from a construction site in the Old City neighborhood March 9 in Philadelphia.   (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

    Workers excavate coffins from a construction site in the Old City neighborhood March 9 in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

    When a developer discovered dozens of historic human remains while clearing the way for a Philadelphia condominium project in March, confusion erupted over how those relics should be handled.

    No one agency seemed to be in charge, and many worried about how the remains would be handled.

    In the months since, members of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum have been drafting recommendations on “how to fix this mess.”

    “Let’s get the conversation started,” said Doug Mooney, forum president, at a Thursday meeting co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “Let’s decide, collectively, that this is something we need to do, that similar kinds of impacts in the future are unacceptable, and that we need to do something about this.” 

    This isn’t a new problem, Mooney pointed out during his presentation. In fact, since 1985, at least 20 cemeteries have been disrupted during construction projects.

    “Each time that those types of things happen, the response you get is people treat it like it’s the first time it ever happened, and that prevents us from moving forward,” he said.

    The archaeological forum’s central recommendation is that the city enact new policies specifically compelling anyone who disturbs an unmarked cemetery to follow very clear steps under the oversight of designated agencies.

    The Thursday meeting took place at Arch Street Friends Meeting House, just around the corner from where the old burial ground was found. One of the dozens who showed up was Kimberlee Moran, a forensic archaeologist at Rutgers University who has been leading volunteer efforts to preserve the remains.

    “It’s a shame that the Arch Street project is an example of what not to do, but I’m glad it happened in order to spur forward this movement, and to make these positive changes that everyone’s been thinking about for years now,” Moran said. “We finally needed something like this to happen to really kick everyone in the backside.”

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