Preliminary archaeology work to begin next month on rare piece of original Delaware River shoreline

Exploratory archaeology to determine what could be found beneath a portion of West Shipyard – a rare bit of original Philadelphia shoreline – is set for June and July.

The West Shipyard, near the Vine Street Expressway at Delaware Avenue and Callowhill Street, is now a parking lot. But “all the way back to the 1600s, it was a shipyard,” said Sarah Thorp, planning manager for the owner of the property, Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a quasi-city agency.

After hundreds of years of fill, the site doesn’t touch the water now. But in Colonial times, there were piers there, Thorp said. In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a very early and rare slipway under the northern half of the site. “it was a surprising and important find,” Thorp told her board at a recent meeting. The slip was buried and the site was added to the city’s historic places register.
The archaeologists working then only explored the northern portion. “We don’t really know what’s under the ground on the southern half of the site,” Thorp said. Because the site is on the historic register, DRWC must find out before any future development can take place there.

This $75,000 study, paid for in part with a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and a portion of a large grant from the William Penn Foundation, has minimal scope. Archaeologists will dig some test pits and trenches, and what they find, or don’t find, will determine the scope of any future archaeological exploration.

An RFP to find the team to do the work has been released, and it states that the archaeologists’ work should be open to the public for viewing – like work was at The President’s House on Independence Mall. Thorp said there is a  huge amount of interest in the site, from neighborhood groups, The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, and a non-profit group created especially to protect the shipyard, The West Shipyard Preservation Trust.

The Trust and others don’t want development at the site. The Trust hopes for not only a full archaeological exploration, but a museum.
Thorp expects a public event in the fall where the results of the dig will be revealed.

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