In June 2017 Kimberlee Moran, a forensic scientist at Rutgers University-Camden, stood in a pit at a construction site in downtown Philadelphia, just across from the Betsy Ross House.
The walls of the pit were shored up by diagonal pillars of dirt. They bristled with coffin wood — and human bones. But what she couldn’t see bothered Ms. Moran still more.
“Where’s all the stuff in the dirt that’s now missing?” she wondered.
With her were Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist at the city’s Mütter Museum, and Kimberly Morrell, an archaeologist with the engineering firm Aecom, hired to excavate the site.
They were standing in what once was the cemetery of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, founded in 1698. Historical records said the remains were supposed to have been relocated to another cemetery, Mount Moriah, back in 1860.
And yet here were all these bones and remnants of coffins. Ms. Moran and Ms. Dhody were not entirely surprised.
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In fall 2016, after workers broke ground on a new condominium here, the two scientists were handed a single box of unclaimed bones collected on the site. A few months later, a backhoe crunched into skeletons and coffins.
“There is a very characteristic ‘pop’ sound when a backhoe goes through a skull,” Ms. Moran said.
With grudging permission from the developer, PMC Property Group, construction was halted whenever a backhoe turned up another body. The researchers mounted a two-week salvage excavation, recovering more than 80 burials. After hitting a stretch of soil that was grave-free, they hoped they’d found all the bodies.
They had not. After the visit in June 2017, Aecom dug all summer, eventually discovering another 328 intact burials. Then the researchers knew they had uncovered the rarest of opportunities.
Most unearthed cemeteries in the United States have been reinterred without analysis. Few dated to the colonial era. So Ms. Moran and Ms. Dhody — with George Leader, an archaeologist at The College of New Jersey, and Jared Beatrice, an osteologist at the college — started the Arch Street Project, a mostly crowdfunded attempt to understand more about the lives of these early Philadelphians.
“This cemetery has the potential to fill in a lot of gaps about not just Philadelphia but the colonial period,” said Sherene Baugher, an archaeologist at Cornell University and co-author of “The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers.”
Comparing First Baptist’s remains, she added, to those from the African Burial Ground in New York City, as well as from Jamestown, Va., and St. Mary’s City, Md., may reveal widespread changes in health, lifestyle and diet over time, and hint at their impact by race and class.
But first, the bones had to be exhumed. City and state heritage agencies said they had no jurisdiction over remains found on private property in a privately funded project.
So the city’s Orphans’ Court, which oversees unmarked graves and cemeteries, decided the fate of those left behind in the First Baptist cemetery. The Philadelphia Archaeological Forum advocated in court for a respectful exhumation and reinterment. PMC, the developer, eventually agreed to pay for the effort.
The court gave archaeologists until Sept. 30, 2023, to study the remains. Then they must be interred where they were supposed to have been moved more than 150 years ago: Mount Moriah Cemetery.
As for the missing soil that so disturbed Ms. Moran? Doug Mooney, president of the archaeological forum, did the math and accused PMC of dumping perhaps as many as 782 bodies in a landfill during construction. The company denied dumping remains.
The living move, and then the dead
In 1707, the First Baptist Church moved into a former Quaker meeting house at what is now 218 Arch Street. It was a well-connected congregation with a cemetery open to different sects and faiths.
“You have lots of non-Baptists buried there, people from all walks of life — the wealthy, the poor, the influential, the unknown,” Ms. Moran said.
In 1855, the church moved again to a new spot at Arch and Broad streets, and the cemetery fell into disrepair. The church applied for a license from the city Board of Health to move the graves to Mount Moriah. Approval came in December 1859.
The move to Mount Moriah was to be made in haste. But by that point, perhaps 3,000 or more people had been buried at First Baptist, according to Nicholas Bonneau, principal historian of the Arch Street Project.
“They only have three months, from January 1st to April 1st, in the middle of winter, to move what we now know are thousands of bodies,” Mr. Bonneau said.
Newspaper articles indicate some relocation work occurred. An article on March 8, 1860, in The Public Ledger recounted how relatives of the dead, asked to identify their ancestors, were shocked to find many barely decomposed in their coffins.
And some headstones at Mount Moriah predate 1859. But did the bodies actually come with them?
Every day during the excavation in summer 2017, Ms. Moran or Dr. Leader loaded coffins into their cars and drove them to Waggin’ Tails, a former dog-grooming business in rural New Jersey.
Its exterior featured murals of romping dogs, ears and tongues flying, which the scientists hoped would throw illegal bone-hunters off the trail. The temperature-controlled interior helped maintain the remains.
The team now has the remains of at least 491 people. At Rutgers-Camden, the commingled bones are sorted and cleaned under Ms. Moran’s direction, while the intact remains, about 175 of which were found in or near coffins, are examined at The College of New Jersey.
The largest coffins are more than six feet long, the smallest no bigger than a shoe box.
With the help of students, Dr. Beatrice is creating a biological profile — age, sex, height, ancestry — of every person found intact. He’s finished with less than a quarter of them.
“I have nightmares,” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and think about how many skeletons I still have to analyze, and I can’t get back to sleep.”
The researchers assess teeth and bones, and look for pathologies and trauma that reveal details about an individual’s life. Cause of death can be hard to determine, thanks to what’s called the osteological paradox: Not every deadly disease or traumatic injury leaves a mark, and some kill before they do. Still other pathologies aren’t fatal or affect people in various ways.
Many children and young males lie among the remains. Nutritional deficiencies are common; conditions like anemia and scurvy leave characteristic bone porosities. Dr. Beatrice has found linear enamel hypoplasia — grooves in the teeth that indicate generalized physiological stress — in virtually every mouth.
“It’s very strange to have almost everybody exhibiting really obvious indicators of childhood stress that would disrupt their growth and development,” he said. The only parallel archaeologists have found comes from Philadelphia’s First African Baptist Church cemetery, unearthed in 1980 during a rail construction project.
One man has a quarter-size cranial depression above the “hat-brim line” — a telling spot. “Things that happen above that level tend to be the result of interpersonal violence,” Dr. Beatrice said.
Along his right side are healed injuries, perhaps from the impact of a carriage or a bad fall.
The skull of another man was opened after death with a hand-sawed circumferential cut. Its interior is imprinted with the elaborate folds and fine veining of the surface of his brain.
Philadelphia was home to some of the first teaching hospitals in the United States, but his skeleton has no other cut marks that indicate anatomical dissection.
A lot of crumbled brain matter has been discovered in cracked skulls. Ms. Moran is collaborating with researchers at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee to study what remains of the lipids and fatty tissue, which may reveal biomarkers of pregnancy, Alzheimer’s, immune responses to infectious disease and other telling conditions.
(The Lincoln scientists got in touch after she put out a call for research ideas by posting on Instagram a photo of a desiccated but clearly recognizable brain.)
Ms. Moran has done a genomic analysis of the soil that fell into the abdominal regions of four bodies, hoping to find evidence of the individuals’ gut microbiomes. So far she and her colleagues have recorded about 2,000 bacterial species, including those responsible for chlamydia, tuberculosis and leprosy.
Ms. Dhody is analyzing DNA of the calculus buildup on teeth. Tartar and plaque form hard deposits that trap a wealth of genetic material from pathogens that infect an individual. She and her colleagues are reviewing the initial results.
Just five names
Fabric fragments, fake-gold shroud rings and pins, coffin nails, broken pottery and glass comprise most of the artifacts. But the cemetery has yielded one of the largest collections of coffin hardware discovered in a colonial American cemetery.
These decorative plaques and handles have helped to date many burials to the 1720s to 1790s. One key resource has been a 1783 volume of the “Tuesby and Cooper Coffin Hardware Manufacturer’s Catalog.” Dr. Leader tracked down the only known copy at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Ms. Dhody made digital copies when she visited last fall. Dr. Leader matched First Baptist hardware to the catalog.
Coffin plaques have yielded the names of just three people: Thomas Weir, Mr. R. Watson and Benjamin Britton. Among nearly 500 remains, only Mr. Britton’s name is matched to his body.
His long, ornately decorated coffin suggests that he was a rich, and large, man. One of three Benjamin Brittons buried in First Baptist, he may have been the oldest, a successful baker — and slave-owner — who died in 1782 at age 78.
Two more names were found using headstones: Israel Morris and Sarah M. Rogers, who was 3 years, 9 months old when she died on Nov. 1, 1801. Mr. Bonneau identified her by matching a burial record to the age and death date on her broken headstone, from which the name had been lost.
Eventually the researchers would like to compare the health of individuals with the wealth of their burial. Dr. Leader created a system that assigns a point value to each coffin based on its materials. Mr. Britton’s, for example, has tin-dipped lead metalwork — the most expensive material.
Connecting the archaeological and historical data will yield a better picture of everyday life in colonial Philadelphia, which was the largest city in British North America by the end of the 18th century.
“It was a city defined by possibility,” Mr. Bonneau said. “It was built for trade.”
The city’s explosive growth had major health impacts. “People suddenly found themselves living in really tight quarters, and did not necessarily have the tools to manage hygiene or larger community sanitation,” he added. “That increased the amount of diseases that occurred throughout middle age.”
The cemetery interred many victims of yellow fever epidemics in 1793, 1797 and 1798. Gravediggers placed a thick cap of soil over these coffins, likely to quell the stench of death and contain the “miasma” thought to transmit disease. Public health initiatives followed these epidemics, including the formation of the Board of Health, better street-cleaning and improvements to municipal water quality.
Whether these changes are reflected in the First Baptist bones remains to be seen.
Most of the First Baptist dead seem to be of European ancestry. Mr. Bonneau has found burial records of 15 people of African descent — all were free, and none share the same surname — but archaeologists haven’t determined African ancestry for any remains yet.
“If the science comes back confirming that we have folks that are not European, then that makes it even more unique that we have a potentially truly — in every sense of the word — integrated cemetery,” Ms. Moran said.
Back to rest
Today, First Baptist Church hosts an elderly congregation with just a dozen members at weekly services at the church’s third location, at 17th and Sansom.
When the cemetery was discovered, “they felt no connection,” said Roy Harker, the church’s executive director. “And since there was no legal obligation, no one really expressed anything other than curiosity.”
No descendants of those buried in the cemetery have contacted the church to ask about their ancestors, he said.
When 2023 comes, the archaeologists would like to see the burials reinterred one person per box, reunited with any objects discovered with them, and the commingled bones buried together. But the final decision rests with PMC Property Group.
And Mount Moriah has its own problems. It’s been closed since 2011 and neglected for longer, though a dedicated group of volunteers clears brush and removes trash. One headstone-free area of First Baptist’s original plot is a candidate for the final resting place of those left behind.
The Arch Street researchers are presenting their findings at professional conferences and are submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. They’re applying for research grants to supplement their crowdfunding. Multiple spinoff projects are being conducted at other universities.
But never far from mind is the fact that these were people, deserving of the final rest they were denied.
“I have all the respect in the world for every single person we have here,” Dr. Leader said. “As much as I am appreciative of getting the wealth of knowledge from them, I actually look forward to putting them back in the ground.”